Tucson, Arizona

Inspired by wood native to the American Southwest, co-founder Stephen Paul’s distillery produces award-winning mesquite-smoked single malt whiskey.

Paul brings an educator’s background to his discussion of
mesquite, which grows across the American Southwest as well as the Southern
Hemisphere. “It’s been an important plant to indigenous people as a source of
food, a source of wood in bows, and fuel,” he lists off.

Fittingly, Paul taught environmental education at a private
school for several years before beginning a new — and largely self-taught — career.
His company Arroyo Design earned a glowing reputation during its 30 years in
business for making fine furniture out of mesquite wood, sometimes building
pieces for notables like Linda Ronstadt, Gene Hackman, Paul and Linda
McCartney, and the Dalai Lama. Despite mesquite being a difficult wood to work
with compared with other types, Paul says, “It just turns into a really
spectacular piece of furniture.”

But Paul had never imagined using the region’s velvet
mesquite wood to smoke barley. That is, not until his wife pondered aloud — over
a meal of mesquite-grilled meat accompanied by Scotch — if it would be possible
to make a spectacular American version of a single malt whisky by using mesquite wood
to smoke the barley, rather than the peat used by distillers in parts of
Scotland. “I thought, what a great idea!” says Paul. “The notion of being able
to create an American single malt whiskey
that is from the place that I grew up — and that I love — just captivated me.”

Today, connoisseurs find themselves captivated by the results
as well. Two of the whiskeys have won double gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Furthermore, The Whiskey Advocate gave its mesquite-smoked selection Dorado a
rating of 90, and the Wine Enthusiast even rated its unsmoked Classic whiskey
93 points. Comparing his own mesquite-smoked whiskey to a peat-smoked Scottish
single malt, Paul notes how “mesquite is softer on the palate than peat — and it
doesn’t give you those medicinal notes on the nose and the palate” that peat
often lends. He also says his Dorado spirit displays “complexity” with flavor
notes of leather and tobacco, a caramel sweetness, and sometimes even Ancho
chiles in the mix.

The distillery business has become way more complex since
Paul co-founded the company with his daughter, Amanda Catherine Paul. Amanda,
he says, “helped me get all the permitting on all the three levels — local,
state, and federal.” And she works on the brand’s marketing. “She manages our
whole aesthetic, making sure that we stay on-brand,” says Paul.

Beginning with an alembic 40-gallon Portuguese still in 2011,
Whiskey Del Bac began producing about 50 cases a year for the Tucson market.
Today, it makes about 5,000 cases per year using its 500-gallon still, and the
spirits are sold at outlets within 17 states. Online ordering allows consumers
in additional states to obtain bottles, as well. For its smoked whiskeys — its
aged Dorado, its unaged Old Pueblo, and its seasonal Distiller’s Cuts — a single
tank germinates 5,000 pounds of barley at a time, which next gets smoked within
the very same vessel, prior to being used to brew the mash.

“I had been telling my board that the business had grown in
complexity — kind of beyond my industry knowledge and also beyond my managerial
abilities,” says Paul, who now serves as the president of the board of directors
of the company that makes Whiskey Del Bac, Hamilton Distillers
. Two years ago, Kent Cheeseman, who previously held the title of
manager of operations at Utah’s High West Distillery, was appointed the
company’s CEO. “Kent has put together a fantastic team,” enthuses Paul. That
team has included, since 2021, Head Distiller Mark A. Vierthaler, who
previously worked at Maryland’s Tenth Ward Distilling Co. “He has much more
knowledge than I ever had about distilling,” says Paul of Vierthaler. “He’s
adventurous, he’s curious, he makes things happen.”

Not all of Paul’s early experiments as a self-taught
distiller panned out. At one time, he tried aging his whiskey in a charred
barrel made out of mesquite wood, instead of the oak upon which the company
ultimately settled. “It tasted horrible,” laughs Paul.

But Paul loves how the name of his whiskey brand rolls off
his tongue — even though people outside the Southwest sometimes find Whiskey Del
Bac, instead of being written out as Del Bac Whiskey, to be quirky-sounding or
confusing to them. The whiskey takes its name from Tucson’s eighteenth-century
Mission San Xavier del Bac, and Paul notes how “whiskey” is an English word,
while “del” is Spanish, and “bac” is native Tohono O’odham. Strung together, “Whiskey Del Bac” means, according to Paul, “whiskey from the place where the
river reappears in the sand.”

“I’ve always loved living in a border region, because it
makes you look at the world in different ways,” says Paul about Tucson, where
whiskey matures faster in the barrel because of the sometimes-drastic
temperature shifts within a single day that move the whiskey in and out of the
wood. “And the blending of cultures is so enriching — and so much fun.”

Photos courtesy Whiskey Del Bac

Challenges: “Marketing is a huge challenge,” says Paul,
who describes himself as having once been “super-naïve” about that aspect of
the business. “I just thought we’d make a great single malt whiskey, and the
world would beat down our door. Doesn’t happen,” he continues. “You’ve got to
get out there and really sell it.” The company plans to invest additional money
into sales and marketing, he notes.

Opportunities: “Elevating the public’s awareness of
what an American single [malt] whiskey is,” says Paul. To assist in that
effort, along with other distillers, Paul recently joined the board of the American Single Malt Whiskey
. The group has been working on getting official recognition for
the style, just like bourbon has become legally codified. And it seems to have
made progress on that front: “The TTB accepted our vocabulary, our wording for
the standards,” says Paul about how the whiskey will need to be, for example,
made from a 100 percent malted barley recipe by a single distillery.

Paul is also on a personal quest to popularize the term “mesquited,” in order to signify something similar to what “peated” means in
terms of peat-smoked whisky in Scotland.

Needs: “Cash,” he says. “We’re always putting
cash back into the business.”