Founded by Stephen Paul in 2006, Hamilton Distillers focuses on producing single malt whiskeys. Hand-bottled and hand-signed, Hamilton whiskeys pride themselves in being the first craft whiskeys produced in Southern Arizona since Prohibition times.
We talked to Paul about the joys and difficulties of crafting whiskey in Arizona.
CRUSHBREW: Can you give us some background on how Hamilton Distillers got started and what it took to get things going?
STEPHEN PAUL: Having grown up in the Sonoran Desert, I’ve always had a very strong sense of place and a love of this region. Our long-time custom furniture business, Arroyo Design, grew out of the realization that we had this very wild and incorrigible but visually spectacular wood that grows in our own desert. I wanted to see if I could make fine furniture out of mesquite, even though it was full of cracks, knots, worm holes, and often had barbed wire, nails and bullets imbedded in it. I wanted to use old-school furniture making methods, which by and large had fallen out of use: mortise and tenon joinery, dovetailing, etc. We also kiln-dried our own wood, since you couldn’t find mesquite dry, and I guaranteed our furniture on-going in an effort to elevate the reputation of the wood over its rustic reputation of the day.
Arroyo Design grew to be a very respected and well-published business, even getting featured on the covers of some national shelter magazines. Most of our furniture was sent out of state, and we had some long-term relationships with a number of famous folks.
When we started Hamilton Distillers, I wanted to make something with the integrity that our furniture had, and so there was no question that we would do everything in-house and do it the right way. (Many start-up distilleries are buying bulk spirits from huge factory operations, bottling it and calling it their own)
Getting Hamilton Distillers going has been long and arduous. I knew nothing of distilling and had to learn from scratch. The licensing was mind-boggling. The branding, the build-out, the equipment decisions, learning how to malt, the marketing hurdles, etc have all taken intense attention and follow-through.
The one thing that was relatively easy was raising capital. Most of our investors are old customers from Arroyo Design. This has been very much a team effort. My daughter Amanda has been involved from the beginning and is now our Marketing Director.
CB: From the start, you wanted to malt barley over mesquite instead of peat, a process common in Scotland. Why that choice and how is it different to the type of distilling that’s usually done in the US?
SP: From the beginning, my goal was to make a single-malt whiskey using the Scottish model. We can’t call it Scotch because we’re not in Scotland. While there are a lot of distillers in the US making bourbon (corn-based), there are very few American single-malts. There are also very few craft distilleries who malt their own barley. I’m aware of only six others in the country.
Our malt house is a prototype that doesn’t exist anywhere else. While we used to floor-malt in little 70 lb batches and dry it in a glorified meat smoker we built, we are now able to malt 5,000 lb batches in our tank- based system. We’re making better quality malt than we ever made before. We have more control over the process, even though we still have to closely observe the progress of germination and drying, and make all the same decisions we had to make with our little 70 lb system.
CB: All the steps of your whiskey production are done in-house and by hand. Can you give us a better idea of how that works and why did you choose to go that way?
SP: We are grain-to-glass. The malting and distilling processes take concentration, and we don’t take any shortcuts that compromise our product. I know some people might attach a level of glamor to distilling, it is mainly just a bunch of hard work. We get dirty and sweaty.
CB: Your Dorado whiskey — the one that started it all — has won some impressive awards. Can you tell us a bit more about its undertones, production and what makes it so special?
SP: The model for Dorado was an Islay Scotch, but with less smoke than the very peaty ones like Laphroag and Lagavulin. I didn’t want to hit people over the head with smoke. I find the mesquite to be much softer on the tongue than peat, and less astringent. As far as notes, you may get some black cherry and sweet tobacco on the nose, with some sandalwood or some people say actual desert campfire.
Definitely, on the palate, you’ll get the mesquite, along with some spice notes, and usually some caramel notes. Everyone’s impressions may be different, depending on what you ate for lunch, etc.
We’re not usually too excited about Bronze medals, but a few months ago we submitted to the largest competition we’ve ever tackled – the New York International Spirits Competition, and the Dorado received a Bronze and the Classic received a Silver medal. They also awarded us with Arizona Distillery of the Year – a bit of a small pond here, though, so we should keep that in perspective.
CB: Your Mesquite Smoked Unaged whiskey was born almost by accident. Can you tell our readers more about it?
SP: The Mesquite Clear wasn’t something we originally planned on bottling. But it was tasting so interesting coming off the still that we started to contemplate it. Early on we had a tasting for the local chapter of the USBG, and they got so excited about its potential in cocktails, that we couldn’t resist. The nose on it is very different than what hits your tongue. On the palate, it gets very complex, with floral notes, among other things, underlying the smoke.
CB: What’s next for Hamilton Distilleries? Anything new planned or in the works?
SP: Not yet as far as new products. The original vision was the Sonoran Desert single-malt whiskeys. We’re trying to expand into California at present, to be followed by Colorado and then Illinois. I do have two good ideas for new involving some desert botanical, though – after we get established.