Until the summer of 2013, legal bourbon had not been produced in Arizona since the days before prohibition. Arizona Distilling Co. changed that with its Copper City Bourbon and is now looking to broaden its brand into new spirits with the distillery’s first Desert Dry Gin, released two weeks ago.
Rodney Hu, Jason Grossmiller, Jon Eagan and Matt Cummins founded the Tempe-based Arizona Distilling Co. after receiving its license in 2012 and have been paving a path in the microdistillery world ever since.
Grossmiller approached Hu with the idea for the business more than six years ago.
“It all started with Jason, who was the best man at my wedding and one of my best friends,” Hu said. “(He) came to me and wanted to do a business together. I asked him what he wanted to do, and he said a microbrewery business.”
At the time, the distillery market was flooded with microbreweries, and Hu spoke with friends and family to find the niche they wanted.
“I was friends with the Four Peaks guys, and it was an idea that was already there,” he said. “So I ended up talking to one of my cousins, and he said we should do a microdistillery, because that was the next progression in the field.”
Grossmiller loved the idea, Hu said. The duo started looking more into the idea, and the growth began there.
“Through the process, Jason and I decided to add another person who knew a little more about the brewing process, and we were introduced to Matt Cummins,” he said. “We had dinner at Four Peaks and were talking, and I told him the idea, and he said, ‘I love the idea, but if you guys aren’t serious about making it happen, then I don’t really want to continue the conversation.’”
Eagan said he was reluctant to join the team after being approached by Hu, because he thought the guys were crazy.
“They were like, ‘Dude, we are going to do this distillery. Come do it with us,’” he said. “I said, ‘You guys are out of your effing minds, and that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.’”
A chance trip to a microdistillery in Utah persuaded Eagan to give the business a chance.
“About two and half years ago, I saw one up in northern Utah called High West, and I was living in California at the time and came back through Arizona to have lunch with Rodney at Four Peaks and was like, ‘All right, I’m in.’”
Having everyone on board, the next step was to secure funding, Hu said.
“We had investment groups who were talking about funding it and doing it with us who were in and out,” he said. “Then the real estate market crashed, so everyone was out, some were back in, so it was a back-and-forth.”
Grossmiller’s passion for the business and unwillingness to wait is what sparked Hu and Eagan to fully get on board with the idea, Eagan said.
“(Grossmiller) pulled the trigger,” he said. “He was dealing blackjack for 14 years, and was like, ‘I don’t want to wait anymore,’ so he quit his job, cashed out his 401k and against people’s advice, he went ahead and leased this warehouse and was like, ‘Eff it, I’m doing it.’”
Hu reiterated Eagan’s thoughts after Grossmiller went all in on the business.
“When he was all in, we were like, “Well s–t, now we are all in,’” he said.
Grossmiller began traveling around the country to learn the brewing process and what products would work in Arizona, Hu said.
“He had gone to a couple different workshops and seminars, and we were talking about the history of Arizona and what would be really cool,” he said. “Vodka was already out there, so we started researching what the cowboys and Indians drank and what was one of the original liquors in Arizona.”
After copious research, the team decided on a classic bourbon.
“We read some articles about some of the saloons where all they served was bourbon, rye, cactus wine, which is a peyote-infused tequila and mule skinner, made with whiskey and blackberry liquor,” Hu said. “So we were like, ‘OK, cool, let’s do bourbon as the first one and give some honor back to Arizona.’”
Paying respect to the state was important for the business and to the team, Hu said.
After a trademark battle over the name Tombstone Spirits, the team settled on Copper City Bourbon.
“We wanted to pay homage to the history of Arizona, and that’s how we came up with the idea of Copper City Bourbon,” he said.
The team came up with the name Copper City from one of the first breweries in Douglas, Ariz., Hu said.
The original company was shut down in 1915, because the owner had sold beer to a federal agent right before the Prohibition Era, he said.
Eagan had the inspiration for creating bourbon after remembering scenes from Western movies of the past.
“When you watch old movies and you see guys banging down whiskey, they aren’t in Kentucky, they are in the Wild West,” he said. “You don’t picture saloons in Kentucky, and they weren’t drinking lemonade in these saloons.”
Copper City Bourbon was the first legally produced bourbon in Arizona since Prohibition, Eagan said.
After the success of the bourbon, Grossmiller wanted to begin branching out and create other spirits using the idea of the five C’s of Arizona — copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate — but with the five C’s being botanicals, Hu said.
“He came up with coriander, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, citrus, in the form of lime zest, then apples, lavender and juniper to round it out,” he said. “It’s a really balanced product, 85 proof, and we had gone through a bunch of different versions initially.”
After Grossmiller created the first couple batches of gin, they sent it to local bartenders and mixologists around town to get feedback, Hu said.
“They would say it had a little too much citrus or too much cumin, or it needs to be a little more juniper forward,” he said. “So we did that and the gin became our next product to launch.”
The team is proud of the final product and said it is a bit different than the typical gin.
“The gin is still a little hot,” Hu said. “It’s an 85 proof, because we don’t want it to get buried in cocktails, but we wanted it to be really balanced and smooth so you can actually sip it. You can’t say that for most gins, and we didn’t intend for that, but we went through a lot of different versions and this is what Jason landed with and we all agreed this was it.”
Incorporating Arizona agriculture and pride within the state into the product is important for all involved in Arizona Distilling Co., Eagan said.
“With the gin it allowed us to obtain all of the ingredients here locally, statewide, that is,” he said. “We get our ingredients out of Cottonwood, Ariz.”
While staying local is a priority, the most important part of the product is the quality, Eagan said.
Now that the gin has been perfected, the team is looking forward to the next line of products.
“We are getting ready to do a rye,” Hu said. “We’re aging Arizona’s first grain-to-bottle whiskey, an Arizona desert germ wheat whiskey.”
The desert germ wheat is a strain created by University of California, Davis, and has been made to thrive in a hot desert climate.
It grows like wildfire in southern Arizona, he said.
The opportunity to use the local wheat helps the company’s underlying goal to showcase Arizona products.
“It’s an awesome opportunity to take a really unique and quality product to showcase Arizona industry and Arizona agriculture in our whiskey, and we’re really proud of that,” Eagan said.
Having pride in the state and local agriculture is an opportunity, Eagan said.
Master distiller Jason Grossmiller spends much of his time perfecting the spirits in the Tempe warehouse, and the finished product can sometimes take up to seven months or more depending on the liquor being brewed. The specialized way in which the product is made makes it worth the time, he said.
“We start with a mash, about 1,500 pounds of grain, and it’ll be ground down to almost a slurry, ” he said. “This differentiates us from other breweries, as where a lot of breweries crack their grains, we will crush it to get as much alcohol out of it as possible.”
The grains the company uses in the brewing process are all unmalted, and Grossmiller uses enzymes to draw the sugars out of the grains.
“The grain spends eight hours in the mash cooker, then is transferred to ferment for five to seven days and hopefully after it is done fermenting, we will get about 13 percent alcohol out of it,” he said.
After the mashing process, the fermented mash is transferred into a stripping still, Grossmiller said.
“We put it in at about 13 percent, and it will come out at about 80 to 90 proof, and we will distill that down to 26 proof,” he said. “Once that is done, we will collect all of that and put it in the finishing still.”
The finishing still is where the final product is perfected in the distilling process, Grossmiller said.
“On the final finishing run is where you make the cuts, and there are three parts to a finishing run, the heads, hearts and the tails,” he said.
Separating the three parts allows Grossmiller to only use the best part of the brew for the final product, whether that be gin, bourbon or any other liquor they are producing.
“The first parts are the heads, and that’s where some of the bad alcohols come out and some of the bad flavors,” he said. “So we’ll monitor that and collect the heads, and once it starts to taste a little bit better, the proof will go down a little bit more.”
The first product to come out of the still will be about 160 proof, and it will be cut down to about 150 proof, Grossmiller said.
“That’s when the hearts part of the distillation is going on,” he said. “We’ll just dump the heads, and we’ll collect all the hearts and that will go from 150 proof to about 110, and we’ll just put everything left in the pot down the drain.”
This is another area where Arizona Distilling Co. differs from large distilleries, Grossmiller said.
“A lot of big distilleries collect everything, but we just stop right after the hearts are done,” he said. “We think it creates a better product.”
After the hearts are collected at about 140 proof, the product will be diluted once again down to about 120 proof and placed into barrels, Grossmiller said.
“We use 10-gallon barrels because of the surface area and because it takes a lot less time to age them, and in about seven months it’ll be diluted down to bottling strength, about 90 proof,” he said.
Out of one run of 300 gallons of mash, Grossmiller said he expects to get about a third of that in quality product.
The gin is made in a similar fashion but with one extra step added to give the gin its special flavor, Grossmiller said.
“For the gin, we use the finishing still, and we throw on the botanical bags and the vapor will travel through the botanicals to add the flavors,” he said.
Distilling provides endless possibilities for the future, Grossmiller said.
“That’s why I fell in love with this, because we can do anything, make any type of product we want, and collaboration-wise, we can work with anyone, any breweries,” he said. “It’s exciting with everything we can do.”
Locations and the future
Arizona Distilling Co. products are sold in 200 local stores, including Fry’s, AJ’s, Total Wine and almost all of the bars in Tempe.
“Right now, Casey Moore’s Oyster House and C.A.S.A. SunBá are probably our two biggest Tempe supporters, and our No. 1 account and biggest supporter is Tops Liquors, locally,” Eagan said.
Copper City Bourbon and Desert Dry Gin will be used in this year’s Devour Phoenix Bartending Competition at the Crescent Ballroom on Feb. 9. The event is also sponsored by Arizona Distilling Co.
“There should be around 300 to 400 people there, including bartenders and mixologists from all around, mixing and competing with our spirits,” Eagan said.
On the weekend of Feb. 7, the company will participate in the American Craft Whiskey Fest at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.
The company is looking to expand even more when the new spirits being finishing and are excited for what the future may bring, Eagan said.
“We’re not just trying to make history,” he said. “We’re trying to make it right.”
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