by Courtney Llewellyn
TUCSON, AZ – Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures, designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study. That’s Rebecca Caroli’s official area of research – but she’s also very interested in the lost, traditional and unusual ways spirits have been made in the past. That’s how she and her husband came to found Town Under Black Distillery.
The name of the distillery itself is an homage to its hometown and its storied past. Caroli explained the Tohono O’odham phrase “Cuk Ṣon” translates as “at the base of the black,” and Tucson is surrounded by volcanic basalt hills.
She worked as an archaeologist for 12 years in East Africa, Madagascar, Egypt and the American Southwest and Mexico. With her focus on ethnographics, and specifically traditional craft knowledge, she discovered that beers, wines and spirits have been made the same way forever.
“That piqued my interest,” she said. “Spirits made the old way tend to taste a lot better in my opinion, and each batch has a little variety to it. It brings things to the table that aren’t already on the shelf.”
But how do partners make the leap from interest to business? Caroli explained it started when her partner, who was a public defender, was being worn down by his job. “We got into distilling as a hobby – kind of the same way people start home brewing,” she said. “Then he had this absolutely terrible week at work and so he quit. We had no plan, no savings. We thought, ‘If we could do anything at all, this is our sink or swim moment.’ We decided to make a go of distilling.”
The pair spent the next three years developing their business plan, all while Caroli was working overtime to build up cash reserves. “We needed everything – leased space and all the equipment in place before we could even make a drop of alcohol,” she explained. “We had months of bills piled up before we could even get a permit to sell. So, to save money, we built a lot of our equipment from scratch. We taught ourselves so much in the process.”
Ever the academic, Caroli was still interested in the history of alcohol and how it was made. That led to her and her husband building clay, wood and copper stills.
“I like being able to draw from the environment for raw materials and historic methods,” Caroli said. “Look at mezcal, which is traditionally done in clay stills. It has a completely different flavor profile, especially after open air fermenting. We decided to copy that technique.”
She mentioned that in her travels she saw wood stills made from hollowed-out tree stumps in Madagascar. “We use our wood still as a thumper,” she said. “The wood vapors and the tannins help flavor the spirits.”
What helps tie Town Under Black even more to its home in the Southwest and near Mexico is the fact they also steam whole sweet corn for their whiskey. They are committed to making spirits with native grains and botanicals, like pre-Hispanic beers and aguardientes (a generic term for alcoholic beverages that contain between 29 and 60 percent ABV). The word is a compound of the Romance languages’ words for water and fiery (agua and ardiente in Spanish). Their first product is a blue corn whiskey dubbed Mahala Moonshine.
“Our motto is ‘Lost, Traditional and Unusual.’ We really want to make a twist on modern spirits,” Caroli emphasized.
The second original release also features 100 percent non-GMO whole corn grown by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, milled and roasted over an open flame to produce nutty, caramel flavors, infused with cacao flavor. The cacao husks are all ethically sourced, and they produce a rich dark brown-red color and chocolate aroma, and the resulting quaff is called Six Sky Whiskey.
Town Under Black is currently housed in a 500-square foot facility, and although the distillery officially opened in November 2018 and all their finished spirits are bottled, they can’t sell anything just yet.
“Once we start selling, we’ll get a bigger space so we’ll also be able to utilize more solar energy and composting,” Caroli said. “We also recognize we have serious water issues in the Southwest, so we want to focus on permaculture. We want our business to be as self-sustaining as possible.”
They can start selling as soon as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approves their labels. Caroli submitted their labels for approval two weeks before the 35-day-long partial federal government shutdown. She was “praying for approval in February.”
“Everything is sitting in bottles, waiting for the TTB. We had a train hurtling down the tracks, but now we’re stalled,” she opined. It’s only the sales that are stuck in limbo, though.
“While we’re waiting we’re developing experimental things, like a pecan-smoked bourbon which was just put away in 53-gallon barrels,” Caroli said. “A trend of newer distilleries is to buy smaller barrels because of quicker turnaround. We like slower, more subtle flavor.”
Editor’s note: As of posting on February 20, 2019, Caroli was still waiting on TTB approval of labels.