Maybe it was the scotch talking. But Stephen and Elaine Paul say it was watching their profits go up in flames—all of those mesquite scraps leftover from their furniture-making business, now embers in a home barbecue—that gave them the idea to create their own desert scotch as Hamilton Distillers.
“We were only half kidding about our profits,” says Stephen.
That was the old joke that accompanied, along with a glass of scotch, the Tucson couple’s home barbecues. One night, the smoke from the mesquite-burning grill—along with a signature peaty aroma from the liquor—swirled together in an old, familiar way. It also prompted a new question.
“Mesquite does such wonderful things to food,” began Elaine. “So why couldn’t you use mesquite wood to malt the barley instead of peat?”
“And I thought that was just such an intriguing idea,” says Stephen.
The idea stuck. They would start with the same wild wood from the Sonoran desert around Tucson they used building chairs and tables with for years, and burn it slowly to dry sprouted barley, the same way Scottish distilleries have been using peat to dry their grain for centuries.
In 2007, the research began with a 5-gallon still. By 2011, they upped it to a 40-gallon still. In 2014, they moved to a substantially larger 500-gallon still and that summer, they built a proper malt house to impart their signature mesquite smokiness to the grain at a large enough scale to meet demand that had only begun to exist.
One major hurdle the product would need to surpass would be the dominant ideology in the industry that the best whiskeys need to be aged at least seven to eight years, with noteworthy distilleries offering their products at elusive ages of 10, 12, 15, and all the way upwards of 20 years.
So the couple took advantage of what’s considered an avant-garde, game-whiskey aging technique. They began by aging the distilled product in much smaller 15-gallon barrels that could expedite the traditional aging quota of seven years in as little as seven months. They called their business Hamilton Distilling Company and launched Whiskey Del Bac, a line of whiskeys that includes a smoked, un-aged product called “Clear;” and an aged, but unsmoked product called “Classic.”
Today, you can find their whiskies in well over 100 locations across Arizona, mostly in Tucson and Phoenix, and even in one bar in Wyoming.
“Our goal is to keep expanding across the state,” says Stephen. “And down the road, we’d even like to work on a spirit that uses desert botanicals, or a fermentation of sugary mesquite pods.”
In a little over a year, Hamilton Distillery has aged quite a bit, figuratively and literally. They’ve traveled head first into the whiskey industry and, in terms of terroir and locality, ahead of most whiskey distillers in America—simply digging their feet deeper into the Tucson soil.
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