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Lift a toast to the new boss

click to enlarge Hamilton Distillers celebrates El Jefe.

Ramon Olivas

Hamilton Distillers celebrates El Jefe.

What does a jaguar in Southern Arizona have in common with a new, locally crafted (and very potent) whiskey?

Bold, strong and named El Jefe.

There's El Jefe, the jaguar. This big, beautiful male cat roaming the Santa Rita Mountains that was caught on video last year by a wildlife camera set up by two Tucson-headquartered nonprofits—Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity. The jaguar's presence had also been documented in previous years through photographs taken by other cameras.

Jaguars have lived in Arizona, the northernmost part of their range, for millennia—they once traveled throughout the U.S. Southwest and beyond, with historical reports on the Grand Canyon's South Rim, the mountains of Southern California and as far east as Louisiana—but they're now critically endangered in the United States. A hunter shot the last known female here in 1963, and the last male died tragically in '09.

Our new wild-feline celebrity earned his name last October, when Tucson school kids officially dubbed him El Jefe (Spanish for "The Boss"). In February, Barrio Brewery released a new brew named after him called Santa Rita Jefeweizen. This month, Hamilton Distillers releases El Jefe, a limited-edition batch of their Whiskey Del Bac.

The El Jefe Single Malt is the latest product of Tucson's own 500-gallon distillery and malt house. This special-reserve, super-potent batch of Del Bac, a cask-strength (undiluted) iteration of the Classic (unsmoked, aged) variety.

El Jefe will be distributed in collector bottles—about 140 total—all from a single barrel.

"This particular barrel was excellent," says Stephen Paul, cofounder of Hamilton Distillers. "So we wanted to bottle it in honor of El Jefe. It was also the first of our 30-gallon barrels to mature, after using 15-gallon barrels exclusively to get the distillery started. Since this whiskey is at a much higher proof than our normal classic, we want to make sure people know to drink it moderately and experiment with adding small amounts of water to progressively experience the flavor nuances that come with dilution."

Naming a local high-grade, high-potency whiskey after a much-celebrated native predator indeed is a real, um, premium idea, highlighting the liquor's potency by evoking the jaguar's mythical power and very literal strength.

At the same time, it further emphasizes the whiskey's local origins, which has been a goal for all whiskey flowing from Hamilton Distillers. The name "Whiskey Del Bac" has its own regional significance, with the ancient term del bac meaning "of the place where the river reappears in the sand." Adding "El Jefe" to the bottles coming from that singular whiskey barrel shines a light on just how special it is to live just miles from where a jaguar has recently roamed.

"Tucson is experiencing an incredible renaissance of pride in our identity," Paul says. "There's so much to celebrate here—culturally, scientifically, environmentally. And how many places in America can say they have a resident jaguar? It's pretty amazing."

Indeed—an amazing whiskey named after an amazing animal.

So when will this heady concoction be available, and how can you, dear reader, get it into your system and liquor shelf?

Come to Hamilton Distillers this Friday for "La Noche del Tigre," a night of food, frolic and whiskey-swilling, and celebrate conservation in Southern Arizona.

The evening will feature a food truck (likely Southwestern-y fare), Whiskey Del Bac cocktails, including El Jefe old-fashioneds (and regular old shots, of course), and live music by West Texas Instrumental. There will also be tours of the distillery itself and "jag swag," such as El Jefe T-shirts and stickers, as well as photos and video footage of the great cat.

Guests will be able to purchase bottles of El Jefe Single Malt for $68 per, on a first-come, first-serve basis (remember, only about 140 bottles are available), with 10 percent of the proceeds to be donated to U.S. jaguar conservation (visit ProtectOurJaguars.org for more).

"We're really proud to be able to honor this unique animal," Paul says, "and to use Whiskey Del Bac to raise awareness of the need for habitat conservation and preserving the character of southern Arizona."

Reservations are taken exclusively by phone, and capacity will top out at about 175 people—so you'd better call.

Don't miss this opportunity to celebrate a powerful, endangered predator who has captured our hearts with powerful, locally made top-shelf spirits. While El Jefe calls shots in the Santa Rita Mountains, join whiskey and conservation enthusiasts in drinking shots in his honor.

(Editor's Note: Disclaimer — Anna Mirocha works for the Center for Biological Diversity).

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