Here’s an Arizona fun-fact to make an Italian drop his bowl of mostaccioli: Most of Italy’s top pasta producers use a durum wheat found only in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and eastern California. With its low moisture and high semolina yield, desert durum wheat not only travels well but makes for a very high quality pasta. In the spirit of going where no distiller had gone before, The Arizona Distilling Company decided to experiment with this coveted pasta grain, and the result is a unique and exciting new whiskey about to hit the market.
During my trip to Phoenix for the Thanksgiving holiday, an impromptu last-minute search for local whiskey-makers led me to this small-batch distillery in Tempe, a university-town offshoot of Phoenix proper. Distilleries have been cropping up like weeds across the country, pushing up through the cracks in arcane liquor laws to take root in places that haven’t seen legal whiskey-making since the boot of Prohibition stamped it down. Six months ago, AZ Distilling Company released its flagship spirit, Copper City Bourbon, the first legal whiskey distilled in the Phoenix- Metro area since that dry, dark age. Now that it has broken the amber wall, the next whiskey to debut is their durum wheat whiskey. You’ll want to get your hands on a bottle once it comes out.
Two years ago, master distiller Jason Grossmiller ditched his job as a blackjack dealer to partner with Matt Cummins and two other friends from high school Jon Eagan and Rodney Hu, to launch a distillery currently dedicated to both whiskey and gin. Here’s what they’re up to: The soon-to-be-released desert durum wheat whiskey (currently awaiting label approval and an official name) and a whiskey in-the-works made in collaboration with local Four Peaks Brewery from a beer mash comprised of 80% barley and 20% rye. As for gin, they recently finished but have not yet released a citrusy gin and are planning another gin that pays homage to Phoenix’s reputation as a city known for “the five c’s” (climate, copper, cattle, cotton and citrus) by using a botanical bag of cardamom, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and citrus. Yes, please.
When I arrived at the cinder block warehouse in the back of an office park, Grossmiller and Cummins were hard at work. After a few minutes spent talking shop, I realized that they’re not only possibly the nicest guys around, but more importantly to a whiskey fan, passionate about their spirits. A few aspects to their method set them apart from many of the other distilleries. They distill their spirits very slowly to allow for greater temperature control (and, by extension, to get as many aromas from it), they make their cuts on the second run and, in the case of the bourbon, they chill it and run it through a clay filter. “It all comes together to make a real difference in taste and quality, and we wanted to get the smoothest product out there,” explains Grossmiller.
Side note: there’s a debate among craft distillers as to whether or not to chill-filter whiskey. The process involves chilling the spirit to freezing temperature and running it through a filter that removes most of the proteins, esters, fatty acids and lipids as well as some other larger impurities. Opponents say the whiskey loses flavor by losing esters, but fans say that’s rubbish and that filtering makes for both a smoother taste and a more pleasing appearance (ice won’t haze the liquid like it will with unfiltered whiskey). I’m not sure where I come down on it yet as I didn’t pick up a lack of flavor here nor did I have a non-chill-filtered whiskey in hand to compare it to. Bottom line, it tasted great, so I’ll leave the debate to others for now.
Once the grain is obtained it’s distilled, barreled, bottled and labeled all in this one room. After a quick tour of the facilities (which largely entailed pivoting in place), it was on to the tasting. First came the citrusy gin good enough to sip neat on a summer afternoon. Considering how good this gin was, I’m pretty fired up about trying the 5 C’s gin when it debuts.
Next came a dram of the 90-proof Copper Star Bourbon. Along with the gin it too sports a copper star on the label as a nod to a famed copper-mining industry that came to symbolize Arizona itself. The mash consists of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% barley, and is aged at least two years in 3-char barrels of white American oak. As with all their whiskeys, they let the dry climate influence the contents, infusing it with breath of the desert itself.
Color: Red amber. Nose: ‘Nilla wafers.
Mouth: Low humidity is better at bringing out vanillin from the barrel so it’s no surprise that vanilla came in up front on the first sip, followed by clove and toffee with the peppery rye bringing up the rear. What delighted me most was a distinct burst of cinnamon on the second sip– I’d never before experienced a flavor come in so clearly. Cinnamon, as if someone had taken a shaker to it. On the next sip, it was gone.
Next came a generous pour of the 90-proof desert durum wheat single-grain whiskey.
Color: Dark-gold sandstone. Nose: A whiff of rum.
Mouth: A hearty trail mix of pralines and leather chips. A bit hotter than the bourbon, a bit of smokiness without the smoke. Somewhere in the back of the mouth comes dried wood. I suspect its imminent release will be a big win for this distillery. I’ve labored unsuccessfully to come up with a closing sentence here using the phrase “spaghetti western,” (for that we should all be thankful) so, bottom line, you really you should try to get hands on a bottle of this rare-grain whiskey when it becomes available.
You can find a list of currently Arizona-based locations from which to buy a bottle of their bourbon (around $28 at Fox Liquor in Gilbert) and keep up on new releases at http://azdistilling.com.