Distillers

Distillers Jeff Smith and Greg Arias are the team behind O.H.S.O.’s distilling program, which began in 2015. The company currently produces a dozen different varieties of alcohol, including flavored vodkas, gin and rum. (Pablo Robles/Progress Staff Photographer)

Already a longtime destination for craft beer lovers in the Valley, O.H.S.O. is now a hotspot for those that prefer a stiffer drink.

The brewery and restaurant chain – which got its start in the German Sausage Co. building in Arcadia in 2011 and now has four locations in Scottsdale, Phoenix and Gilbert – also features a distiller in the Scottsdale Airpark that has been creating craft liquors since late-2015.

O.H.S.O now produces a dozen offerings, ranging from horseradish vodka to a peach-flavored whiskey.

The local brand showed off everything its distillers had to offer during Local First Arizona’s recent Devour Week when it set up booths at the Devour Bartending Competition in Phoenix and the two-day Culinary Classic at Desert Botanical Garden.

The booths featured just about everything O.H.S.O., the distillery, has to offer, including its selection of citrus vodkas, jalapeno vodka, coffee vodka and its newest release, a one-year-aged bourbon.

Creating that catalog has been over three years in the making, said distiller Jeff Smith.

In 2013, O.H.S.O. owner Jon Lane “wanted to go the distilling route, because you can only open up so many restaurants and breweries under one company,” Smith said.

Creating its own liquor also made sense from a business standpoint for O.H.S.O, because it could serve its own product in the restaurants, Smith said.

As it turns out, starting a distilling program from scratch is not the easiest thing in the world and there were some bumps in the road “to say the least,” Arias said.

Those issues included making sure the distillery and retail restaurant space were located in the proper areas to meet zoning requirements and ensuring that all proper paper work was filed with the federal government.

Before it made a drop of alcohol, O.H.S.O. actually had its federal permit suspended for failing to tell the government that it was not producing any liquor.

“We were supposed to be filling out a form saying we aren’t producing anything, but we are open and physically operating,” Arias said.

After clearing up those issues and reapplying for its federal permit, the distillers began experimenting in November 2015. By December of that year, they had their first batch of O.H.S.O.’s #Vodka, pronounced “Hashtag Vodka.”

The hashtag line, which now includes rum as well, was O.H.S.O.’s first line of liquor products.

Like some other small craft distillers, O.H.S.O. is not “grain to glass,” meaning they do not distill their own base spirits directly from the source plant material.

Rather, the company sources its base spirit from a supplier and then goes to work in its small distillery in the back of the O.H.S.O. location near Hayden Road and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard.

“We don’t make the base spirit because it is very expensive and space restrictive,” Arias said.

The company’s output has increased steadily every year, Arias said, and O.H.S.O. now produces about 1,000 bottles a week.

There is still room for growth, though.

Arias said the company produced approximately 6,500 proof gallons last year.

Under Arizona law, craft distillers can produce up to 20,000 proof gallons per year.

The company has since branched out into more eccentric flavors like coffee and horseradish, though Arias does not see the company pursuing less natural flavors.

“We’re not going to do cotton candy or anything like that,” Arias said, while pouring samples at the Devour Phoenix Bartending Competition.

Creating the flavors in its current catalog was no easy task and has required some trial and error on the part of the distillers.

In fact, Arias, who has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Arizona State University and a business card that reads “Disappointed Scientist”, relied on his educational background to perfect the flavor in O.H.S.O.’s Arcadia Grapefruit Vodka.

At the beginning of the process, the flavor was “coming up flat” and the team did not want to use grapefruit extracts to add additional flavor, Smith said.

Arias found a research paper on the composition of grapefruit and essentially used that to reconstruct the fruit from its components by adding in missing sugars and acids not in the fruit’s peel.

Arias said the method made sense because much of the flavor of a grapefruit actually comes from the flesh, not the peel.

“Once he figured out the exact ratios for those acids and sugars, we put it in the bottle and, bam, it came alive,” Smith said.

 “Once he figured that out, it opened up the door for all of the other citrus flavors,” he added.

Since that time, the group has further experimented with flavors and expanded their offerings based on everything from pragmatism – they needed spicy vodka for Bloody Marys – to a request from Lane’s wife, who thought that rosemary would be an interesting vodka flavor.

Arias said he found the information that helped solve the grapefruit problem from a program at Arizona State University “that tells you that you should look to nature to solve your problems.”

Looking to nature, or at least natural flavorings, has come in handy for the brewers.

Whether it’s using actual diced jalapenos or El Salvadoran coffee beans roasted by Tempe’s Infusion Coffee & Tea, the team relies on natural flavors when creating their liquors.

The team is now experimenting with aged whiskeys, and its first two-year-aged bourbon should be ready in April.

They are also experimenting with whiskey flavored in different types of barrels, including stout beer barrels and vanilla barrels.