Since Stephen Paul’s Whiskey del Bac started shipping out to bars across Tucson in 2013, it has been close to impossible to meet local demand. The small copper pot-still at Hamilton Distillers never had a chance once it found regular distribution. In response to the popularity, del Bac is transitioning from its humble roots in an alleyway off Fourth Avenue to a ramped-up factory at 2106 N. Forbes Blvd.
Global Stainless Systems in Canby, Oregon, provided a new, oversized copper-pot still and set of malting tanks that Paul hopes will produce 4,500 cases a year once it is fully operational. The team has also been talking with BKW Farms in Marana to start sourcing local Conlon barley to add another local ingredient to the process. Paul has already been donating leftover malted barley from the whiskey production process to a number of Arizona farms to use as animal feed. The first distillations began in December so expect the first wave of del Bac whiskey aged in the new facility to hit the market in May. HamiltonDistillers.com.
One reason for del Bac’s early success in Tucson was the team’s dedication to strong relationships with local bars and restaurants. Bartenders from across the city were included in every stage of the development: label design, early tasting, navigating the multiple liquor distributors on the market. Thanks to their involvement, del Bac has become an unspoken requirement on any new cocktail lists in the burgeoning downtown restaurant scene. Jesse Schaefer, bar manager extraordinaire at The Coronet, is offering the The Hegemon: Whiskey del Bac Classic, Swedish Punsch, Gran Classico, Angostura, lemon, and house grenadine. A strong winter sour with intense stewed fruit flavors, the drink pairs well with Naïm Amor’s guitar on the patio. There’s always live music at The Coronet on Wednesdays and Thursdays and usually some other day of the week. The Coronet also sports an extensive classic cocktail list, a selection of which is only $5 during happy hour (3-6 p.m., Monday-Friday). Thursdays seem to be the night to visit, with live music, strong cocktails, and a prix-fixe menu from chefs Jake Alpert and Erika Bostick-Esham. 402 E. Ninth St. 520.222.9889. CafeCoronet.com.
R Bar—self-described as “Tucson’s Best Alley Bar,” located in the alleyway next to the Rialto Theater—hosted its inaugural Bon Vivant’s Club on Dec. 4. The club will be hosted the first Thursday of each month and feature a selection of a half dozen wines that exemplify a particular wine-growing region. Rory O’Rear, head mixologist and host of the wine-tasting club, focuses on wines under the “natural wine” banner that is, wines with minimal intervention, low to no sulfites, lack of filtration, or produced following the principles of biodynamic agriculture Natural wine is something of a new product in most wine markets, as it fails to compete with large production wines, whose marketing budgets alone eclipse the entire budgets of these small farms. The opportunity to try a generous selection of these special bottles side-by-side is a rarity anywhere, let alone the often-forgotten Arizona market. The third meeting of the Bon Vivant Club will be Feb. 5 and will focus on the wines of Burgundy. Register online at rbartucson.com (it fills up fast) to taste the best selection of Chablis you will find anytime soon in Arizona. 350 E. Congress St., No. 110. 520.305.3599. RBarTucson.com.
Lee’s Runway Bar and Grill, located on Alvernon south of 29th Street, is a bit of a legend in the Tucson dive bar scene. If you haven’t yet visited, it’s a neighborhood blue collar bar that serves cold domestic beer, hosts live music of every variety imaginable, plays football replays on an old cathode-ray-tube TV, and is owned by a charismatic woman who sells jars of the best kimchee in town from behind the bar. Huicha “Lee” Smith moved to Tucson in hopes of pursuing an art career but quickly found herself working as a cocktail waitress in the officers’ club at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. After years of working on base and at the nearby Disabled American Veterans chapter, Smith got an opportunity from a friend in the Korean community to take over Runway, which caters to military personnel and working class folks nearby. The bar represents everything a neighborhood watering hole should be; the Korean cuisine only makes a trip down even more enticing. Smith tries to make fresh kimchee every Sunday or Monday—she usually runs out of time on Sunday because she has to take her grandchildren to church—so make sure to stop by on Wednesday or Thursday to pick up a few jars, enjoy a Budweiser, and have a conversation with one of the postal workers drinking on the patio. 2101 S. Alvernon Way. 520.790.6288.
Bryan Eichhorst is a native Tucsonan, unapologetic sommelier, dedicated evangelist of Oaxacan mezcal, and the beverage director at Penca.