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Drinkable Baja Arizona:
Hamilton Distillers

Hamilton Distillers is one of only seven distilleries in the United States that still malts their own barley.

September 19, 2017

Drinkable Baja

Hamilton Distillers has been crafting genuine American single-malt whiskey at their current location off of Forbes Boulevard in Tucson since December 2014. “Before that we use to operate out of a single 40-gallon distiller in our old wood shop,” Hamilton Distillers Managing Member and Distiller Stephen Paul said. In an attempt to make a name for themselves in early 2013, they used the solitary 40-gallon distiller to fill 31, 15-gallon barrels to take to the local Tucson marketplace. Their initial attempt was well received, and enabled Paul to secure an investment to expand his operation and move Hamilton Distillers to its current location.

For many years before he opened Hamilton Distillers, Paul owned Arroyo Design, a custom furniture company that specialized in mesquite furnishings, with his wife Elaine Paul. He brought scraps of wood home to use for grilling and jokingly said to Elaine, “There are all of our profits going up in smoke.” One evening, before any of the distillery’s success came to fruition, Elaine had the idea to dry malt over mesquite instead of peat, as they typically do in Scotland. Paul knew full well about the flavors that smoked mesquite adds to food, and the idea of mesquite-smoked whiskey burned itself into his consciousness, inspiring both Hamilton Distillers and the whiskey that came to be known as Whiskey Del Bac.

The name “Whiskey Del Bac” was inspired by Tucson’s diverse cultures. The Mission San Xavier del Bac, a Tucson mission endowed by Father Kino in 1692, inspires the “pac” in “Whiskey Del Bac.” Upon Father Kino’s arrival to what was then a region of Mexico, there was water on the Santa Cruise River, which the Tohono O’odham referred to as a bac. The O’odham translation of a bac is “a place where the river reappears in the sand.” This particular bac, the Santa Cruz River, was an essential location for growing crops. Along with its homage to the deep-rooted Native American history in Tucson, the “del” in “Whiskey Del Bac” alludes to the Latino roots that are also ingrained in Tucson’s culture. Del in Spanish means “of the ” or “from the.” So, Whiskey Del Bac translates to, “Whiskey from the place where the river reappears in the sand.” Paul said that the trilingual label was created “to express where we are from and make the whiskey regional without being too cliché with cowboys and stuff like that.” Paul accredits the both the idea for Hamilton Distillers’ trilingual label and their mesquite-smoked whiskey to Elaine.

Paul said, “I have always loved living in a border region because you are forced to look at the world in different ways, so I love that we were able to come up with a trilingual label.” They created the bottle with a goal: to enable it to stand out from the back shelf of a bar.

The mission at Hamilton Distillers, as Paul said, “Is to make a great American single-malt whiskey modeled after the Scottish method of whiskey making.” Paul banded together with other single-malt producers in the country to create the American Single-Malt Whiskey Commission, “The goal of which,” Paul explained, “is to elevate people’s awareness of American single-malts, and to also establish a federal category for us because there currently isn’t an American single-malt category.” Paul emphasized that, of 42 single-malt distillers in the United States, only a handful of them make specifically single-malt products. Some of the distillers who produce single-malts will also produce vodka or gin; however, Hamilton Distillers is one of the few who is solely dedicated to producing single-malt whiskey products.

Most distilleries buy their malted barely from larger malting factories, but after Elaine’s brilliant idea, Stephen said, “We had to start malting. We are making a single-malt whiskey (like a Scotch) . . . we can’t call it Scotch because we aren’t in Scotland, but we are using a Scottish model of whiskey making. This means that we use [a] 100 percent barley malt mash bill [recipe], we distill twice in a pot . . . and it is all made under one roof here at the distillery, like they have traditionally done in Scotland.” Hamilton Distillers is one of only seven distilleries in the United States to malt their own barely. Research revealed that there are only seven distilleries left in Scotland that still malt their own barley. Not only does this emphasize how difficult the process is, but it also demonstrates how dedicated these select distillers are to preserving the authenticity of a Scottish-style, single-malt whiskey.

Whiskey, like beer, is made from grain, and Hamilton Distillers utilizes a process similar to that of brewing beer. By nature, the grain doesn’t have any fermentable sugars in it, but it does contain starches. In order for the grain to produce alcohol, it has to be germinated. When the grain is germinated, it creates an enzyme which turns the starches in the grain into fermentable sugars. A shoot known as an “acrospire” forms from within the grain and serves as a vital telling as to how far along in the process the grain is. When the acrospire becomes 80% the length of the seed, the distillers know that it has obtained the necessary enzyme. Once the grain obtains this enzyme, it becomes known as malt.

The process begins by bringing 5000 pounds of seed barley into the steeping tank, where the grain is set to soak in water for a day and a half to begin the germination process. It is then transferred to a tank that first serves as a household for the germination and later serves as a kilning tank. The soaked barley seed is then moved to the germination/kilning tank, where the grain germinates for a few days. During this time, the distillers pay close attention to the mixture, making sure that the temperature is correct and that it is thoroughly stirred so the rootlets (acrospires) which sprout from the malt don’t become tangled together. The tank has four vertical augers, which lift, lighten, and mix the grain bed as the rootlets continue to sprout.

Once the malt has the enzyme, it is dried.  In Scotland, distillers traditionally dry their malt with peat. Hamilton Distillers uses mesquite smoke to dry their malt. Many Scottish distillers will germinate and dry their grain by spreading a thick layer of it across the floor. The process is extremely cumbersome and meticulous and requires the thick carpeting of grain to be stirred and lifted by hand in order for the grain to properly germinate. This is how Hamilton Distillers began their distilling process, but once they started expanding and needed to make much larger batch sizes, they switched over to the tank-based system they now use. This tank system conserves floor space in the facility and allows the distillers to retain greater control of the germination process.

After the malt dries for two days, it is pulled out and put into a “de-bearder,” which knocks the rootlets and husk off of the grain. The clean malt is then transferred to different silos, depending on whether the whiskey they are distilling is smoked or un-smoked. Of the four whiskeys available, two of them are smoked. The difference between the smoked and un-smoked whiskeys lies within the drying processes. The malt for the smoked whiskey is dried with smoke from a mesquite fueled fire in a burner box outside. The heat and smoke from that fire are routed to the bottom of a silo, underneath the bed of grain. The smoke rises through the grain, drying it, and creates the mesquite-smoked malt. The un-smoked malt is dried using the heat from a large water boiler. They run the heat from the boiled water through the grain using the same aforementioned concept of allowing the lifting heat to dry the grain.

These silos are on scales, which allow the distilling team to see exactly how much product they are working with. The silos each contain over 9,000 pounds of malt, soon to be further processed into whiskey. Paul says they then turn the malt into “a rudimentary beer and distill the alcohol out of that to make the whiskey.”

Malt is transferred from the weighed silos through a mill where the malt is cracked in order to gain access to the enzyme within the grain. Once the grain is cracked and the enzyme is accessible, they send it into a “mash-ton” where the grain is cooked for an hour and a half at a temperature of 152 degrees (an optimal temperature to activate the enzyme which transforms the natural starches into sugars). During this process, the rudimentary beer transitions through a slew of flavor profiles as the enzyme becomes activated. Starting with a strong flavor of oatmeal, the flavor then shifts to a sweeter and more sugary taste after about 30 minutes cooking.

After an hour and a half of cooking, the enzyme has successfully converted all of the grain’s starches into sugar. The liquid from the concoction (known as wort) is then strained from the remaining grain and sent to a fermenter, where yeast is waiting for the wort. They fill the fermenter with 500 gallons of the yeast and wort, and after five days of fermenting, the yeast has turned the wort into a beer that is roughly 9 percent ABV. Then, they begin the first of two distillations.

The first distillation is done to extract all of the “bad” alcohols from the whiskey that are created during the fermentation process. Ethanol, the alcohol we drink, is in all spirits (whiskey, vodka, gin, rum). The first distillation gets rid of harmful alcohols such as methanol, acetone, and acetaldehyde. The ethanol is also taken out during the first distillation. What’s left is 120 gallons of 35 percent ABV. That 120 gallons of alcohol is run through the distiller four times and saved in separate silos. The distillers then recharge the distiller for the second distillation, known as the “spirit run.” This distillation serves to separate the ethanol from any remaining “bad” alcohols.

The more volatile alcohols boil off at a lower temperature than ethanol, and all of the alcohols boil off at a lower temperature than the water. At the beginning of the spirit run, the varying aromas that result from the evaporation of these bad alcohols aren’t the most pleasant bouquet. These are known as the “heads,” and once the heads are done boiling away, the alcohol begins to smell more like whiskey. At this point, an important transition occurs, which requires the expert nose of the distiller to identify. As the heads are nearly finished boiling away and the smell of the alcohol becomes more recognizable, the distiller knows the “heads” are now turning into the “hearts,” at which point only ethanol remains as the source of alcohol. After the tasting, the distillers run roughly 150 gallons of that product to finalize it for bottling.

Hamilton Distillers ages their Whiskey Del Bac in Minnesota-made oak barrels. The barrels are filled with water to pre-hydrate them. This hydration swells the wood to prevent leaking once the whiskey is barreled to age. This hydration also keeps the wood healthy so that all of its natural flavors can be drawn into the whiskey. Hamilton Distillers started out with just 15-gallon barrels but has been transitioning to using larger 30-gallon barrels to accommodate the growing demand for their whiskey. They are also storing whiskey in Madeira casks, which will add wine notes to the whiskey aged in those casks.

The ratio of wood exposure to alcohol in the 15-gallon barrel causes the whiskey to age more quickly. Thus, the distillers can’t age whiskey for too long in their 15-gallon barrels because it will absorb too much of the oak flavor and lose its delicious whiskey taste. They typically age whiskey in the new 15-gallon barrels for 10-13 months. The new 30-gallon barrels will house whiskey for about 16 months to allow it to develop optimal flavor profiles. Whiskey aged in used 30-gallon barrels starts to develop the right flavor after 18-20 months of aging.

The Classic Unsmoked Whiskey Del Bac is first aged in the smaller 15-gallon barrels and then transferred to the larger Madeira casks for further aging and flavoring. Experimenting with different barrels and casks, as is common practice in Scottish distilling, gives each whiskey various unique qualities and flavors. Overall, I could see how dedicated the entire staff at Hamilton Distillers was to maintaining the authenticity of the Scottish whiskey roots they seek to produce here in Tucson. Some of these barrels I saw during my visit to the distillery had been aging whiskey for up to two years.

The three classic distillations of Whiskey Del Bac from Hamilton Distillers are the Classic Unsmoked, the Clear Mesquite Smoked, and the Dorado Mesquite Smoked. The Classic Unsmoked Whiskey Del Bac is what brought Hamilton Distillers to life. It was the whiskey that Paul distilled to learn how to make a single-malt whiskey, before he tackled smoked whiskey. Originally, Paul began with commercial un-smoked malt to make the Classic Unsmoked Whiskey Del Bac. This particular whiskey is modeled after a Speyside Scotch, and in the Speyside region of Scotland they don’t use smoke to dry malt; they use either natural gas or coal. They don’t let the coal smoke pass through the malt; instead, they simply transfer the heat the coals emit through the malt. The Classic Unsmoked Whiskey Del Bac is a caramel-and-molasses-scented whiskey that has upfront fruit flavors of peaches and cherries and finishes with an essence of honey and spices. The Classic Unsmoked Whiskey Del Bac is 84 Proof, 42 percent ABV, and a true trailblazer in the wave of single-malt whiskey.

Along with the Classic Unsmoked Whiskey Del Bac’s slew of wonderful flavors comes a collection of prestigious awards. Since its conception in 2014, the Classic Unsmoked Whiskey Del Bac has taken home 11 awards, some of which are a bronze medal from the 2014 American Distiller Institute, a gold medal from the 2014 Great American Distiller Festival, a gold medal from the 2015 American Craft Spirits Association, and a silver medal from the both the 2016 and 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

The Clear Mesquite Smoked Whiskey Del Bac is something incredible in and of itself. This un-aged distillation gets no time in a barrel, which adds distinct flavors and provides for the lack of color in this whiskey. Because the Clear Mesquite Smoked Whiskey Del Bac is unaged, the flavors and aromas are extremely earthy and herbal. This whiskey is most often used for mixing, but to a certain pallet it might be the most enjoyable of the three to sip on its own. The flavors and aftertaste of the Clear Mesquite Smoked Whiskey Del Bac left me with a resonance similar to tequila. This whiskey is 90 proof, 45 percent ABV, and something that should truly be experienced by any whiskey lover. The Clear Mesquite Smoked Whiskey Del Bac has received a silver medal from the 2014 Great American Distillers Festival, a gold medal from the 2015 American Craft Spirits Association, and a bronze medal from the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

The Dorado Mesquite Smoked Whiskey Del Bac is my personal favorite whiskey from Hamilton Distillers. This whiskey holds strong notes of sweet tobacco and chocolate. The Dorado Mesquite Smoked Whiskey Del Bac is also 90 proof, 45 percetnt ABV, and a whiskey that, in my opinion, captures the Sonoran Desert in a bottle. It has earned a bronze from the 2014 Washington Cup Spirits Competition, a bronze from the 2015 New York International Spirits Competition, a double gold from the 2016 San Francisco World Sprits Competition, and silver from the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Just this summer, both Esquire and Forbes Magazine ranked the Dorado Mesquite Smoked Whiskey Del Bac amongst the nation’s top-ten craft whiskeys.

Keep your eye out for Hamilton Distillers’ newest whiskey, Whiskey Del Bac Distillers Cut, which was released on September 15. Arizona’s first cask strength whiskey, the Distillers Cut is not proofed down after it ages in the cask. This cask-to-bottle approach has resulted in a whiskey that is 120 proof, 60 percent ABV, and has me anticipating what Hamilton Distillers will come up with next.

Hamilton Distillers hosts a popular volunteer bottling experience that community members can sign up for on their website. This allows fellow whiskey lovers to meet each other and see how Whiskey Del Bac is made and bottled. Volunteers will typically bottle 200 cases during the time they spend at the distillery. The best part? The experience includes lunch and a bottle of Hamilton Distillers Whiskey Del Bac to take home.

Not only does the staff at Hamilton Distillers love that they make whiskey that represents our region, they want the community to be a part of the experience as well. Not many places offer you the chance to bottle your own whiskey, and the fact that a distillery as well managed and hard working as Hamilton Distillers lets you join them in the rewarding labor they do every day shows how much the surrounding community influences the product they are creating. When you’re proud to be a product of your environment, why not seek to incorporate as much of that environment into your product as possible?

Hamilton Distillers wants to make their product as available to the nation as possible. They currently distribute to California, Missouri, Washington D.C., Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with prospective business in Texas, Colorado, and Georgia. Locally, a few places you can easily find their products are at AJ’s Fine Foods, Plaza Liquors, Total Wine, Hotel Congress, and Batch Café and Bar. Once you’ve brought your choice distillation of Hamilton Distillers Whiskey Del Bac back home, head to their website ( to find some of their favorite whiskey cocktail recipes.

Hamilton Distillers
2106 Forbes Blvd #103
Tucson, AZ

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