If you've seen the historic-looking Copper City Bourbon bottle springing up around town at your favorite watering holes, like Casey Moore's, Little Woody and even Tucson's historic Club Congress, you probably didn't get a chance to read the back label. If you did, you'd have read the story of the Copper City Brewery, which was shut down during prohibition, and how Arizona Distilling Co. is keeping it local and reviving the history of the defunct beer-maker in making locally-produced spirits.
Not since the prohibition era has hard liquor been legally distilled in the Phoenix-metro area (if it has, at least it's been awfully rare), but Yucca Tap Room's Rodney Hu, a Tempe native, and a few of his long-time friends think it's time that changed. After seven years of training with pros across the country, carefully sourcing local grains and wading through legal mumbo-jumbo and outdated laws, Arizona Distilling Co. is finally pumping out a bourbon made right in downtown Tempe that's already creating a buzz (pun intended) with its smooth finish.
"Because we're micro Jason [Grossmiller] has the ability to do certain things that a giant producer can't do efficiently like we can do with the smaller batches to make it a little bit smoother," says partner Jon Eagan.
That smoothness is specifically attributed to the cold filtering which distillers Grossmiller and his partner Matt Cummins use to process the bourbon. It also helps the aesthetic of the bourbon by retaining its translucence even when iced. However, the guys of Arizona Distilling Co. aren't stopping at bourbon.
While working on their new distillery, Grossmiller went to Las Vegas to distil a single grain whiskey made with desert durum wheat from Casa Grande, a grain commonly shipped from Arizona to Italy to make pasta. Grossmiller believes that as Kentucky has its corn and thus its bourbon and the northeast has its traditional ryes, the durum wheat whiskey could be an iconic Arizona spirit in years to come. He also adds that the rye that they made in Las Vegas is locally aging nicely at their distillery.
"This is a taste of Arizona," Grossmiller says, while Eagan adds, "We're not just golf courses and night clubs."
The distillers are also working with local mixologists, like Bar Crudo's Micah Olson, to develop a gin that incorporates the trends and demands of the craft cocktail craze. We're hoping for maybe a lavender-based gin or something that incorporates local flora in its botanical notes.
The dedicated group of friends met in high school at Tempe's Marcos de Niza and, as natives, strongly believe in the impact local distilling could have on Arizona both in culture and in job creation. While they don't think the benefits will be automatically noticeable to the local economy, their trailblazing, along with new distilleries in Tucson and Kingman, for in-state liquor production could be huge in the future.
"I think it's so new even in this state that [local lawmakers] are trying still to figure out how to regulate it," Hu says. "I don't even think they know how they want it to go yet,"
While their facility is currently only set up and zoned for production, the Arizona Distilling Co., which operated off of First Street and Farmer in Tempe, will also include a tasting room and even tours in the very near future.
"It's a difficult process because basically we're setting the standard for every other distillery in the state," Grossmiller says. "We're looking to other states to try to get it right."
This post has been edited from its original version.