I arrived at Three Wells’ production facility, housed in a sparsely populated, southeast Tucson office complex, just as the tailings were coming off from their latest spirit run. Chris was busy with hydrometers and beakers. Matt greeted me from the still, where he was pulling off small amounts of spirit to smell. The tailings come at the end of the run, after the majority of the good alcohol (the hearts) have been pulled. Tailings are important to monitor because they contain phenol oils, which are a little tricky. On the one hand, they give the spirit depth and flavor. On the other hand, if they run too long, they can produce an off flavor and give the consumer a gnarly hangover. Matt has the contagious enthusiasm of someone who is doing a job that suits him perfectly and knows that luck is on his side—he believes it’s the perfect time for a craft distilled, locally sourced spirit to hit the market in Tucson.
Matt and Chris are the partners behind Three Wells Distilling. Chris is an engineer and chemist by trade, and seems to handle the nuances of production. Matt is spry and talkative, and it’s no surprise that he’s spent a majority of his life doing physical labor, most of it outside and in the desert. He’s innovative and unafraid of failure. When something doesn’t work the first time—and, as you can imagine, many things didn’t work the first time—he’s able to make adjustments and employ enormous amounts of patience. They’ve been at this since 2013.
There is a refreshing lack of pretention at Three Wells. Matt and Chris seem to know who they are as people and businessmen. They make it clear that strong ethics are a part of their business model, and they are able to lay out those ethics in simple terms. They don’t waste, but they also don’t cut corners. They find ways to repurpose old materials—many of them from Matt’s previous job as a contractor—and to build what they can by hand rather than spend money on flashy equipment. They are interested in function over form, as evidenced by Ugly Boy, the shotgun condenser still Matt made by hand. It isn’t pretty but it works. Product is king, and any cheat that would compromise the quality of the spirit or the integrity of the craft is not tolerated. They refuse to use GNS, a cost-saving measure employed by many nascent small batch distillers, and don’t compromise flavor in an effort to wring out every last drop of alcohol. They don’t skimp, but they are resourceful.
These efforts certainly aren’t wasted. The end result is something delicious that defies categorization. The Sonoran Silver, which will be their first release, tastes slightly sweet and fruity and almost vegetal in a way that reminds me of mezcal. It’s not smoky, though. Bear with me while I try to use what I think is the correct term – esters. Also maybe aldehydes. It’s like someone took an unripe pear, smashed it, added a little caramel, threw a not especially pungent flower on top, and then soaked the whole thing in booze – but in a good way.
My first taste was right off the still. It hadn’t been proofed (a necessary step of watering down raw spirit so that you don’t burn your mouth / blackout after one sip), but in my excitement I forgot to take that into account. I took a big sip and struggled to maintain my composure. Once the pain subsided, I was left with the spirit’s pleasant aftertaste. I tried a proofed sample later, and the flavor was much more discernable. I was also able to sample some of their Sonoran Copper, an aged version of the silver. For now, Three Wells is using pieces of oak wood, also known as staves, to add color and flavor, something many small batch distilleries do, especially when they’re just getting started. They’d like to one day invest in oak barrels, and also expressed interest in experimenting with other woods, pecan chief among them.
The Copper was nice, too, an oakier version of the Silver. They hadn’t proofed it yet—it’s still aging— but I was more careful with my tasting and noticed a caramel sweetness that was reinforced later, when I tasted the Silver mixed with Sprite—Matt’s wife’s drink of choice. I was skeptical. I don’t usually do mixers, and if I do they tend to be plain soda water or tonic or juice, but the Prickly Sprite (working title) was delicious. It tasted like fresh baked cookies that had been given a little extra dose of vanilla and weren’t too sweet. I can’t explain the transformation, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Matt assured me that the Silver was also good with tonic, though he admitted they hadn’t given much thought yet to mixing. For now they’re working to make the spirit the best it can be. I personally enjoyed it just fine straight.
Three Wells’ product is local in the truest sense. The water comes from wells on Matt’s property (hence the name), the prickly pear fruit comes from Sheri’s Desert Harvest. The sugar, which they add to increase the alcohol content of the mash, is the one nonlocal ingredient. This local focus, combined with their ability to reuse and repurpose, makes the product environmentally friendly as well. Prickly pear is abundant here, so their primary ingredient requires no resources to cultivate. Matt used some equipment from his “back 40” to rig up a coolant system that wastes no water, aside from what is lost through evaporation.
I commented on how remarkable it was to see such an efficient use of space and materials—how cool it was that, instead of buying a bunch of new stuff, Matt was able to repurpose things to serve his current needs. Matt pointed out that for him it wasn’t a political choice, or a choice made with a particular message in mind. “I’m just that guy,” he said. “I just do things that way because that’s the way it makes sense to do them.”
Three Wells isn’t hopping aboard some trend of craft distillation. They aren’t interested in flaunting name brand equipment or hobnobbing with hip boozers. They’d be doing this regardless of pressure to “go local” or consume small batch everything because, given where they live and who they are, it just makes sense. They’re real craftsmen—a couple of people working hard to develop a spirit, and I think they have plenty to be proud of.