Once upon a time, the founders of Adventurous Stills, a Tempe distillery, were camping in the woods near Fossil Creek, just north of Strawberry, Arizona. They were sitting by a fire at the end of a long day hiking. Flames leaped. Smoke rose. Serenity and oneness with nature were the cocktail of feelings.
One of the founders, Kelly Lattig, later asked himself, “Gee, how can you capture the essence of that?”
He meant in a spirit. The kind you drink. The kind he and co-founder Chase Estrin have been making since January 2017. So they made an amber liquor from corn, wheat, and rye, all locally sourced. Fossil Creek Whiskey is aged with charred white oak. Over its low sweetness rises a palpable smoke, reminiscent of scotch but not aggressively, less of a touch and more of a firm handshake.
Adventurous Stills gets its name partly from outdoor pursuits — like scuba diving, hiking, biking, and climbing — through which the co-founders plus a third partner, Jeff Reisinger, have bonded. But the boutique distillery also pulls its name from what it produces. “We like to do adventurous takes on existing spirit styles,” Lattig says.
Citrus-forward gin. Absinthe with a strong lemongrass note. A chocolate whiskey made without chocolate. Quinoa whiskey. Blue-and-buckwheat bourbon.
Using homemade equipment and predominantly three local grains — durum wheat from Casa Grande, corn from the “Four Corners area,” and rye from the Verde Valley — Adventurous Stills makes whiskey, vodka, gin, absinthe, and agave-based spirits. A front lounge has a worn and elbow-dented copper bar, where Thursday through Sunday people come to sip cocktails and spirits, born just yards away. Beyond the distillery and tasting room, Adventurous Stills bottles can be purchased or tasted at more than 100 Arizona locations. Lattig and company are one of the lights of our steadily growing craft spirits scene.
The operation hums along in an industrial park in Tempe. There, in a warehouse-style room that smells like some cross between porridge and fresh-baked pretzel, hooped casks of Minnesota and Missouri oak neatly stack, imbuing spirits with flavor that varies by cask size, oak type, and lifespan of aging.
The goal being adventure, the grains that give rise to these spirits vary widely. “I’ve been a homebrewer since I was too young to drink,” Lattig says. “Now, I’m 52. You know, a lot of this [distilling] is figuring out how to make good beer — right? — and knowing what grains to use.”
Adventurous Stills often incorporates obscure grains, like caramel malt, chocolate malt, cararye, and other rarities. Some of these come from beyond Arizona. Most of the distillery’s inputs arise from within the state, but the partners need to look afar for some ingredients, like molasses for rum. “Right now, we’re using about 80 percent Arizona grains,” Lattig says. “A couple of our products are 90 or 95 percent.”
The distillery's grain mill was built in a garage. It crushes grains and corn, reducing them to a coarse grind, larger and rougher than wheat flour. Next, the distilling process passes to a 17-barrel mash tun, a cylindrical vessel, where grain or corn is heated with water. This produces a beer-like slurry, which then passes together with the solids (unlike in brewing) to a 600-gallon stripping still. The mixture then “boils like mad.”
From this point, the distilling happens in one of two pot stills, glinting with copper. The smaller still has a metal column like an endless thick hose that vaults to the high ceiling, its sides riddled with portholes.
Spent grain — meaning grain leftover from the process — goes to a local rancher. This rancher specializes in rescuing under-nourished cattle, beefing them back up for resale. The spirited spirits live in bottles packaged by hand one at a time, three bottles per minute.
Each label depicts some wondrous form of the natural world.
Peralta Bourbon — the chocolaty one — shows a sheer outcropping from the Superstitions. It’s 90 proof, toasty, like brown bread out of a toaster, with a soft bitter chocolate note. This hint comes from using a mash bill of 2 percent chocolate malt — malt toasted for uber darkness and caramelization.
“It’s really designed to be drank neat with an ice cube,” Lattig says. “As that ice cube melts, the flavor opens up.”
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Camelback Gin depicts the urban mountain. It brings minimal juniper, and a nose somewhere between lemon and yuzu. Its flavor follows suit, though citrus doesn’t dominate. An agave-based spirit, like a blanco tequila but made beyond tequila, is smooth and vegetal. A light rum carries tropical notes: a rye spice and smoothness.
The wildest spirit I tried at Adventurous Stills was an 80-proof absinthe. It didn't bathe your tongue in a licorice inferno. That intensity was lowered, with flavors lemony and lemongrassy coming through. This is a gentle green fairy, one dazed by a long hike under the desert sun.
For $250 a year, you can join the Adventurous Stills Explorers Club. For this, you get one weird, experimental bottle every quarter, plus a few other perks. And if you want to pull away from the shapeless macro spirits that, even in our age of local eating and drinking still dominate, a Saturday or Sunday at Adventurous Stills is a great start. You can taste the wrinkles that local spirits can bring. You might even get flashes of mountain, of grain fields, of feeling great by a campfire.
2125 East Fifth Street, #102, Tempe; 480-292-8770.
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday