/ Modified jan 28, 2014 8:22 p.m.

Local Distiller Turns Sonoran Desert Wood into Whiskey

Mesquite craftsman uses native wood to craft unique spirits—and tap into a long scientific legacy.

(VIDEO: AZPM)

Stephen Paul has always taken his work home with him.

For 27 years, Paul has run Arroyo Design, a Tucson-based shop that makes fine furniture from local mesquite wood. On quiet weekend evenings, Paul would bring home his wood scraps and use them in the barbecues he enjoys with his wife, often over a glass of scotch.

“I’ve always told her when barbecuing, ‘Those are our profits going up in smoke,’” he said. “And so one evening she said, ‘Why couldn’t we malt barley over a mesquite fire instead of over a peat fire?’”

Traditional distillers make scotch, a type of whiskey, by fermenting barley that has been dried over a peat fire.

But now Paul found himself wondering about his wife’s question. What would happen if you dried it over mesquite instead?

“I just couldn’t get it out of my mind,” he said, so he ordered a small still and set out to make a single-malt, mesquite-smoked whiskey of his own.

After years of experimentation, Paul’s mesquite whiskey started to taste good, and soon attracted attention and an investor. That’s how his new company, Hamilton Distillers, was born.

In a back room of his woodworking shop, Paul and a tiny crew of volunteers began crafting Sonoran Desert whiskey.

Four hundred fifty bottles later, they have a distributor and a growing fan base.

“I’ve been really shocked and humbled by how quickly it’s been accepted,” Paul admitted. “I mean, we’re basically sold out.”

Michael Heien, a University of Arizona chemist, said Paul is part of a long history of humans trying to distill things to their essence.

“People first distilled water, just to purify it and get a clean product,” Heien said. “And that probably dates to the first century. There are records of people distilling things back then. And aside from that, people would distill things like perfume. The Chinese distilled human urine, to isolate concentrates they would then use as aphrodisiacs on others. That dates to the first millennium. So there’s lots of different uses of distillation to increase human happiness somehow.”

Using distillation to make alcohol from grain is thought to date to the Middle Ages, and Heien said it’s as much a science as it is an art.

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