Desert Distilled

Three Wells Distilling makes spirits with a distinctly regional signature.

March 11, 2017

BuzzIssue 23: March/April 2017

Summer 2012. It’s one of those monsoon days when the air feels heavy with more than mere weather, as Matt Montgomery of Three Wells Distilling drives his F-150 west along Sahuarita Road. To the south, clouds mass over the Santa Rita Mountains. North of the road, the late afternoon sun still shines over a desert undulating with prickly pear. Each summer, Montgomery makes his wife a new poking stick so she can harvest the ripe fruits the way her grandfather once taught her. Looking across mile after mile of sun-bright pads tipped in dusky, wine-red tunas, Montgomery sees his wife’s favorite treat. And then he sees something else: booze.

The handful of years leading to Montgomery’s drive had been tough. Once a successful contractor, the housing market crash left him scrambling. Stuck with little means to buy the high-end whiskeys he loved, Montgomery, the grandson of a Texas sharecropper who grew up “fairly redneck” on 10 acres near Sabino Canyon, built a still and started making whiskey in his garage.

Matt Montgomery co-founded Three Wells Distilling after a drive in the Sonoran Desert opened his eyes—and taste buds —to the ingredients available in the desert.

Soon enough, those experiments led to some hooch those lucky enough to sample wanted to keep on sampling—everyone that is, but his wife, Ken’te, who isn’t much of a whiskey drinker. His sister, Sue, on the other hand, was among the early devotees. When she ran across an article about an up-and-coming craft distillery in Utah, she mailed it to her brother with the words “No reason this couldn’t be you! Got to be easier in AZ than Utah!” scrawled along the border in black Sharpie. Montgomery remained unconvinced. Until the day he saw all those prickly pear fruits, and realized that instead of making a grain-based spirit like whiskey, he could make a desert-based one. A spirit that would reflect the Sonoran region, that would come from the surrounding lands. A spirit—if he got it right—even his wife might like to drink.

The result was Sonora Silver, what would eventually become Three Wells’ signature spirit (not only did Montgomery’s wife like it, she still calls it “my prickly”). And Montgomery began to think founding a distillery might not be so crazy after all. His long-time friend and chemist Chris Dudding not only agreed, he was also willing to take out a second mortgage to seed the venture. In early 2013 the two men rented space on East 44th Street in Tucson, and Montgomery got out his welder.

Using a still to separate a liquid mix, called a mash, into components through controlled evaporation and condensation has roots in Middle Eastern alchemy. Ancient as those origins are, and as prevalent as spirit-making once was in the United States (in the 1880s some 8,000 distilleries burbled away even though total population scarcely topped 50 million), until quite recently small-batch hard liquors remained the victim of stringent regulations leftover from Prohibition. Montgomery’s epiphany, however, came at a good time. Spurred by the craft beer-making movement, the past few decades have seen more enlightened views, and rather better laws, take hold. Today, with some 1,300 distilleries nationwide and counting, “grain to glass” makers are on the rise.

Many of the ingredients in Three Wells spirits come straight from the desert, like these chiltepin peppers.

In Three Wells’ case it might make more sense to say “desert to glass,” or even “garage to glass,” since the distillery, which has two rolling garage doors, resembles nothing more than a larger version of what Matt’s original operation must have looked like. “It’s not that we’re cheap,” Montgomery quips, “it’s just that we’re not well-funded.” So far, Montgomery and Dudding have resisted bringing in outside investors, and outright refuse to do what too many craft “distillers” do: buy base alcohol—most of it from the same industrial-scale producer in Indiana—and simply age it. “There is a craft to aging,” Montgomery is quick to point out, but if Three Wells has a philosophy, it’s this: Distillers ought to distill.

And distill they do. Occupying an entire side of one garage bay, Three Wells’ homemade copper stills exude an aura of mad scientist crossed with MacGyver. Though Montgomery won’t call himself a Master Distiller—“maybe in a few years”—distilling is an art, and Montgomery has it down. This is especially true when it comes to Sonora Silver. Unlike commercially harvested grain, prickly pear can be tricky at the mashing stage, when the broken up fruits—Three Wells mashes them in five-gallon buckets with a half-inch drill and a mixing attachment—are combined with water, a corn base (which adds a note of sweetness to the final flavor profile), and yeast. The fruits still come straight from the desert—in July, pickers head out with tongs—which means each year requires its own particular attention. “Just because of the way the rainfall came,” says Montgomery.

It’s at the stills, unsurprisingly, that the distiller’s art is on full display. From a pure chemistry standpoint, it should be possible to “cut” the raw alcohol coming from a still by temperature alone—that is, to measure when the undesirable “heads” stop and the flavorful “hearts” begin, and how much of the oily “tails” to keep depending on the desired mouth-feel. But temperature, Montgomery says, “only gives you an idea.” Instead, he relies on taste—but even, and mostly—on smell to make his cuts. Montgomery, who favors cowboy boots and Wranglers and likes to say “everything we do is ugly, but it works,” would likely snort at the label “artisan.” But artisans make full use of their senses, and that’s exactly how Montgomery practices his craft.

Standing before four porthole-like windows in the main column of Ugly Boy—the name of the still Three Wells uses for its final, or “spirit,” run, Montgomery and I watch bubbles. He explains how the soon-to-be spirit passes from vapor to liquid to vapor again as it rises and falls through a series of perforated copper disks inside the column. The “lower” alcohols (like methanol), which evaporate at a lower temperature, rise faster than the “higher” alcohols (like ethanol). You can see the difference in the bubbles, which get fizzier as they go up. A thin stream begins to spurt from Ugly Boy’s arm. “See how it smells like acetone?” he asks.

Matt Montgomery started distilling after the housing crash left the former contractor scrambling.

I nod, but mostly it just smells like it could knock me on my butt. In contrast, the very end of the tails smell “like a nasty wet dog,” says Montgomery. The hearts, meanwhile, smell “like what you used to make the spirit,” so in the case of the Silver—prickly pear. He has me stick a finger under the still-running heads. Never before having tasted nail-polish remover, it’s hard to say what it’s doing beyond scorching my lips. Montgomery grins and nods, shaking liquid off his own finger. Soon enough he’ll deftly make his cut at just the right moment to capture the hearts.

That heart—the pure, clear spirit—can be found in the unmistakable note of prickly pear in every sip of Sonora Silver. It’s there, too, in Sonora Copper, the stave-aged, oaky cousin to the Silver. And it will likely be even more apparent in Sonora Gold, the prickly pear spirit that’s been quietly gaining complexity in charred American White Oak barrels on one side of Three Well’s distilling room for more than a year. I can’t tell you, because all Montgomery will say is that he occasionally unplugs a barrel, tastes, and says “Nope, not yet.” In the meantime, the rains will fall, the tunas will ripen, and Three Wells Distilling will keep on bottling the desert.

Kathe Lison lives and writes in Tucson.

A small demonstration still is used during Build-A-Gin workshops, when Montgomery teaches students how to make their own gin.

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