For Elgin Distillery, it's All About the Water
Arriving at the grounds of the Elgin Distillery, especially as early as I did (8am), can be disorientating, in a pleasant way. Doors open at 10am most days, so that gave me two hours to sit in my car and take in the surroundings. Elgin can't even be called a village or town. The place seems to be comprised of several one-story buildings and what can only be considered a junkyard, behind the low walls of the distillery (It's also a winery, where they press any of forty-two different varietals at a time).
The location is beautiful, especially as the sun begins to ascend. The complex sits at the bottom of one of the many rolling hills in the region. Vegetation is dry, brown shrubs. But Elgin is also where the main rural road crosses a creek bed, so there are plenty of tall grasses, skeletal trees and colorful birds darting around (Can you tell I sat there a while?). To complete the painting, a white mission-style church serves as silent guard yo it all.
At 10am sharp, a pickup truck joins a row of cars that belong to "the town," i.e. Gary Ellam, the proprietor of Elgin Distillery. Jim is Gary's right-hand man and tasting room server. Jim and his wife hop out of the truck. They see me loitering in front of the wood doors but are too engrossed in conversation -something about who's turn it is to by cigarettes- to comment.
I walk over to introduce myself and they say hi in return. Then they climb over a portion of the wall, to walk over and unlock the doors from the inside. A little self-defeating, I point out. Then Jim informs me that Gary's gun collection is all the security they really need. Ah Arizona.
The buildings appear more quaint -or historically significant- closer up. The winery and distillery tasting rooms are in separate buildings. I notice a sign on the winery:
The shadowed portion is hard to read, but it basically says the winery started off as a Bordello, before they realized more revenue was to be made selling Jewish wine. Probably the only time in history that's happened.
Jim tinkers around in the distillery tasting room before he invites me in. I sit down at the window and we cover a lot of topics in what feels like a short amount of time, though I'm sure wasn't. He tells me he was working on the winery side for nine years, before recently switching over to the distillery. I think this is meant as an explanation for why he may not be able to answer my most detailed questions about what we're tasting. Jim still does an excellent job, giving me a full backstory to every detail of the place. (Such as, that the rum label comes from a 1979 portrait of a Playboy model entitled "The Muse," the original of which hangs in the tasting room.)
Gary appears without introducing himself. He darts through the narrow room to a backdoor, which I presume leads to the still. It's only when he reemerges that I found out who he is, and he takes over the tasting.
Important to know if you plan on having a conversation with Gary: he has strong opinions about how the craft distilling community should present itself to the general public, and he also knows just about everyone in said community. (He was a lead organizer for the Arizona Craft Distillers Guild.) I think he does best when leading by example, so onto the spirits.
Elgin Distillery produces several spirits under different imprints: Tombstone Distillery, Four Monkeys Distillery, etc. but they all roll up to Gary. There is the Arizona Grape El Vodka, made entirely from Colombard (white) grapes grown in Arizona. It had the slightest of hint of fruit, but was overall very smooth.
Gary makes a Double Black Rum. It is "double" because it is distilled from Mexican cane sugar, but then finished for about two years in a bourbon barrel that has been coated in molasses. The result is the typical sweet notes, but with a charred or smoky finish.
There is the Tombstone Arizona Bourbon. Gary proudly explains all the corn (70%), rye (20%) and barley (10%) are grown in Arizona and milled on site. Same for the Arizona Whisky, which is 95% corn and 5% rye. How do the two compare? I would say the bourbon is spicier. Gary points out the bourbon barrels go on top of the rick, to ensure maximum interaction with the wood. The whisky is more mellow, with notes of black tea and vanilla. Both are aged between two and three years, and the 80 proof version of the bourbon (Gary's working on a 90 and 100-proof) won a silver medal at the 2016 New York International Spirits Competition. He's rightfully proud to add that they won Best New Whiskey Distillery that year as well.
Being a winery, it's natural that Elgin Distillery produces brandy as well. One was fairly unremarkable: a Eau de Vie de Vin which is essentially the vodka, as it's made from the same grapes. The other is called "Colombard Brandy" and is more interesting because half a batch is aged in new American oak barrels, and the other half in used Syrah barrels from France, two years each, before being blended. The result is bourbon-esque (wood, caramel, smoke, etc), but still distinct for its apple notes and floral finish.
The most eye-opening moment for me came when I asked Gary what his favorite whiskeys are. He asked me not to repeat the specific ones here (in so many words). Just keep in mind he was born in England, and comes from an ancestry of Scotch distillers. This exchange led to a line of Gary's where he says that water is the most important element of flavor to a whiskey. And while you can try importing ingredients from anywhere in the world, the limiting factor will be the water you have available. Gary claims the filtered well water he uses in all his spirits, drawn directly from beneath our feet, to be the not-so-secret to his success.
I look around one last time on my way out. Gary is certainly successful by many measures. I mean, the man owns a town for God's sake. But is it really due to water? Can it be that simple? Then I recall another distiller saying that often, in the consumer's mind, the only rationale for choosing one brand's spirit over another is in how it's marketed. I can say that's true for me in certain cases.
Could Gary simply be (re)casting his brand as one of simplicity? Maybe Gary's appeal to the make-or-break power of water is a way for this otherwise obdurate craftsman to take a rare step back, and allow nature to take some credit. Living in Elgin, where nature's beauty is constantly on display, it would be foolish not to.