Distilled in the Desert

NB|AZ® raises spirits for single-malt whiskey maker

For many successful entrepreneurs, the best ideas are oftentimes staring them straight in the face. Just ask Stephen Paul, owner of Hamilton Distillers in Tucson. For him, the idea to start a whiskey distiller was born during a backyard barbecue with his wife and family in late 2006.

At that time, Paul owned Arroyo Design, a custom furniture company that specialized in pieces made of desert mesquite wood. A skilled woodworker, the Arizona native with deep roots in southern Arizona appreciated the beautiful wood that “grows right in our backyard,” he says. “It had cracks and knots and wormholes. And sometimes you’d find barbed wire and bullets in it. But if you dry it and finish it, it is just so beautiful.”

After a day of woodworking, Paul would bring the mesquite scraps home to barbecue with. One night, as he and his wife Elaine sat by the fire enjoying a glass of Scotch, she asked why they couldn’t dry malt over a mesquite fire instead of a peat fire, which gives whiskey a smoky flavor.

“Knowing what great things cooking over mesquite does to food, I was riveted by the idea,” he says. “I thought it was brilliant.”

Feeling inspired, Paul bought a small still from Portugal and started experimenting with distilling his own whiskey.

“I really had no identified goal. I was just really trying to make a really good whiskey,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily want to start a distillery, either. But it just kept tasting better and better, and one thing led to another.”

In 2011, Paul graduated to a 40-gallon still, which he set up in a corner of the woodworking warehouse at Arroyo Design, and officially went into product development. With the help of his daughter Amanda, he incorporated the business and obtained all the appropriate permits. Hamilton Distillers was officially in business.

In 2013, Paul introduced Whiskey del Bac to the Tucson market, distributing to such retailers and establishments as Maynards Market, Magee Road Liquors, 47 Scott, Che’s Lounge, and Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails owned by renowned chef Janos Wilder.

“It was actually serendipitous that we started during this time when the Tucson food community was beginning to gain a self-awareness of its culinary uniqueness,” Paul says. “People were beginning to realize our food heritage and the unique things we can take from the desert. The idea for a mesquite-smoked whiskey couldn’t have come at a better time.”

After receiving a warm reception from the market, Paul decided to invest in a 500-gallon system with a malt house and, by the end of 2015, Hamilton Distillers was fully operational. News about the single-malt, mesquite-smoked whiskey traveled quickly and soon, the company was catching the attention of the national media. They had been featured in New York Magazine, Playboy, Forbes, and Esquire, which named Hamilton Distillers one of the best whiskey distillers in America.

Last year, according to Paul, the company bottled about 24,000 bottles of its Whiskey del Bac line, which includes the Dorado, a mesquite-smoked single malt; the Clear, a mesquite-smoked unaged whiskey; and the Classic, an unsmoked single-malt whiskey modeled after a Speyside Scotch, a single malt distilled in northeastern Scotland.

Recently, Hamilton Distillers added a fourth product to the line: The Distiller’s Cut is a cask strength whiskey that is about 120 proof.

“Whiskey buffs have become very fond of cask strength whiskies because you can pour a little glass and taste all the flavor nuances,” Paul explains. “Add a little bit of water and the flavor will change. As you incrementally add more water, you get a whole range of sensory experiences.”

Paul’s journey from Arroyo Design (which closed four years ago) to Hamilton Distillers spans about 30 years, and National Bank of Arizona has been with them every step of the way.

“We’ve always had a great relationship with NB|AZ,” he says. “When you’re starting a small furniture business, it’s very much appreciated when your banker calls you personally to check in or make you aware of an issue with your account. The communication is always so great with them.”

As Arroyo Design grew and Paul purchased the commercial building that would house the workshop, he says he they immediately opened another account with NB|AZ. They did the same with Hamilton Distillers.

“I wouldn’t think of going anyplace else. It’s a level of comfort that we have with the bank. They have a personal touch we just love,” he says.