Independent Spirit

Independent Distillery celebrates first year with boutique gin made at downtown distiller

A local watering hole will soon be home to a very uncommon spirit.

The Independent Distillery, a downtown bar that specializes in cocktails made famous more than a century ago, is about to celebrate its first year in business with the release of a boutique gin produced right on site.

Trevor Streng, lead distiller for the outfit, said his "ten-botanical" gin is all but in the bottle. Boasting hints of juniper, coriander, grapefruit peel, lavender, cardamom and other aromatic ingredients, it is made in stills one wall away where it will be served.

"It's a little citrus, a little floral, it's going to be in the New-World style," Streng said. "After that we are going to be entering into the process of some barrel-aged gin, and then some seasonal gins as well."

Streng said two 26-gallon stills are currently in operation. The process of crafting the gin is meticulous and requires a deep knowledge of both science and flavor, but he's pretty much nailed it and is ready to send the first batch to market.

The gin is already being sought out by those in the know–a lucky few put in pre-orders and will have access to the first run–and many are asking for samples. At this point Streng is focusing in on producing a superior product, although thoughts of distribution are already starting to solidify.

Streng is also a partner in the business, along with Donald O. Northrup II and his wife Toby Hall. The three opened the business last year at 30 South Arizona Avenue, near the corner of East Congress Street and South Sixth Avenue.

The release of the gin coincides with The Independent Distillery's anniversary celebration, which takes place Friday and Saturday, Sept. 9 and 10. The details for much of the celebration had not yet been set, but Streng was confident there would be a bit of gin to sample.

This concept of the micro-distillery, of local liquor producers carving out a niche in a market long dominated by massive alcohol producers, has seen soaring growth in recent years.

According to the American Craft Distillers Association there were only 24 micro-distilleries in the country in the year 2000. By 2013 that number had grown to 234 and one year later there were 580. Industry experts expect there to be more than 1,000 American micro-distilleries by the close of this decade.

Tucson's own Hamilton Distillery contributed to this boom with small-batch, single-malt whiskies that have won numerous awards with their unique, mesquite-based flavor profiles. Desert Diamond Distillery, a company based in Kingman that specializes in boutique rums and vodkas, and Arizona Distilling Co., in Tempe, have also met with great success by crafting spirits that appeal to seekers of unique, locally produced libations.

The Independent Distillery, however, is not necessarily concerned with the future of the micro-distillery market. Their focus is more on the past and celebrating flavors and processes used before Prohibition drove cocktail culture underground and nearly into extinction.

"Really our approach has been to reeducate the public on cocktails, to show people how much more was out there," said Larry Horvath, general manager of the bar and distillery. "Our feedback has just been super positive. The neat thing is they recognized that we were doing something different than anyone down there."

This reeducation happens in many ways. The bartenders are trained to walk patrons through ingredients and cocktail history while making them consistently high-quality drinks that lean more on the spirits than the mixers.

"There are so many talented bartenders, but there is always the chance that you can go a little too deep on the ingredients," said Horvath. "Our cocktails are spirit-driven. The same love and intensity goes into it, it's just a simpler way to do it."

Horvath said his bartenders are both servers and professors, mixing the drinks and then explaining spirits, house-made bitters, ginger beer and other flavors patrons find in their glasses.

To describe The Independent Distillery's take on cocktails, Horvath turned to a discussion of bourbon and how a dash of aromatic bitters can change the drink entirely.

"Your average person is going to think about bourbon and it's going to be hot on the front end and the oak, cinnamon and caramel flavor is going to come out later," said Horvath. "Some people want that bourbon profile, but with less heat, or they want more to it but they don't want fruit, or sugar of bubbles. Adding bitters and other flavors is an easy, simple way to bring it to a different level."

Horvath said the first year in business has been a good one, so good that the lean summer months did not put a significant dent in sales.

He plans to build off this early success by sticking to the core philosophies and the "grain-to-glass" approach the business started with.

"It's about not getting complacent and about letting the people who come in know that they are a part of this," said Horvath. "When you're talking to people and teaching them about different spirits they're not just someone you're getting a drink for. My bartenders are really good at helping people figure out what they like and taking them on a little journey through the process."

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