Sippin’ Whiskey Del Bac

By Lee Allen –

‘Making Good Juice Out of Tucson’

A recent New York Times Magazine treatise on “sipping whiskies” lauded the elegance of single-malts and their variety of bouquets – smoke, peat, citrus – along with their spectrum of flavors, an indication of whiskey’s rise as a trendy spirit of choice.

While that story was written prior to the discovery of Whiskey Del Bac, Tucson’s recently introduced Sonoran Desert single-malt, the local company producing it – Hamilton Distillers – is making its mark nationally and soon hopes to go international. 

Playboy magazine called Whiskey Del Bac “Arizona’s best spirit,” and it is one that has captured a mantle full of gold, silver and bronze honors from those in-the-know like the American Craft Spirits Association and the American Distillers Institute. Whiskey Del Bac also has been featured in Esquire, Forbes, Food & Wine, USA Today and Travel and Leisure magazines.

Unlike traditional whiskey, this one is malted over mesquite instead of peat. “This is the only distillery in the U.S. smoking with mesquite and malting barley in-house,” said Dale Riggins, certified sommelier, beverage program consultant, brand manager and the face of the company in all its markets. 

“We’re in 20 states now, hopefully launching in Hong Kong and Canada in January, with Mexico and Japan on the agenda by the end of 2019. We’re conquering the world – and it’s been pretty crazy for the seven of us doing it all. The mescal craze of a decade ago has died down, replaced by a whiskey craze and we’re kind of halfway between mescal and whiskey. We take flavors from both sides that, despite their uniqueness, blend extremely well and that’s new.

“It took skill, incredible moxie and a lot of luck to get where we are so quickly, but we’re in the right place at the right time with the right product.”  

Owner Stephen Paul said, “Our first four years have been awesome. We’re winning major awards, have had great press and are consistently listed in the top 10 craft whiskey producers in the country. Sales have increased by 40 percent year-to-date over last year and we’ve ramped up production to be ready for significant growth.”

That production is humming, averaging 280 12-pack cases per month – nearly double last year’s output that totaled 1,900 cases for the year. 

“Velvet mesquite is the key that makes the difference in our product before our distillers put a finesse on it that nobody else can do. We’re a whiskey distillery making good juice out of Tucson,” Riggins said.

And while current growing technology has led Hamilton to purchase their high-starch barley out of state (Colorado), they’re trying to get the needed quality in-state with a two-row varietal test plot currently underway in Coolidge. 

Most everything else is local. The mesquite comes from local firewood companies who cut it in the Reddington Pass area. “The great thing about mesquite is it grows quickly, so these bosques regenerate themselves, they’re very sustainable,” Riggins said.

While the distilling process may involve some company secrets, “we’re open about our recipe,” Riggins said. “One hundred percent barley – nothing else. We are one of only 13 distilleries worldwide that malt and distill 100 percent of their barley with nothing outsourced and that is not industry standard. 

“Unless it says, ‘distilled in’ or ‘distilled by’ the company on the bottle, 80 percent of this country’s distillates are sourced and bottled by a third party, not actually manufactured in their listed place of origin.”

Asked about gross revenue, Riggins does good public relations: “We’re a young distillery, with a large capital investment and product on the market just since 2013. It takes a while before you’re in the black, but the ship is in full sail and we’re getting close.”

Close enough in fact to attract buy-out attention among the six major world distributors.

“People are already recognizing us as a quality product built by burning mesquite in the desert and we’re a good target for buyout,” Riggins said. “That said, we want to keep our business and our product local, continuing to do what we do, and do it here.”

Remember that Riggins is involved in sales, but her marketing spiel resonates – “Because we love Tucson so much, we’re trying to create a product that tastes like a memory of home, like walking through the barrio at Christmas time and smelling mesquite burning in the chimeneas. No matter where you are in the world, that brings Tucson to mind.”

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