If you're like Rodney Hu, Jason Grossmiller, and Jon Eagan of the Arizona Distilling Co., distilling bourbon begins with making a few good friends. After meeting in high school at Tempe's Marcos de Niza-- with Hu later taking over operations at Yucca Tap Room and Grossmiller quitting his job as a blackjack dealer-- they began the long process of opening a distillery in Tempe.
Liquor hadn't been made in Arizona since before Prohibition, so the permits to distill and the ensuing legal issues took about as much time as perfecting an Arizona bourbon recipe. For everyone else, their hard work means distilling craft spirits is a reality in Phoenix.
Copper City Bourbon starts with a mash primarily consisting of corn, which is necessary for it to be classified as bourbon. The team also is working on the state's first local grain-to-bottle whiskey using Arizona desert durum wheat.
For the bourbon, a corn mixture is put through a hammer mill to be ground to a fine powder. That powder is then put into a mash tun, along with water, to make the slurry, which cooks approximately eight hours and ferments another five to seven days. The fermenting slurry builds its alcohol content during this stage and is roughly 900 gallons at this point, though only 300 gallons of it can be sent through the still at a time.
Once the mixture is finished fermenting, the actual distilling begins. The first run through the still is called a stripping run, which takes about 10 to 12 hours. At this point, the 13 percent alcohol by volume, 26-proof mash rises to 80 or 90 proof, which is then cut down to 65 proof. In the finishing still's run, the whiskey is separated into three cuts: heads, hearts, and tails. The hearts, which, according to Hu, "contain all the 'good' alcohol and flavors within the spirit," are kept for aging. The "bad alcohol," like trace amounts of methanol, are removed in the distilling process, leaving you with 160-proof alcohol in the end.
About 10 days after the grains were milled to a powder, the whiskey is finally ready for aging from an original 900 gallons of slurry to the 90 gallons of alcohol. Depending on the barrels used and the desired flavor of the end product, aging can take up to 25 years. Originally, Arizona Distilling Company began aging in 53-gallon barrels about five years ago.
As demand grew for their locally made spirit, they switched to a much smaller 10-gallon barrel. These barrels allow for more surface contact with the American oak, meaning more exposure to the wood and an aging time of under one year with the same resulting smoky vanilla flavor. Regardless of which barrel size is used, the next step is always filtering. If you've had the opportunity to sample a glass of Copper City Bourbon on the rocks, you've likely noticed its clarity when chilled. This clarity comes from the cold filtration process, resulting in a less cloudy, more smooth bourbon.
"It's all about temperature control," Hu says. "When the still is heating, some alcohols have higher and lower boiling points. We are trying to get the exact boiling point of ethanol and maintain that temperature for as long as we can."
Now that the bourbon is ready to drink, it's also ready to bottle. The design of the logo and bottle were a joint effort by the team, which also includes George Yu and Matt Cummins, to pay homage to Arizona history. The name Copper City comes from the long defunct pre-Prohibiton era Douglas brewery of the same name, while the logo's font is borrowed from Phoenix's old Legend City amusement park. Eagan also finalized the bottle design for their recent gin release, which was made to showcase the Arizona Distilling Co. brand. The Desert Dry Gin, distilled with cinnamon, corriander, lime, apple, lavender, juniper, and other botanicals, is available for purchase (as well as the bourbon) at Tops Liquor and the distillery in Tempe. (More on the gin tomorrow in Hooch.)
So now that you know how to distill bourbon, you're ready to make your own, right? Well, not quite. The hammer mill, mash tun, and still that Arizona Distilling Company uses are all American-made and the equipment is still pretty pricey. Even if you have the money to fork over for the right tools (or you've found a less expensive, more DIY way to do it at home), there's more to it than that.
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"Everyone can have a still, but it is illegal to distill alcohol without the proper permits," Hu says.
Due to their trailblazing with the state's liquor authority, that's at least a possibility for spirit lovers in Phoenix. Having liquor distilled in Arizona means a lot for the state's history, job creation, and tax revenue, but it also helps put Phoenix on the map as a serious contender for both small-batch craft spirits and mixology, in general. Currently, the bourbon is on sale at local liquor stores like Tops, Sun Devil Liquors, and Gilbert Convenient Mart. You can also find it in cocktails at bars including Crudo, Cartel Downtown, Little Woody, and (of course) Yucca Tap Room.