Town Under Black’s first spirit, Six Sky, is a 95 proof, 100 percent blue-corn whiskey steeped in cacao. Fermented in part using wild yeasts, distilled using what might be the only wooden still in the country, the whiskey rested in a vat with cacao husks for two weeks. They give the spirit its ruddy color. It hasn’t seen the inside of an oak barrel for a single heartbeat.
This is the kind of spirit that the new distillery will be making.
And this is the kind of spirit that, if lucky, you may be seeing. The Tucson-based operation just started limited distribution to metro Phoenix today.
Founders Rebecca Caroli and Vlad Novokschenov released their first batch in Tucson and Prescott two weeks ago. This was the culmination of five-and-a-half years of studying distilling, an intense hobby born from mutual fascination.
“We were both into pre-Prohibition cocktails and the lost knowledge of craft American spirits that was cut off with Prohibition,” Caroli says. "[The United States] had this rich culture with distilling woven into the fabric of American history and the colonies. The distilling culture we have now is a super-modern industrial version.”
Before she entered booze professionally, Caroli was an archaeologist working in places like Africa. In the field, while doing ethnographic work that would inform her archaeology, she observed people like natives of Kenya, studying for a documentary. “They were making banana beer and millet beer and sorghum beer,” she says, “and they all had special pots that were ceremonial and functional to make these.”
This was the spark that kindled the mutual love she and Novokschenov had for spirits into something more than an abstract dream. A half-decade later, what Caroli and Novokschenov aim to do with Town Under Black is bring select techniques, flavors, and beverages of the far world to Arizona — but remade using Sonoran ingredients.
This summer, the two will be distilling a spirit from banana yucca.
They hope to ferment a beverage from fresh-shelled mesquite beans.
Using foraged black walnuts, they plan to make nocino, an Italian liqueur macerated from unripe walnuts.
In addition to lassoing drinks from near and far through the upper Sonoran Desert, the two will be cribbing select global techniques. One: the solid mash fermentations of Chinese whiskey (versus the West’s liquid fermentations). Two: employing koji, the fungus best known for its role in midwifing sake. Plus, many more.
Phoenix distribution will start with a trickle. Tarbell’s. Glai Baan. Maybe a booze shop.
That’s it. Just 50 bottles this week, split between Phoenix and Tucson.
Local eaters, drinkers, and lovers of arcana should expect high demand for these spirits, partly because batches will be small. Town Under Black’s 150-gallon wooden still, which the pair designed and built themselves, yields batches of just eight gallons. Demand will also come from that, though we have other local distilleries, including some that are nationally known, the main thrust of Town Under Black’s mission and methods is new.
The attention to craft seems to be there. They malt all their own corn. They plan to ferment future batches using 100 percent wild yeasts.
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“We learned by completely building our own equipment through trial and error,” Caroli says. “We didn’t just buy a $50,000 still and push a button.”
Next week, there will be yet another micro batch arriving in metro Phoenix. “For the rest of the year, it will be pretty small like this,” Caroli says. “We’ve probably doubled our efficiency since we first started. Every week, our batch sizes will be larger. It’ll be consistently small for the rest of the year.”
She adds: “But we’re hoping that once we hopefully gain some traction, we can reinvest in our space.”
The distillery just released its first batch in Tucson and Prescott. It sold out in two days.