Arizona Distilling Co. is Rooted in the Past
Jason Grossmiller is telling me how each of his Arizona Distilling Co. spirits gets its name, and all I can think is he needs to be a history teacher; the cool, hot-boxes-in-his-car-at-lunch kind, to be sure. Jason will have you know he is an Arizona native, through and through. That's why when he started the distillery five years ago with two business partners (one, his buddy John, goes back to high school, the other has since parted ways), he decided every label will tell a story about the state's past.
First up, Mission Vodka, a very clean, seven-times-distilled spirit, made entirely from yellow corn. The "Mission" refers to the Jesuit missions dotting the Sonora desert starting in the 1680s. I'm pretty sure they weren't making vodka (most likely wine) but unlike when I was in high school, I'm actually enjoying Jason's stories, so I don't interrupt.
Jason takes me back to his own school days. He tells me in history class in Arizona, they learned about the "5 C's" that comprised the backbone of the state's early economy: cotton, copper, cattle, climate and citrus. So the major players in flavoring his gin are also 5 C's: cardamom, citrus (lime), cumin, cinnamon and coriander. To that he adds apple, lavender and the requisite juniper. The result is a smooth, 85 proof drink that is equal parts floral and spice, though purer alcohol in the nose.
"Copper City" is Arizona's Distilling's Bourbon and Moonshine, but also the nickname given to Bisbee, AZ over a hundred years ago, for the metal extracted from its mountains. Jason chose the name for the color of the bourbon, but I imagine those miners might have had a nip or two after a day spent underground, hacking at rock. It's 90 proof and very corn forward, probably because the mash is 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% barley. Jason also makes a much stronger version -118 proof- that is finished in cabernet casks. The smell alone is overpowering - all that heat stored up in a barrel for four months, finally free and escaping right into my nose. I take a cautious sip. Once the burn subsides, there's a nice interplay of grain and grape. I'm not sure what traditionalists will make of the potency, or the absence of typical woody flavors, but Jason is smiling at my reaction. That type of torch to the senses is probably all he needs to see.
Jason says they're discontinuing the moonshine. After taking a sip, I agree it was a prudent decision. It's easy to drink, but otherwise doesn't bring much to the table.
We move on the story of "desert durum," a type of wheat developed by the ASU agriculture department, engineered especially for the arid landscape. Apparently, it's been thriving on farms between Phoenix and Tucson ever since. A lot of it is sent to Italy to make pasta. Whatever doesn't end up in your box of Barilla, goes to Arizona Distilling's "Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey." It's aged in used bourbon barrels, but is much drier and lighter, with a sweet finish.
Of course, there is a rye, Park Rye Whiskey, made of a mostly all-rye mash. It is 90 proof and reminds me most of fresh-baked bread. It shares its name with a pre-Prohibition brewery.
Jason has plenty of more stories. He brandishes a framed cease-and-desist letter from Makers Mark, signed by their chairman and descendent of Bill Samuels, the founder. The reason: Jason brings out a bottle of Copper City Bourbon with copper-colored wax melted over its neck and cork. Even though the color is different than Maker's signature red, it was still similar enough for the whiskey giant to feel threatened. Arizona Distilling abides by the request to cease, but it's clear they get more mileage out of the story anyway.
I consider myself privileged to be the first civilian to sample Arizona Distilling's debut tequila, Dos Tierres, a blanco they bottled a couple days previous. For those ever-vigilant protectors of designated origin: this tequila is made in Mexico and bottled in Tempe, AZ. Jason and John were down there for just two days. They enlisted an existing tequila distillery for production. Jason shows me videos on his phone - the towering agave plants and the unenviable labor of chopping spines, down to the plants pina heart. (Labor reserved for the farm hands.) Then the giant oven where the pinas are roasted before going into the masher. It looks like some fairly rudimentary machinery - all part of the authenticity.
Jason notes that this tequila is unique in that it is twice distilled; most tequilas are distilled once. Even though blancos are unaged, this one still has an earthy, woody taste. No lime needed.
I can tell Jason has more stories in him - we hardly got to the brandy aging in barrels in the middle of the production floor. John comes in harried about a wire payment he just sent off that's not going to make a deadline, so it's back to work for the tireless duo. I finish the last of the Dos Tierres and head out. "Two Lands," the name means. I think we are many more than that.