No, I’m not talking about a whiskey that pairs well with a sweet dish after dinner. I’m talking about whiskey from the desert, the Sonoran Desert, to be precise. The Sonoran desert is an anomaly of sorts when it comes to deserts. It’s not a barren, inhospitable wasteland by any means. But almost one year ago exactly, our travels brought us to this wild and wonderful corner in search of one of America’s most celebrated new craft single malts.
The Sonoran occupies a large basin that extends from southwestern Arizona into Northern Mexico, and thanks to consistent summer monsoons and temperate climate, is one of the lushest deserts in the world, with almost every square meter covered with dozens of species of cactus including giant saguaro; mesquite, ironwood, and palo verde trees; all sorts of small, woody shrubs; a few types of yucca; and in the rainy season, wildflowers and herbs galore. At all times of the year, the entire landscape, from a distance, is covered in a soft, dull green carpet. It’s no wonder then, that Tucson, Arizona, which sits at the heart of this uniquely beautiful landscape, has emerged as one of the country’s most vibrant culinary centers. It’s is the only American city to be awarded as a World Heritage Culinary site, which is saying a lot. Credit the region’s ancient agricultural traditions, a vast array of unique endemic plants, fruits, and flowers, and its location at an historic cultural crossroads. Craft breweries are popping up all over the place, and wines and spirits are being distilled from exotic desert fruits. And here, far from the cool, misty coast of Islay, a whiskey chaser can find one of the finest Scottish-style Single Malts in the world, a malt that carries not the briney, peaty essence of the north Atlantic, but the dusty, aromatic smoke of the southwestern desert.
Most great malts have a great story behind them, and Whiskey del Bac is no exception. In 2006, Hamilton Distillers founders Stephen and Elaine Paul were standing around a mesquite BBQ fire, enjoying a dram. Stephen was a renowned artisanal woodworker who specialized in custom furniture made not from imported rainforest exotics, but from local desert hardwoods, primarily mesquite that is ubiquitous in southern Arizona. Both were whiskey enthusiasts, and especially loved Scotch. Elaine wondered aloud why someone couldn’t make a Scottish style whiskey using mesquite to smoke the grains instead of peat. What started as an innocent thought turned into an obsession of sorts for Stephen, who promptly bought a Portuguese alembic still and started distilling. Eleven years later, Hamilton Distillers is one of the most award-winning craft producers in America, and they are one of the key players in the American Single Malt renaissance.
Whiskey del Bac is an combination of three different languages, a nod to the mix of cultures found in this border region: ‘whiskey’ from the English, ‘Del’ being Spanish for ‘of’, and ‘Bac’ from the indigenous O’odham language. Together it means “whiskey from the place where the river reappears in the sand.” It’s a wonderfully poetic name for this spirited oasis on the western edge of downtown Tucson. The flagship malt and the one garnering the most attention is the Dorado, a 100% barley single malt that uses grain smoked with local mesquite wood, imparting a distinctly southwestern aroma and flavor. It is remarkable. The whole operation is remarkable in many respects. Everything is customized or handmade, from the distilling system to the furniture in the tasting area. To realize the goal of using mesquite-smoked barley, they first had to learn how to malt barley. They are now one of only two or three distilleries in the entire country that malts ALL their own barley, and they designed a custom tank that both malts and smokes the grain, drastically reduces the need for floor space, which is a big impediment to smaller operations wanting to malt their own barley. At the time of filming this malting/drying tank was the only one of its kind in the known whiskey world. The grain is then mashed, fermented, distilled, and put into oak on premise. Like other American single malts, by law, the spirit must rest first on new oak, which is where Whiskey del Bac diverges from the Scottish tradition. But after this initial aging the whiskey then gets treated to other types of barrels, ranging from sherry butts to Calvados barrels, giving the spirit a more nuanced complexity.
They also produce unsmoked version of Dorado that is a delicious tribute to the Macallan 10, and a clear, unoaked version of the mesquite smoked malt. Both have also won special awards, and the clear smoked malt has become a cult favorite among mixologists in Tucson simply because there is nothing else like it in the world.
And best of all, this is a family operation, run by some of the friendliest people you will ever find in the whiskey world. As both subjects in the film, and backers of the Kickstarter project, the Pauls have been enthusiastic supporters of this effort from the beginning, and essentially helped map out a big portion of our subsequent filming in the Western U.S.
Michael was very particular about the use of the word, “unique.” Whatever the subject was, it had to be one of a kind. This operation and this malt is one of a kind, and we’re honored to have them involved in this project. I say this a lot, but Michael really would have loved what they’re doing here, and he would have found the Dorado to be a unique spirit. Look them up the next time you’re in Tucson, and raise a glass in memory of Michael and the wonderful whiskey renaissance that he has helped inspire in all the unlikely corners of the globe.