An emerging microdistilling industry gives Valley imbibers a homegrown alternative to major spirit brands.
Two years ago, Jason Grossmiller was dealing blackjack at a Valley casino. Today, he’s gambling in a different way, betting there’s a future in locally produced artisanal whiskey. “I guess you could say I wanted to move on from one vice to another,” quips the longtime homebrewer.
Grossmiller is master distiller at the fledgling Arizona Distilling Company, which he launched with partners Rodney Hu, Matt Cummins, Jon Eagan and George Yu in a 60-foot-by-50-foot block warehouse in Tempe. ADC released its first product, Copper City Bourbon, in June. In late summer, it will roll out a whiskey made from durum wheat harvested near Casa Grande – “the first whiskey ever made from locally grown grain,” Grossmiller boasts.
So-called “microdistilleries” are flourishing nationwide, increasing from just 24 in 2000 to nearly 400 today, according to the American Distilling Institute. However, Arizona is a late arrival to the party. While comparably-populated Washington boasts around 60 microdistilleries, Arizona has just three. “I expect that number to double or triple by next year,” Rodney Hu says.
Would-be distillers must negotiate a daunting maze of regulations and paperwork, and much of the regulatory circuitry is out of date. For example, Arizona offers 17 types of liquor licenses, including winery and microbrewery, but not one specifically for microdistilleries. Thus, ADC operates under a catch-all “In-State Producer” license, which can take more than a year to process, and start-up costs aren’t cheap: upwards of $300,000 for the still and other equipment.
Rick Burch, bass player for the popular Valley band Jimmy Eat World, had hoped to open a microdistillery next to Four Peaks last year but was stymied by zoning and insurance problems. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces shaped by different hands,” he says.
And then there’s the national three-tier system for alcohol distribution, which forbids any crossover between producers, distributors and sellers. Thus, Ray Klemp, owner of AZ Wine Company stores in Scottsdale and Carefree, can’t start a microdistillery. He can only “advise” daughters Morgan and Lauren on their Glendale-based Forward Brands, makers of Arroyo Vodka and BB’s Apple Pie liqueur. “Look at the state’s wine and beer industries,” Klemp says. “They have successfully lobbied the legislature for exceptions to the three-tier system. For example, a winery is allowed to pour samples at an arts festival and sell bottles. We won’t be able to do any of those kinds of things until we get our own lobbyist.”
Several Valley-based liquor brands avoid the red tape by outsourcing the distilling overseas. But outsourcing is antithetical to craft producers like Arizona Distilling, Forward Brands and Desert Diamond in Kingman, which hope to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. craft beer movement. Currently, microdistillers account for less than 1 percent of total spirit sales nationwide. “In two decades, to be on the same trajectory [as craft beer] and have 10 percent of the spirits market would be incredible,” ADC’s Eagan says. “And it’s achievable.”
The Valley is home to several tequila brands, but “home” is a bit of a misnomer – to be called “tequila,” spirits must be distilled in the Mexican state of Jalisco or one of several designated regions. Three locally developed and marketed tequilas to try:
Roger Clyne’s Mexican Moonshine: The Valley musician is a well-known bebida buff; try his light, caramel-kissed reposado. mexicanmoonshine.com
Cruz Tequila: Founded by a trio of ASU grads, Cruz was a medal winner at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition in 2008 and 2009. cruztequila.com
Señor Rio: Based on a 200-year-old family recipe, this honey-tinged reposado is finished in white oak barrels previously used for bourbon aging. senorrio.com