My topic this month will be a slight variation from the norm.  I recently had the opportunity to visit Hamilton Distillers in downtown Tucson and chat with founder Stephen Paul.  Hamilton was established in 2011 and is the producer of Del Bac, an artisanal American single malt whiskey.

Del Bac has the distinction of being one of only a handful of grain to glass whiskeys in the world and one of only seven distillers in the United States that malt their barley in-house.  Using the Scottish model of whiskey making, Paul uses mesquite wood instead of peat to smoke the malted barley.  The entire production is conducted within their facility on N. Forbes Blvd. 

This project is an encore career for Stephen as he had owned and operated the custom furniture company Arroyo Design in Tucson for close to 30 years.  The idea of using mesquite wood in this process materialized in 2006 during an evening conversation Stephen had with his wife Elaine.  Stephen started experimenting, making whiskey using a small 5-gallon still.  As his skills increased he taught himself the process of malting barley and graduated to a 40-gallon pot still.  It was at this point that Hamilton Distillers was incorporated and licensed as the first distillery in Southern Arizona.  Since that time Hamilton has grown considerably, moving into the N. Forbes Blvd. location and progressing to a 500 gallon copper pot still.  The Mesquite wood is sourced from southern Arizona, while the barley is brought in from Colorado.  Hamilton Distillers now has a production capacity of 19,000 bottles annually.

Paul stated that while Del Bac has a strong foundation of customer support and loyalty in the Tucson area, its reputation as a premium quality, craft whiskey has increased the demand in the Phoenix metro area and is currently being sold in 15 states.  Over the last three years Hamilton’s whiskeys have garnered numerous awards at international spirits competitions.

I sat down with Retail Manager Karley Brumder in the facilities attractive tasting area to sample a variety of the Del Bac Whiskeys.  Brumder has been with the company since October of last year and takes great pride in the quality of their products, stating that the “level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that was exhibited in Stephen’s furniture has been carried over into his whiskey making process.”

Starting with the Del Bac ‘Classic’, an unsmoked whiskey, I found it to have a mildly sweet, maple sugar aroma, it was just a touch spicy on the palate with a very smooth, long finish.  Del Bac’s Mesquite smoked whiskey: the ‘Dorado’ had notes of chocolate and spice and while noticeably smoky, I found it less bitter than many peated single malt Scotch whiskeys I have tried.  The Del Bac ‘Clear’ is a quite unusual product.  While the ‘Classic’ and ‘Dorado’ are matured in 15 gallon American white oak barrels, ‘Clear’ is Mesquite smoked, but unaged and offered distinctive herbal and vegetal aromas with a spicy, savory flavor profile. Karley indicated that the ‘Clear’ has been very popular with bartenders, who take advantage of the whiskey’s smoky attributes in craft cocktails.  The final whiskey was a limited production run and my personal favorite. The ‘Distillers Cut’ is a cask strength (120 proof) unsmoked, aged whiskey that was finished in repurposed Madera barrels. Rich and incredibly complex with a bit of a bite, this whiskey possessed great length and finish. 

Karley said that one goal has been to make the production facility and tasting area a welcoming place.  Hamilton has retail hours on Thursday from 11:00 to 4:00 and Saturdays from 3:00 to 6:00.  Karley conducts tours of the distillery on Saturday at 11:00 and 1:00, which are followed by a product tasting.  Tour reservations are required and can be made on their website: Hamiltondistillers.com.  Del Bac Whiskey is available for purchase in a number of area supermarkets, as well as Plaza Liquors and Total Wine.

Hamilton Distillers and Del Bac Whiskey are a local gem and uniquely Arizona and uniquely Tucson.  Even if you aren’t a whiskey aficionado, you should put it on your list as a place to visit; especially if you have out-of-town guests that you’re looking to impress.

Tom Oetinger holds an advanced certification in wine & spirits from the WSET in London, England and is available to answer your wine questions at tjo1913@gmail.com