Mesquite: Chairs to Cheers

Out of the mesquite-fired ashes of Arroyo Design comes Hamilton Distillers, the first whiskey distillery in the Southwest.

November 1, 2013

BuzzIssue 3: November/December 2013

Say a man sits in a chair and thinks, “I want whiskey”—that’s not really news. But if a man thinks, “I could use this chair to create whiskey,” well, I want to meet that man.

Which is how I landed in Arroyo Design, a premier manufacturer of mesquite furniture. I was searching for the proprietor, Stephen Paul—who, in addition to creating furniture that’s been featured in most major design magazine, has also built the first Scotch distillery in the desert Southwest.

It’s a crazy proposition: crafting desert-made Scotch, as the spirit conjures thoughts of verdant isles, not Sonoran sands. (Though there is one obvious connection between Tucson and Scotland: golf.) Crazier still: Local bartenders who’ve tried his nascent distillations swear they’re as delicious as any they’ve tasted.

I love when The Lauded hail from hidden places, rather than some Big Box—and Arroyo Design fits the bill. You have to dodge bar dumpsters to find it, off back alleys behind Fourth Avenue. I didn’t know I was close until I heard the keening creee of spinning saws.

A man in his early sixties strode outside. “Dave?” he asked, wearing cowboy boots, tight jeans, big belt buckle, lavender button-down, and the big hat that only real ranchers—and a few other people—can get away with. This guy, an artisan, happens to be one of those other people. As a native Northerner, I won’t pretend to be an arbiter of big hat wearing—I will just say: This was a man, however congenial, that had worked with his hands. “Yes,” I said.

He took off the hat and smiled. “Come in.”

A man's best friend: Stephen Paul and his loyal companion - the 40-gallon whiskey still that catalyzed Hamilton Distiller's expansion

A man’s best friend: Stephen Paul and his loyal companion – the 40-gallon whiskey still that catalyzed Hamilton Distiller’s expansion.

He toured me through Arroyo Design—a confusing tour, because Arroyo Design is also Hamilton Distillers, is becoming Hamilton Distillers (Both names are an homage: Arroyo is the maiden name of Paul’s wife and business partner. Hamilton is his mother’s last name—though it was his daughter, who helped start the whiskey business, that pushed for the moniker. “We have to do something for Nana,” she said.) But this transition is temporary, as the furniture shop is closing down after 27 years (of profits and plaudits) to morph into a place to make whiskey.

So it’s a strange space, a transitional species—it is two images super-imposed over each other. The big workroom, still full of workers and humming saws, seemed mostly unmarred, but then we wandered into rooms filled with wood shards and whiskey barrels. “This used to be the oiling room; now it’s the aging room,” he said. How perfect, I thought: the oiling room now aimed at social lubrication. In the main office, whiskey bottles perched prominently upon his assistant’s desk—even as she fielded calls for furniture.

I had to ask: What’s the connection between furniture and whiskey?

“Mesquite?” he replied. “Or this place.” I looked around, but realized he didn’t mean the room. He meant this city, this desert.

Stephen Paul dropped out of architecture school in the early 1980s and began restoring old homes. “I was restoring this an old adobe on Kennedy Street and they wanted me to put in a big closet,” he said. There are many pieces a person can place within the “undulating walls” of an adobe, but a built-in closet isn’t one of them. So he dug into library books and decided on a free-standing armoire made from local materials. The owners loved it. Paul began to use more and more mesquite wood in projects, but realized that the dominant style was “rustic.” Paul is careful to not disparage the rustic look—“but I was interested in ‘fine furniture.’ The finest African mahogany, people love those [grains], but mesquite is as beautiful as the best woods in the world,” he said.

When he displayed some mesquite planks to me, I began to understand that passion. The appealing thing about wood furniture is that it’s so solid—yet less so than steel or stone; there’s something fluid about it, however stolid, and mesquite wood is the exemplar. Evident even in the table at which we sat: strong, but pocked with knotholes, unwieldy whorls, coarse coronas.

“You find bullets in the wood,” he said, “and barbed wire. Bullets are okay,” saws can cut the lead, “but barbed wire?”

Whiskey del Bac, produced by Hamilton Distillers

Whiskey del Bac, produced by Hamilton Distillers

Yes, he’d found a wood to rival any other—from his native Southwest—and yet, it was problematic. Despite (or because of) this, clientele bloomed.

Still, how did all this lead to Scotch?

“I call her Idea Woman,” Paul said, quick to cite his wife, Elaine Paul, for all their businesses’ best ideas. “We’re Scotch drinkers,” he added.

Picture Stephen and Elaine barbequing on weekends—but picture them barbequing over flames flickering from mesquite. Mesquite, that troublesome source, created many scraps. “We discarded almost as much as we used.” he said. So they used the scraps for firewood. “I always joked, ‘that’s our profit going up in smoke.’”

Picture them sipping Scotch, post-barbeque, and Elaine says, “Why couldn’t we make our own Scotch?” More specifically, she wondered, “Why couldn’t we smoke barley over mesquite instead of peat?”

Now, this is a brilliant and stupid question.

The stupid part: Everyone knows that peat-smoking barley is what gives Scotch its distinctive flavor—is what makes Scotch, Scotch.

The brilliant part: It turns out, after one has tasted Scotch made from mesquite-smoked barley that a distinctive flavor of Scotch is … smoke. Full stop. Doesn’t matter if it originates from peat or mesquite. Sure, there’s a difference—but it’s a slight difference. Idea Woman’s question was legitimate—like all great questions, it risked sounding stupid to ask something smart.

“I couldn’t get her question out of my mind,” Paul said. So, eventually, he bought a small copper still from Portugal. “That little guy right there,” he said, pointing to a shiny overturned urn in the corner.

He experimented with that “little guy” for years, trying to make Scotch, with mostly poor—but occasionally intriguing—results. One customer of Arroyo said, “If you ever get serious about this, let me know.” Paul shrugged it off.

Until he bought “This!” He showed me a gigantic, 40-gallon still—a huge Aladdin’s Lamp of a device which, if placed upon a sink basin, almost towers over one’s head. Shimmering, with a wicked top. He’d ordered it from Europe and didn’t understand how big it’d be until it arrived in his shop. “I realized I couldn’t bring it home, or my wife would kill me.”

As he said this, he absent-mindedly mimed running his fingers beneath the still’s spigot. As if it were pouring out a spirit he could taste and test.

“What about keeping it in the shop?” I asked. “Too visible,” he said, then spoke out of the side of his mouth with comic exaggeration, to say: “It wasn’t legal.” That’s when I realized it’s not illegal to order a 40-gallon still, but it is illegal to start making a bunch of liquor in it. That’s what we’d call “bootlegging!”

So Paul’s solution was to contact that old customer, to “get serious”—and that guy guided him through a “Product Development Phase”—corporate-speak for a Greek-like struggle.

If you recall high school drama classes, then you’ll remember there are Seven Major Dramatic Conflicts, and Paul was running right into two of them: Man vs. Society, and Man vs. Self. Man vs. Society: Paul fought, for over 6 months, with the health department. At one point, they wanted him to install five different sinks next to one another, with various different hand-washing purposes. Eventually, after much legal tangling, he prevailed: by finally convincing them (accurately), “my product is anti-septic,” he said. But still there was Man vs. Self: All this time, he kept making Scotch. Or tried to make Scotch.

He explained to me about “runs”—how one makes a “spirit run.” It’s very technical, but here’s a two-sentence crash course on the making of Scotch (which is, ultimately, nothing more than barley and water). Barley is watered until it just starts to germinate, then dried (this was, traditionally, where the peat-smoking happened), then ground into a grist. This grist is mixed with hot water and made to ferment, much like making a “wort” for beer—before the liquid finally goes through many different adjustments and distillations, called runs, which greatly affects alcohol content and taste. Speaking of which, Paul would often send off samples of his product to a Berkeley consultant, Nancy Fraley, who has the best job in the world. Her job? To taste the distillations from various folks around the world and offer her expert opinion.

“She’d tell me…” he said, “usually… what I’d made, she said… it sucked.”

But eventually, she told him his creations were getting better, but he had to get to the point where, “You can taste it yourself,” she said. “She said I had to get to the point, with the spirit runs, where I could taste the whiskey getting good,” he said. “It took a long time, but… I felt like I could start to.”

As he said this, he absent-mindedly mimed running his fingers beneath the still’s spigot. As if it were pouring out a spirit he could taste and test. It was a gesture that reminded me of the way his fingers earlier moved over furniture, mid-construction.

He then looked down at the concrete beneath our feet. “This,” he said, “is where I do it.” And by “it,” Paul means malting barley. And this is unique, that he does it all. No one really malts barley in the desert Southwest—certainly no one does it in-house. But Paul tried making liquor with barley malted elsewhere, and he didn’t like the result. So now, he scatters his barley—bought from Coolidge—all over the floor, gets it wet, then carefully tends it until it’s sprouted to a very specific length, then dried with mesquite in the smoker. Voilà! Malted barley, made in Baja Arizona.

Finally, it was time for the tasting of the Scotch. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to rely on my palate alone, as we were joined by bartenders from Wilko and Café Passe. Paul set out three bottles for us, two of which were filled with brown liquid (the two barrel-whiskies, one smoked and one unsmoked) and one with liquid clear and clean (a smoked but un-aged whiskey, a rare species called “white dog”). The last one tasted like liquid smoke—in a good way. The way one loves a smoky/woody taste with salmon, say, or almonds. The aged, unsmoked version offered a pleasing smoothness, yet still had that complicated bite, akin to a Speyside whiskey. It was the aged, smoked whiskey that had the aggressive notes of an extra-peaty (or in this case, mesquite-y) Scotch to which I most gravitate. All of us gathered there had different favorites, though we were unanimous in this: We were impressed.

After the tasting, I told Paul something I’d been thinking about: “It’s like with both, the furniture and the distillery—both are sort of due to the same things.”

“Maybe,” he said. “What?”

He has these two qualities that seem opposed, but actually complement each other to allow unconventional success: First, there’s a brash intrepidity, wholly disregarding if something has been done before; but then, secondly, there’s this amazing attention to detail.

“Attention to little things is what makes anything special,” he said, off-handedly and with a hint of exasperation—as if he’d been forced to remark upon the sky’s hue being blue. “I mean, you can breeze through a piece of furniture or a spirit run, but…” He trailed off, the poor result of such foolhardy carelessness too obvious to state aloud.

“But I think,” I said, “the rare thing is to be that meticulous, but also cavalier in trying these big new things?”

He replied—or joked, “It’s my disease. I’ve always been a risk-taker. I never wanted to be rich. That helps. You can’t take these risks and expect to get wealthy.” Then he paused. “Now I’m risking other people’s money and that’s new,” he said, referring to the capital campaign to fund a larger distillery. “But you know, all of the people that have signed on so far, all of them, are friends that we made from first being customers of Arroyo. We made furniture for them. They saw how we follow through, on everything, the details. They trust us.”

Earlier, as Paul had showed me the furniture store, he kept mentioning “book matching,” which turns out to be an old-school element of design, wherein one matches up two planks that were cut together, lining them side by side in the final piece of furniture. A time-intensive method that provides eventual payoff.

Book matching and malting barley, I thought: Both are old techniques that Paul has carefully/cavalierly brought back. I mentioned the book matching and barley malting comparison. “It’s even an alliteration!” I added, feeling clever.

He offered a polite laugh, then noticed a pile of drawers for a new cabinet. “Look! See these, right here, are book matched.” He began arranging them, as if speed-solving a puzzle, until they all lined up. “See?” he said, looking at me; then he looked back down at the woodwork, weirdly whorled but beautiful, and allowed himself a quick grin—pleased with the grain which would remain in his life, but in a new form. ✜

Dave Mondy is a freelance writer/imbiber and an instructor at the University of Arizona.

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