Tucson’s new Town Under Black Distillery features blue corn whiskey with cacao husks

It's made with heirloom blue corn from Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch and infused with cacao husks from local chocolate factory Monsoon Chocolate.

If Six Sky whiskey from Town Under Black Distillery wasn’t already sold out everywhere, we’d tell you to go buy a bottle right now.

But you can still have a taste from one of the few bars in Tucson with it on their shelf; drink it on its own or in a cocktail at The Parish or the AC Hotel Tucson Downtown.

What makes Six Sky so special?

You don’t need to be a whiskey snob to recognize the extra character in this special local whiskey. Just take a sniff and you’ll know you’re in for a treat.

Six Sky bottle at Town Under Black Distillery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Six Sky bottle at Town Under Black Distillery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The 95-proof whiskey is made with heirloom blue corn from Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch and infused with cacao husks from local chocolate factory Monsoon Chocolate. The result is an intoxicating fragrance with earthy aromas of toffee, raspberry, and of course, dark chocolate.

Beck Caroli and Vladimir Novokshchenov form the duo behind Town Under Black. Caroli is a full-time archaeologist, while Novokshchenov was an attorney before committing to the distillery. On November 30, 2018, they started a list of who would want to buy their bottles. Around the beginning of June 2019, they quietly distributed their first batch in Tucson.

While their backgrounds weren’t in the alcohol industry, they both contain a deep wealth of both historical and scientific knowledge.

For example, the blue corn used in Six Sky isn’t special just because of the color. Caroli explained the historic and flavor reasoning for the choice:

Primarily we chose to use blue flint corn because we were interested in reviving early American whiskey techniques, and heirloom flint corn is more genetically similar to the varieties of corn that would have been growing in the colonial period. Modern yellow corn varieties (sweet and dent corn) were both developed very recently through genetic modification to maximize their sugar/starch contents. Almost all corn-based whiskey today, including bourbon, is sourced from a single type of corn. Hundreds of varieties of heirloom corn used to be available before this homogenization started, now there are only a handful of heritage corns that are being grown today. Blue corn has the benefit of being naturalized to the southwest, brought up thousands of years ago through Mexico, and as a result is also a traditional staple crop for tribes in this region.

In addition to the purely historical aspects of blue corn, we like to use it because it imparts a unique nutty, earthy flavor. As we mentioned, heritage flint corn varieties contain far more proteins and fats than GMO corn, which were bred to favor sugar and starches over protein. More sugar yields more ethanol, but protein and fats contribute complexity in flavor. This was important to us as we aimed to make a grain-forward, historical pure corn whiskey that didn’t need to rely on aging or a diverse grain bill to develop an interesting, nuanced flavor profile. Additionally we’re always seeking to expand crop variety and give farmers more economic opportunities to diversify their plants with hardier, more water-tolerant and desert-adapted grains.

Blue corn mash at Town Under Black Distillery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Blue corn mash at Town Under Black Distillery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Furthermore, the process with the corn is different. While kiln-drying corn malt is a common practice for barley malt these days, Town Under Black adopted a style known as wind-malting or green-malting — essentially just letting the sprouted corn air-dry, rather than baking it in a furnace.

“Green-malting is a process uniquely suited for the climate in the American southwest and was traditionally used by Native Americans to produce corn beers,” Caroli said. “It allows conversion and fermentation to take place without the addition of barley or lab enzymes and yeasts, and promotes the natural introduction of wild microbes that ultimately result in a much more fruity, vegetal flavor.”

Town Under Black’s first product already set the bar high, but their future is also exciting.

“Right now, our two projects that are closest to being released are a malted blue corn moonshine and a blue corn whiskey aged on canary wood,” Caroli said.

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The Tenth Muse ????????? 1.5 ounce @townunderblack Six Sky cacao whiskey 1.5 ounce espresso cold brew .33 ounce gomme syrup .25 ounce @luxardousa maraschino liqueur Green chartreuse rinse ????????? Shake with ice and strain into a chartreuse-rinsed coupe. Garnish with a lemon zest (recommended) or a maraschino cherry. ????????? ————————————————————————????????? Four thousand years ago, a woman brewed the first beer. In the first century AD, a scientist named Maria pioneered modern distillation with the invention of the alembic still. The traditional, alchemical craft of transforming plant, fruit and grain into the water of life has long been the domain of women, our sister mystics, chemists, poets and providers. ????????? In the spirit of ladies celebrating ladies, we partnered with @brunchbabestucson to create a special Galentine’s Day cocktail featuring our forthcoming Six Sky Whiskey. Based on ancient Mayan recipes for maize and cacao beer, Six Sky Whiskey is distilled from roasted heirloom blue corn and infused with cacao husks from Tucson’s own @monsoonchocolate. ????????? Deliciously bitter dark chocolate and espresso mingle with a tempering touch of cherry sweetness, herbaceous chartreuse and the silky rich texture of gomme syrup. Yeah, this cocktail is dangerous; I think I drank six. ????????? #galentinesday #likelillithfair #minustheangst

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While many American spirits are aged with white oak wood, Brazilian spirits producers utilize nearly 20 different species of wood.

“Canary wood is one of these, and it imparts flavors of orange peel, black pepper, and earl grey tea that suit the profile of our corn,” Caroli said.

Other exciting projects in the works include: corn whiskeys smoked with locally available woods such as juniper and pecan; spirits made from foraged desert ingredients such as mesquite bean and banana yucca; amari and liquors flavored with native botanicals such as Arizona black walnut and acorns; koji-based spirits made from corn nixtamalized with wood ash; and alternative grain whiskies made using traditional Chinese baijiu distillation techniques.

Novokshchenov expanded upon the koji and baijiu techniques:

As far as koji goes, I have a general fascination with wild microbes and am especially interested in east Asian “co-fermentation” (when another microbe is added to the yeast to break down starch concurrently with the actual fermenting) and distilling. The koji work we’re doing now is an attempt to build up to a Chinese Baijiu style solid-state fermentation and distillation, where cooked grains are inoculated with koji, Rhizopus (used in tempeh production), and wild yeasts and bacterias, then left to co-ferment for a month or so. That particular style is notable (and very interesting to me) because, unlike every other spirit/beer/wine in the world, there is no liquid in the fermentation. This encourages the koji and Rhizopus to flourish while handicapping the yeasts, so the resulting flavors and textures are are very unique.

We are also just generally interested in playing with koji and other microbes because they show up in a lot of different distillation and fermentation cultures and traditions and we really enjoy exploring all the different things that can be done.

Blue corn at Town Under Black Distillery (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Further down the line, Town Under Black will start a boozy kombucha program. They’re also aging bourbon in 53-gallon barrels, so look forward to sipping after a few years.

Tastings and tours are available by appointment. For more information, keep up with Town Under Black Distillery on Instagram. Sign up for the newsletter at townunderblack.com to find out when and where the next batch will be released.

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com.

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