Whiskey del Bac co-founder Stephen Paul admits he started his career making “a lot of bad whiskey.” But perseverance and refining techniques have resulted in one of Tucson’s most beloved and recognizable liquors. This month, Whiskey del Bac celebrated a decade in business—what was once a five-gallon still at home is now a production that brings Sonoran flavors to 20 states.
“From the beginning, our goal was to make something that was fully from the Sonoran Desert,” Stephen said, who co-founded Whiskey del Bac with his daughter Amanda. “And without sounding too boastful, it resulted in a good whiskey.”
The idea dates back to the Pauls’ furniture company, which worked with mesquite, the scrubby tree found throughout the southwest. They family often barbecued with scraps of mesquite, and Stephen’s wife Elaine brought up the idea of drying malt over a mesquite fire, as opposed to a peat fire as is common with whiskey.
Stephen experimented with the idea starting in 2007, producing single malt whiskey infused with the smoky flavors of the Sonoran Desert. In 2011, Amanda suggested making the family production official, and Whiskey del Bac was born.
“Mesquite has a certain mystique to it,” Stephen said. “It grows wildly and can survive with very little water. It just has this draw to it. So the Sonoran Desert really is part of our ethos. We love where we live… Our climate affects our whiskey’s aging. Not only the high heat, but the radical changes in temperature at night. Also, the minerality in our water affects the flavor.”
According to the company, they took their name from the ancient term meaning “from the place where the river appears in the sand.” The name was inspired by Tucson’s Mission San Xavier del Bac, named for its proximity to the Santa Cruz River.
Their central whiskey, The Dorado, is a single malt made from 100% barley with notes of tobacco, toffee and chocolate. As they describe, the flavor “gives way to desert campfire embers.”
Since starting, Whiskey del Bac has expanded to a 500-gallon still, and releases three types of whiskey. The company malts their own barley, and ferments, distills and barrels the drink all under one roof. Originally a father-daughter team, Whiskey del Bac now has a CEO, a head of marketing and a head distiller. They grew to a capacity of 4,200 cases per year, and are now managing 7,000 cases per year, with plans to increase further.
“Organizationally, we’re a better-run business now,” Stephen said. “I did a passable job for the first few years, but it simply grew beyond my managerial abilities.”
For the 10th anniversary, Whiskey del Bac made a special release aged in a Calvados brandy cask. Though they’ve released this kind of combination before, Stephen says they chose to craft another because “it was just so delicious.” Their anniversary also included collaborations with HUB restaurant, Monsoon Chocolates and Decibel Coffee Works.
While Whiskey del Bac is available in more than a dozen states, Stephen says Arizona remains responsible for 80% of their sales. The presence remains strong locally, as they collaborate with plenty of Tucson organizations. Multiple Tucson craft breweries even use Whiskey del Bac’s barrels to age their beers in, infusing a hint of that signature smoky flavor.
Looking forward, Stephen says Whiskey del Bac will focus on further expansion to keep up with demand. And, of course, he says they can always improve their product.
“It’s been so heartwarming to see how Tucson has embraced this project,” Stephen said. “We have such gratitude. It’s such an amazing town in terms of community and creativity. It’s almost like this is a project that belongs to Tucson, and we’re just the caretakers.”