It has been a big year for the guys at Tempe-based Arizona Distilling Co., the second-oldest craft distillery in the state. In May, after a 32-month transition period, the distillery officially debuted its new tasting room and cocktail lounge inside a 5,000-square-foot space located at 601 West University Drive.
The distillery used to be based in a smaller industrial building near First Street and Farmer Avenue in Tempe. It began transitioning into its new space back in 2016.
Jonathan Eagan, one of the distillery's co-owners and founding partners, describes the monumental task of transforming a "stuffy old building" built in 1946 (most recently home to a vintage clothing store) into Arizona Distilling Co.'s new headquarters.
"The space hadn't been updated, so there was just crap on top of crap," Eagan says. "We had to cut open floors for all the water lines and rip up the street."
"There was fake wood paneling and drywall painted aqua blue," he continues. "The ceilings were dropped and it had those old panels like the kind you have in elementary school. The ducting was underneath so you could reach up and touch it. We had to rip everything out and do all new HVAC. Whole new plumbing."
The biggest challenge, though, has been having to run all production off of what Eagan describes as "the poor little engine that could" — a single 100-gallon still.
The crew is waiting on APS to get full power to run the distillery's bigger 300-gallon still.
"We're on the construction schedule for the last week of August," Eagan says, knocking for luck on the lounge's smooth new live-edge wood bar, which was handcrafted by Prescott-based Kokopelli Woodworks from a large black walnut tree that fell down in Safford, Arizona.
Once the big still is up and running, Eagan says, head distiller Jason Grossmiller will focus on amping up production of the distillery's popular brown stock. That includes Park Rye whiskey, the first rye whiskey distilled in Arizona; Humphrey’s Whiskey; and Desert Durum Wheat, Arizona's first "grain-to-bottle" whiskey, made with high-quality durum wheat grown near Casa Grande.
"We're excited to get full power and be able to catch up," Eagan says. "We want to be able to get the three of those pretty much all over the country."
In the meantime, Arizona Distilling Co. is highlighting its spirits inside its new cocktail lounge, with help from a familiar face: mixologist and certified sommelier Micah Olson.
The veteran barman, who gained a local following at spots like Bar Crudo and Okra, joined Arizona Distilling Co. as its beverage director a couple of months ago.
"I've been talking with these guys for a long, long time," Olson says. "It was always a plan that, when the time was right, I would join them in some capacity."
Olson says he's excited to be working "close to a still."
"I've been in a lot of distilleries in my time, but I've never been part of the day-to-day. So it's definitely a big learning curve for me."
Olson says the bar will focus on classic cocktails designed to highlight Arizona Distilling Co.'s products. That means drinks like the Clover Club (Commerce gin, lemon, raspberry, whipped egg whites), and a proper Old Fashioned (Copper City Bourbon, demerara, and bitters).
"We're not trying to get too crazy on the mixology side. The focus is on really, really good classic cocktails — just three or four ingredients, for the most part."
"Micah has an elevated palate that Jason [Grossmiller] and I just don't have," Eagan says.
"To have Micah here to work with us on different spirits and to get input from him on barrel-aging stuff, those kind of things. ... It's an incredible opportunity."
Rounding out the team, Eagan says, are bar veterans Justin Reed (Jade Bar, Binkley's) and Brandon Casey (Citizen Public House, Casey's Woodshed Bar).
With the craft spirits market booming, competition is stiff.
Eagan says the team has been working "their butts off" to showcase Arizona Distilling Co.'s spirits portfolio, which has won medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in recent years.
To that end, the distillery announced a partnership earlier this summer with California-based bartender and bar owner Erick Castro, who will advocate for the distillery's products across the U.S.
"With this awesome bar team, we're winning at home. And we have Erick to fight our fight on the front lines in California and New York for us," Eagan says.
Fans of Arizona Distilling Co. have more to look forward to this year — including the possible release of the distillery's first-ever rum. Eagan won't disclose too many details on the rum, except to say that head distiller Grossmiller is currently "obsessed" with sugar sourced from Mexico.
The distillery also plans to continue collaborating with wineries. In the past, its popular Copper City Bourbon has been finished in cabernet wine barrels from Arizona Stronghold Vineyards.
In the meantime, the Arizona Distilling Co. team is settling into the "Old Walrus," the nickname for its laid-back new cocktail lounge. The name is a cheeky reference to Arizona's first governor, George W.P. Hunt, whose portrait hangs over the bar.
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A food menu is forthcoming, Eagan says, as well as a 36-seat outdoor patio that might be ready by fall.
For now, you can swing by for tastings, spirits flights, and of course, cocktails. Most bottles are available for purchase at the bar.
Arizona Distilling Co. and the Old Walrus Lounge. 601 West University Drive, Tempe; 602-391-3889.
Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4 to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 4 p.m. to midnight