On a cold Arizona night in 1851, Dr. Samuel Washington Woodhouse was huddling close to the campfire when he felt a sudden and searing pain in his leg. He had been shot with an arrow. Though it was only a superficial wound, and the Apache aborted their attack, the arrow was but one of many difficulties. His expedition team had been nearly dying of thirst and starvation. Days after the arrow-shot to the leg, Woodhouse was bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake. He and his team had been trying to find a route from New Mexico to San Diego—documenting botanical specimens along the way—but now they were just trying to survive. To counteract the rattlesnake venom, Woodhouse got wasted on snakebite whiskey and brandy. Woozily, he survived the bite, survived the arrow-shot, found some food, and eventually made it to San Diego. Along the way he catalogued, for the first time, the Alligator Juniper, which grows in the mountainous climes of greater Tucson. It’s a tree that seems to sing its own name: the saurian gray-and-black-checkered bark looks exactly like alligator skin. The Alligator Juniper’s berries—blue-green little things you can pop in your mouth and suck on a hike—also turn out to make terrific gin.
Three Wells Distilling Company’s Mt. Lemmon Gin is the first Tucson gin to ride the wave of the burbling craft spirit scene onto Tucson’s shelves (it will be available later this month). Three Wells is setting a high water mark with this one. Their gin is jumpy with flavor, but still heady enough to nearly dry your teeth. Besides the junipery rush, the other botanicals bubbling invisibly in this clear liquid are creosote, chiltepin chilis, and lemon rind.
I didn’t taste the chiltepines until, at an advanced tasting, Tafau Faumuina, General Manager and expert bar guy of downtown’s Proper restaurant, mixed the press-gaggle a drink we extemporaneously named Hemingway’s Lover (a swerve on the standard Hemingway Cocktail, also known as Death in the Afternoon) which was a purplish agglomeration of lime, sugar, Orgeat, orange juice, and a few other things I couldn’t scribble down quickly enough. Surprisingly, wonderfully, the gin still elbowed its way past all those sweeteners and out of the glass. There: I could taste a little snakebite of chiltepin. The drink was warm, tangy, cool, and purple—imagine eating a cold orange and admiring the sunset after a hot summer hike.
Since then, I’ve tried the gin in martini form (shaken cold and with a lemon twist) as well as warm and neat. I’d never sipped a gin neat before. Now seems like a good time to start.
Matt Montgomery and Chris Dudding have been working the stills in Tucson for the past three years, pouring out a widening array of unusual and delightful drinks—their Prickly Pear based spirits are particularly unique. Mt. Lemmon Gin, however, might be their breakthrough. Montgomery and Dudding went through nine iterations before landing on the recipe that felt right, and then worked to bring their taste-science up to scale. Montgomery showed off his liquor-stained, ink-bled notebook where they’d scribbled (tipsily, I’m guessing) the proportions.
At the tasting, the team was simmering a small batch of the gin on a five-gallon still— the steamy spirits were bubbling through an algal-looking mass of botanicals in a clear mason jar —and we got to taste the liquor before it was proofed (watered down to diminish its flammability, as well as bring out those flavors). The thimbleful I quaffed numbed my brain.
Indeed, this stuff is known as “mother’s ruin.” Check your history: there was a gin craze in 18th century England when the hoi polloi of London figured out how easy it was to make a gin that punches away pain. A century later Dickens described the same booze-soaked alleyways filled with “men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”
Gin, which comes in many masks, is basically a hard liquor flavored with juniper. The spirit can come distilled with cinnamon, anise, lemon, coriander, or dragon eye. Some forms even purport to stall aging. In a classic print by William Hogarth, a sort of anti-drinking campaign ad of 1751 (you might know the one) a nursing mother, dazed by gin, shoves her baby off the edge of a staircase to take a pinch of her snuff.
Is gin the culprit or the cure? Maybe a little of both.
Three Wells’ juniper berries, Montgomery confided, come mostly from a single tree (the location isn’t exactly secret, but Montgomery balked at specifying). About a pound of juniper berries will make two hundred bottles. And the creosote comes from his backyard (or just “around back” if he needs a little extra—which is also where the water comes from. The “Three Wells” is a well on his own Sahuarita property. This seemingly stone-soup harvesting method, however, doesn’t limit the gin’s taste. The creosote (probably never before included in a gin) gives the spirit a wiliness, without making it taste medicinal. It is unique right from the nose: The juniper berries are what you smell first, but if you close your eyes, you can sense the creosote halfway down your throat: Notes of an afternoon monsoon. This is a gin to savor.
If you ever get shot through the leg with an arrow, or if you’re enough of a dolt to try to grab a rattlesnake, or if someday you’re simply struck with a strong wave of Weltschmerz, try a deep quaff of Three Wells gin and get back in touch with that dry desert wind blowing at the bottom of your soul.
Thanks to the work of botanist Donald Culross Peattie for the human history of the Alligator Juniper.
John Washington is a novelist, teacher, and translator. Follow him at @EndDeportations.