Independent Distillery Bringing Craft Liquor Downtown
February 11, 2015
by Brad Poole
When the owners of Independent Distillery started planning five years ago to cook up some local spirits in Tucson, they had a major problem.
“When we started, there was no license for what we’re doing,” said Don Northrup, a former owner of Lindy’s on 4th who is launching the full-service bar and associated distillery Downtown.
Arizona had craft brewing licenses and licenses for major distilleries, but no combination of the two. So Northrup and his partners – wife Toby Hall and friend Trevor Streng – helped write one. In the end, they had a new class of license for craft distilleries, ones that produce less than 20,000 gallons per year. They plan to open in March at 30 S. Arizona Avenue, between Congress and Broadway.
“We always wanted to be Downtown,” Northrup said.
He is passionate about small-scale distilling, and Independent has gone the extra mile to do it right. They hired 1A Distillery Consulting, an East Coast company, to help develop recipes and smooth bumps as they make their way. The consulting contract is for a year, and they are already working with them now.
“The goal is, the day we install to flip the switch,” said Streng, who is Independent’s distiller.
They will start with gin and vodka, in part because white spirits can be made faster than whiskey or rum, which are traditionally aged longer. They will avoid aged whiskey, the specialty of the other local distillery, Hamilton Distillers, makers of Whiskey del Bac.
“White spirits can come straight out of the still and go straight into bottles,” Streng said, although Independent plans to age their gin in white oak barrels.
They will be on the lookout for local crops, such as winter wheat, to use in their line of liquors when possible.
“There’s a lot of stuff out here that other places just don’t have,” Northrup said.
The trio checked all over town for a location, but settled on Downtown when they found they could rezone a former car dealership and garage tucked into a niche on Arizona Avenue, which will eventually be a pedestrian walkway stretching from Congress south to Armory Park.
The 1915 red brick building will feature exposed beams. The concrete floor was stained with coffee, and they are re-purposing as much as they can to keep their plan leaning green. They’re going for a comfortable atmosphere where people will be comfortable hanging out. There will be couches.
“We want you to come in and have two drinks and stay for three hours,” Northrup said.
Independent will have a 700-square-foot patio – thankfully sheltered from sun from the west – in a shared space behind what will eventually be Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market. Another bar will also share the courtyard, which is about 100 feet south of Congress.
They plan to keep prices reasonable, so average drinkers can always take a spot at the bar.
“We’re not going for the pretentious crowd,” Northrup said.
All three partners have backgrounds in hospitality, although Streng had moved on to teach high school math at Academy of Tucson. He took a second job behind a bar, and wound up working with Hall. Northrup and Streng later briefly were owners at Lindy’s on 4th Ave. for about a year.
Independent is joining a trend that has been developing for quite some time in the United States. Drinkers are shifting increasingly from beer to liquor, and craft distilleries are playing a major part. Northrup is dismayed by the lack of diversity created by mega-distillers, so he decided to do something about it.
They plan to create unique liquors with consistent flavors, and they will insist their bartenders get it right, too. They plan to have about 10 cocktails on the menu permanently, with others coming and going. The key is consistency.
“If you order an old fashioned, then come back in a month, we want it to be the exact same old fashioned,” Northrup said.
Independent plans to open in March.