Making liquor is a lot of work. If you don't believe it, just ask one of the owners of Arizona Distilling Co. From a distillery in Tempe, the company pumps out bottle after bottle of Commerce Gin, Park Rye Whiskey, and Mission Vodka, among other spirits. Hardest of all is the Copper City Bourbon, the first legally produced bourbon in Arizona, which has to be aged in virgin oak barrels.
“Everybody thinks it’s all fun and games,” says co-owner Jason Grossmiller. “Who wouldn’t want to own a distillery? But it’s only fun and games until you have to work.”
Until last year, the company was shockingly small, with four original owners and five employees. Still, they craft and ship 35,000 cases of liquor each year. Then last year, they hit a snag: The company's building in central Tempe was sold by its owners, and the entire distilling operation had to move somewhere else.
After nine months of arduous transition, the owners of the Arizona Distilling Co. are turning a bad situation into a good one: They plan to open a small bar by the end of the year, which will eventually expand into a restaurant.
“We loved the old location,” Grossmiller says. “We used to do tours and tastings. But that space was more of an industrial building. It wasn’t air-conditioned. We got some bad Yelp reviews, people complaining that it was too hot.”
When they left their defunct headquarters last January, the owners scrambled to track down a new building suitable for both the production and sale of spirits. What they found was a sizable storefront at 601 West University Drive – about 400 yards from the old building.
“Ultimately, we’re in a much better location,” says Jonathan Eagan, another of the distillery’s co-owners. “Our visibility has exponentially increased here on University.”
Moving a distillery is a monumental task. The new location housed a vintage clothing shop and had to be completely gutted. The massive fermentation barrels and specialty equipment had to be moved down the street. They had to terminate their old liquor license and apply for a new one. They continue to distribute to liquor stores, but operations have been strained during these nine gypsy-like months.
When we visited earlier this week, it was clear that the company still has a long way to go: The building is still in the works, with casks stacked in different corners and construction materials piled on the concrete floor. But Grossmiller and Eagan know exactly what the space will look like. They describe the bar that will face the entrance, the small kitchen, and the rank of coolers. The cozy dining room will contain around eight tables, and they will install a patio out front.
The menu is still coming together, but Grossmiller envisions a mix of pub food and Southern fare. “Stuff that pairs well with our spirits,” he says. The bar will open first, toward the end of the year, and will specialize in gourmet cocktails and the occasional shot. The restaurant should open sometime in 2017.
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Since its inception, Arizona Distilling Co.’s claim to fame has been its locally sourced products. The corn, rye, and mash are all grown on Arizona farms, and the names of their liquors are all regional references: “Copper City” was once a massive brewery based in Bisbee and “Mission Vodka” is named after the Spanish missions scattered across the Sonoran Desert.
“I wanted to support local farms,” says Grossmiller, whose father grew up in the farming community of Coolidge. “Not a lot of people know that we have pretty healthy agriculture down here. Right now, this company is more about legacy for me. To do something that nobody has done before, to try to make a quality product with stuff that’s grown locally. That is huge for me.”
To find out more about Arizona Distilling Co., visit the company’s website.