Writer Joseph J. Airdo

Photography Courtesy of Elysian Desert Distilleries

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t starts off soft on your palette. Then the flavors of caramel and vanilla hit your tongue. You feel the warmth as it goes down, but with no harsh bite or burn.

“When it comes to Carefree Bourbon, the No. 1 word we hear is smooth,” says Michael McQuiggan of Elysian Desert Distilleries, a woman-owned and family-operated business headquartered in Carefree at 100 Easy Street.

In addition to its distillery, where lines of bourbon and vodka are created, Elysian Desert Distilleries also operates a pair of tasting rooms. One is located next door to the distillery itself while a second recently opened in Cave Creek at 6201 E. Cave Creek Road, featuring a wrap-around granite bar, full menu of craft cocktails are available and an outside, dog-friendly patio with views of Black Mountain.

In 2016, Michael McQuiggan was enjoying lunch with his wife Renea at Eddie Merlot’s restaurant in Scottsdale when the bar manager introduced them to Garrison Brothers Texas Bourbon Whiskey. He shared with them that its product uses grain from the Garrison family’s farm.

The story intrigued Renea McQuiggan, who has a farm in northeast Kansas that has been family-owned and operated since the early 1900s. The farm produces a variety of grains, including soybeans and, most importantly, corn. She suggested to her husband that they create their own line of spirits utilizing the corn from her family farm.

In January 2017, the couple attended a week-long distiller’s course at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where they learned about all aspects of opening and operating a distillery—right down to how to mash the corn and distill the product.

Michael McQuiggan notes that the course was incredibly intense—especially the part about obtaining a distiller permit from the federal government. As it turned out, navigating all of the rules and regulations was quite a long and complicated process.

During their time at Moonshine University, the couple made a number of contacts in the distilling industry with whom they partnered to help bring their vision to life. Since getting approval as a licensed distillery could take a great deal of time, they decided to contract with an established distiller in Indiana so that their bourbon could be aging while other legalities were being addressed.

The couple tested three different recipes—known in the industry as mash bills—to begin the aging process. Product was distilled offsite in Indiana and placed in new charred oak barrels, where it sat for more than two years before being brought to Arizona.

“We invited a small group of people to come in to test the different mash bills,” Renea McQuiggan says. “Carefree Bourbon—with a mash bill of 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malt—is the one that received the highest marks.”

Renea McQuiggan took a seat as Elysian Desert Distilleries’ president, and her daughter Abigail Merritt—who came up with the business’s name, inspired by the Greek word for heavenly or paradise—took a seat as the business’s vice president. 

Renea’s husband Michael and Abigail’s husband Stuart became responsible for day-to-day operations, along with the blending, bottling and labeling of the product.

In addition to Carefree Bourbon, Elysian Desert Distilleries also produced and trademarked Chakra Vodka, a corn-based and naturally gluten-free vodka with no sugars added. Abigail Merritt created the line, inspired by the various focal points in the subtle body used in a variety of ancient meditation practices.

Ascension, the company’s unflavored premium vodka, is currently available for purchase at Elysian Desert Distilleries’ tasting rooms. Seven uniquely flavored varieties are currently available for tasting, and will be available for purchase sometime during the first quarter of 2020.

Chakra Vodka will soon also be available in restaurants and retail stores. Carefree Bourbon is already available at Total Wine stores and Safeway, and is featured at several North Valley bars and restaurants, including Mastro’s Steakhouse and The Capital Grille.

Although Elysian Desert Distilleries is not yet utilizing the grains from Renea McQuiggan’s farm, that is the ultimate goal.

“She wants to build something for the future generations of her family,” Michael McQuiggan explains. “They have slim margins on corn right now, and this gives it an added value. Renea can use her own corn to produce something that turns out to be quite good without having to go to market with the corn.”

Renea McQuiggan acknowledges that opening Elysian Desert Distilleries would not have been possible without the help and support of her friends, family and loved ones to whom she will be forever grateful.

“We are very proud of what we have accomplished and feel we have a quality product to offer,” she says.


Elysian Desert Distilleries

Fridays and Saturdays | 2 p.m.–Closing | Carefree Tasting Room | 101 Easy St., Carefree

Tuesdays–Sundays | Noon–Closing | Cave Creek Tasting Room | 6201 E. Cave Creek Rd., Suite C, Cave Creek | elysiandesertdistilleries.com