Spirits 101: A spirit is the product of distillation. Alcohol is created through fermentation, the natural process in which yeast consume available sugars and produce alcohol. So, a quick family tree of two basic spirits: Grains are fermented into beer and can be distilled into whiskey; grapes are fermented in wine and can be distilled into brandy or grappa.
Distilled spirits, then, are at least two degrees of evolution from their origin—tertiary transformations (beer into whiskey) based on secondary transformations (grain into beer). The further a product is from its raw state, the more complicated the question of its localism becomes. Although the ingredients used in a distillate are important, the techniques and human choices that transform those ingredients also play a part in a spirit’s composition.
So what, then, constitutes a capital L Local spirit? A whiskey that was distilled locally? A whiskey made from Arizona grain? A gin flavored with native microflora? A brandy aged in a Sonoita wine cellar?
“The more I think about it,” says Nathan Thompson Avelino, the head distiller of Hamilton Distillers, “the more I’m not a fan of that word, ‘local.’ The term itself is black and white but it’s not that cut-and-dried with spirits … There are so many phases and stages and metamorphoses that take place—if you get an orange from California and bring it to a farmers’ market in Arizona and say it’s local, that’s disingenuous.”
In the world of spirits, the equivalent of this California orange is known as GNS, grain neutral spirit. GNS is shorthand for industrially produced, bulk alcohol made by constantly redistilling grain until the character of the raw materials has been completely stripped away. The resulting spirit is pure but without complexity or nuance. A small distillery may purchase GNS and manipulate it in some way—it can be redistilled, diluted, aged, flavored—but whether these manipulations constitutes a local spirit is up for debate. For instance, “If you source GNS and bring it to your distillery there’s a lot of decisions you still have to make,” says Thompson Avelino. Not to mention: “It’s probably going to live through a Tucson summer or two.”
Even if the raw ingredients weren’t cultivated locally, the regional climate will affect how the spirit evolves—a whiskey matures differently in Tucson than it does in Kentucky (or, for that matter, in Scotland) due to differences in humidity, atmospheric pressure, and daily temperature fluctuations. In this sense, a spirit aged in Tucson, even if it wasn’t made here, will bear the traces of our local environment and have a legitimate claim to a sense of regionalism. And while Hamilton Distillers does make everything they age, not everyone does. The difference between the two degrees of localism is often unclear.
Like many American agricultural products, the recent history of spirits is one of monopolization, industrialized production, and savvy marketing. These processes erase both the origins of a product and the labor invested in it. To understand what “localism” means in terms of spirits, then, is to rediscover their raw origins and the productive practices that created them. “Obviously all spirits used to be local,” says Thompson Avelino. “Now we’re reverse engineering it.”
Hamilton Distillers was built around a simple-sounding idea: To make a scotch-like local whiskey using mesquite smoke rather than the traditional peat smoke used in Scotland. The crux of this idea, the mesquite smoking, meant that Hamilton had to malt grain, a process which is typically outsourced by American whiskey makers, craft or otherwise. Malting is the difficult process of sprouting barley seeds with heat and moisture and then lightly kilning them so as to halt the germination process. Once Thompson Avelino and Hamilton Distillers’ founder, Stephen Paul, learned how to malt, their in-house malting process made their smoked whiskey, Dorado, one of the most local, labor intensive and, even on a national scale, innovative spirits on the market. Learning to malt barley has also given the distillery the option of working with locally grown grain. Local, it seems, begets local. “We’re lucky that Stephen made a product that required local ingredients and a hands-on approach that’s built in,” says Thompson Avelino.
To put it another way, when “the authenticity of the product is a function of the product itself,” the producer isn’t forced “to do any of the fake phony bullshit that goes on,” says Mark Beres, a cofounder of Flying Leap Vineyards & Distillery, a winery in Elgin. Beres and his partner, Marc Moeller, began distilling some of their extra grape harvest last year, and the authenticity of his products—grape cordials, vodkas, and brandies distilled from the wineries own grapes—is unassailable.
Beres’ decision to build a distillery was a solution to a problem that had dogged the winery for years—overproduction, which he describes as “the kiss of death around here.” Forty of Flying Leap’s 100 acres of land are in cultivation. These vineyards produce about 100 tons of grapes, a significant volume of fruit that, when processed, yields more wine than the regional market can support.
With distillation, says Beres, “I can take the surplus, condense it down to something I can easily store. It doesn’t cost me that much to make it, I can sell it for a pretty good margin, and I can get it to market quickly … It’s win-win.”
The fact that, for Flying Leap, distillation is a solution to a problem is crucial to Beres. “I’m a businessman,” he says. The decision to produce spirits “is the manifestation of a business strategy … not some guys toying around.” Because the goal of this business strategy is to deal with a surplus of estate-grown grapes, the distillery will never source nonlocal grapes. In this way, Flying Leap, like Hamilton Distillers, is protected from compromising what they feel is the authenticity of their product.
When the source of a product is less transparent, to use one of Beres’ favorite words, the “chicanery” begins. The not-uncommon “idea that taking purchased neutral corn spirit, sticking it in your still, and redistilling it and then cutting it with your well water somehow makes it distinctively local,” Beres says, “is 100 percent pure bullshit.”
As Beres describes the massive undertaking that was building the facility, he speaks with both an expert’s articulate remove and a youthful wonderment at the sheer scale of the project. Building a distillery that can process tens or hundreds of tons of raw material is daunting and, regionally, unprecedented. “The infrastructure needed,” says Beres, “and the training required to produce wine are like child’s play compared to making spirits.”
If the decisions and intentions of the distillery contribute to a product’s localism, as Thompson Avelino suggested, then Flying Leap’s distinct brand of ambition surely leaves a mark on the products created in its still. A temple of copper, steel, and glass that marries form and function, the custom-made still gives Flying Leap’s head distiller Rolf-Peter Sasse options and control over the process. Depending on where the alcohol vapors that boil up from the bottom of the copper pot still are directed, the distiller can create a super refined vodka-type of spirit, ready to be sold immediately, or a more rustic, complex brandy-like spirit which can then mature in barrels. While the latter ages, arguably becoming more “local” as it interacts with the seasons and climate, the former is sold out of the tasting room and helps maintain the cash flow at Flying Leap. And even if we are compelled to think of one type of spirit as more local than the other—vodka, arguably, lacks the complexity in which one finds something like terroir in spirits—one could not exist with out the other.
Similarly, Hamilton Distillers also offers a white spirit, the unaged version of their mesquite whiskey, which was crucial to their early success, generating cash flow while their other whiskeys aged in barrels. Tucson’s embrace of this unaged spirit allowed the distillery to gradually increase both the length of time and the size of the barrel in which their aged whiskeys rested. It is these recent, relatively older, whiskeys that have garnered press from the likes of Esquire magazine (listed among “The 10 Best Whiskeys in the Country”) and Forbes (“10 Best American Craft Whiskies for Father’s Day”).
But Hamilton “would not be making the whiskey they’re making now if Tucson hadn’t supported them through the initial steps,” says Noel Patterson, a friend, fan, and fellow local distiller. In the debate over localism in spirits, it is important to note that regional distilleries, like their products, mature over time.
A neomoonshiner of sorts himself, Patterson paused to consider “the word itself, to distill.” In a literary sense, we often borrow this term when we want to describe the action of “concentrating something to its truest, most essential form,” says Patterson. He discovered the truth of this phenomenon when making a batch of wild prickly pear wine. The harvest was one of the best he had witnessed; the cactus fruit was ripe and abundant and had what he felt was the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. Unfortunately the wine he made from the fruit was flat, funky, and acrid. Unwilling to dump the product of so much labor, Patterson put together a DIY pot still and began slowly boiling the fermented prickly pear juice and condensing it into a prickly pear brandy. “What came out the other side,” Patterson remembers, wistfully, “was just lavender, rose water, wet earth. It was incredible.”
Distillation has always been associated with something singular and pure. Sixteenth-century alchemists called spirits “aqua vitae,” (the etymological root of the English word whiskey, the French eau de vie, and the Danish akvavit) which translates to “water of life.” As Patterson found, distillation can remove impurities, uncovering the essence of a thing that can, in turn, tell us about the essence of a place. ✜
Hamilton Distillers. 2106 N. Forbes Blvd. No. 103. 520.628.9244. HamiltonDistillers.com.
Flying Leap Vineyards & Distillery. 342 Elgin Road, Elgin. 520.455.5499. FlyingLeapVineyards.com.
Luke Anable is a Tucson transplant, natural wine protagonist, and beverage consultant for independent restaurants.