Stephen Paul, maker of Whiskey Del Bac at Hamilton Distillers, talks serious hats and his love affair with mesquite. By Joan Calcagno. Photos courtesy of Hamilton Distillers.
Early bird or night owl? “I’m an early bird. I generally wake up at 5.30 and then, of course, I start to fade at 9 o’clock. We’ve been going full-tilt here. It’s been really intense but it’s all been build-out and equipment hook-up. Full-tilt will mean something different here in a few days – we’ll be going into full production.”
Favorite accessory? “My hats. Being a desert person and abusing my skin my whole life, about seven years ago I started wearing hats everywhere. Winter hats are more fun than summer hats because they’re felt – they’re more serious. You can do things with them that are harder to do in straw, like shape them.”
Favorite faux pas? “Would be hard to choose from because there are so many. My wife Elaine always says she needs to carry a portable jaws-of-life to extract my foot from my mouth at any given moment.”
"Curious people are always really fun to talk to. If you’re interested, it makes you interesting. Single malt whiskey-loving is sort of obvious. The relationship to the Sonoran desert is - I love this place. And what we’re doing really has a sense of being from a place in terms of the mesquite.
"I’ve always loved mesquite. We’ve had this long relationship with it from when we were making mesquite furniture at Arroyo Design. I’d take my mesquite scraps home to barbeque with. Elaine and I are both scotch drinkers and one evening she said ‘Why couldn’t we malt barley over mesquite instead of peat like they do in Scotland?’ So I ordered a little five-gallon still and it kept going and kept tuning out well and one thing led to another and here we are.”
If I weren’t an owner of Hamilton Distillers I would… “I have so many interests. I know I’d be busy at something. I can’t stop. If I was retired I’d be gardening and reading and exploring Arizona and beyond – traveling, still learning. That’s what I’d be doing! Still learning! Which is what I’m doing here.”
If I could change one thing I would… “I would look for ways to decrease the insolation that people have. I would expose people to more cultures than their own - more variation and diversity than they’re used to. I would try to get people to broaden their experiences so as to understand each other better.”
What do U.S. and Hamilton Distillers do that is different than traditional whisky making? “There’s more exploration – a lot bigger sense of adventure in America. Americans are like that, right? We are not afraid to fail. So when we have ideas, we’re free to pursue them without fear of falling down. We know we can get back up and start running again. That’s kind of uniquely American. So now there’s a whiskey made with barley malted over mesquite smoke instead of peat. There’s a distiller in Texas doing a blue corn whiskey. There are incredible gins out there using local botanicals. It’s just really exploded. In Scotland they’re making Scotch. There are different levels of smoke, but there’s basically just Scotch.
"What really sets [Hamilton Distillers] apart is that we malt our own barley. There are only five distilleries out of hundreds in the country that malt their own barley. We had to because it’s the mesquite smoke [that makes it really unique]. And we continue through the process doing it all in-house. It’s very craft. And very authentic.”
* You can purchase Hamilton Distillers’ Whiskey Del Bac at Plaza Liquors at 2642 N. Campbell, The Rumrunner, AJ’s Fine Foods, and Whole Foods at Oracle and Ina. To keep up with them, follow Hamilton on Facebook and subscribe to the newsletter on their website. To tour the distillery contact: info@hamiltondistilleries or (520) 628-9244