By Gregory Daurer | Jan 30, 2023
Spirits and white label barreling services
Tequila from Mexico will often have a lingering bite, but not so Wild Hare Distillery's agave spirits from Tempe, Tilton says. The distillery's motto is "Dare to be smooth."
Tilton adds, "I think that's a unique feature in our spirits, all of them. I can't tell you how many times a customer will come in for a tasting. And when they finish, one of the first things that they'll say is, 'Wow, this is really smooth!'" Tilton has been asked more than once, "How do you do that?"
Tilton says she and co-founder Jim Matz display a "knack for fermentation." Furthermore, the flavor profile of their spirits owes something to the distillery utilizing pot stills -- often used when making whisky or brandy -- rather than a column still, she adds.
To produce their base spirit, they purchase the honey-like agave nectar, which is pressed from blue Weber agave, from an importer in Los Angeles. The agave arrives in a 270-gallon tote. "It goes into the fermentation tank where we put in a ratio of water to agave," says Tilton. "And then we measure the sugar that we need for it, and we pitch it with yeast, and we give it a nutrient mix that we get from a company that does our yeast for us. It ferments in about five days. And then we leave it to sit for about another week." Afterwards, the mixture will go into the company's four pot stills for distillation.
From their base distillation -- sold on its own as DROVE Cristal -- they'll produce the additional products within their line of DROVE agave spirits. For example, their DROVE El Chocolate is flavored with cacao. And their best-selling DROVE Roble Blanco Salvaje marries Madagascar vanilla beans with the spirit as it rests in a barrel. "It has a bourbon mouthfeel for an agave spirit," says Tilton of the latter product. "It has the sweetness of the agave. And you get that nice oak, rounded flavors. And then you get the finish of the creaminess of the vanilla bean." The Roble Blanco Salvaje won a bronze award at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which the distillery's website says was the only domestic winner in the competition's "All Other Agave Spirits" category.
Not all of Wild Hare's ventures have been successful. The distillery set out to make whiskey, purchasing its own equipment. But unexpected setbacks resulted. "We spent thousands of dollars, with complete failure," says Tilton. But as a result of an outside party asking Tilton to source whiskey for them, the distillery has established relationships with distilleries in Tennessee and Indiana. It's resulted in Wild Hare Distillery establishing its own WHD Spirits line of whiskey and vodka. The distillery presently offers its own barreling and white labeling services as well.
In addition to its own tasting room, products from Wild Hare Distillery can be found at about 26 accounts within Arizona. The spirits can also be purchased online by consumers in 33 states. And in addition to 2023 being the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, there are other auspicious signs ahead for the distillery. While the company has experienced a steady 30 percent growth per year, Tilton points to the ever- increasing popularity of tequila-like spirits. (Forbes recently reported that tequila sales continue to impressively grow in comparison with vodka sales.)
Wild Hare began after Tilton and Matz decided they wanted to begin distilling commercially. Although they both enjoy their whiskey, they decided they'd first undertake an agave spirit. In addition to tequila being popular in the Southwest, Tilton's market research indicated that tequila/agave spirits were expected to experience "a pretty strong hold on the market."
Given her time working as a real estate professional and professor, Tilton is pretty used to studying the market research. (If the distillery ever decides to move out of its 1,800-square-foot distilling space in Tempe's Kyrene Commercial Center industrial park and purchase their own facility, she's well-equipped to undertake the logistical tasks.) Tilton's undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry has helped out at the distillery as well.
Whereas Tilton needed to be convinced to begin their distillery venture, Matz -- who previously ran his own hardscape and landscape business --led the charge. He presently does most of the distilling work, while Tilton oversees front office business.
In fact, the distillery's name owes to Matz's mischievous nature in his youth, when his grandmother used to tell him that he had a wild hare/hair in a place where the sun don't shine. "So 'Wild Hare' seemed to fit" as the moniker for the distillery, says Tilton.
Challenges: Growing the brand. "Distribution is very difficult," says Tilton. For instance, a brand will earn only half the retail price from a distributor, while meanwhile needing to invest in marketing. "So, unless you have someone behind you, or helping you, or believes in your product, it can be quite challenging."
Opportunities: "Good distribution and growth," says Tilton. "As much as that's the challenge, that's where opportunities lie."
Needs: "I don't think I can ever have enough money for marketing," says Tilton. "Marketing is our big challenge."