Yelp is all about connecting people with great local businesses, and we recognize that these businesses — led by artisans, doers and creators of all kinds — are the lifeblood of our communities. Behind every business is a great story. The Tucson Makers + Shakers blog series showcases local makers, artisans and innovators. Find out what makes them tick and discover why they love being in business in Tucson
Allow us to introduce Three Wells Distilling Company; a craft distillery producing a range of liquors including vodka, two types of gin, agave spirits, and a very unique Sonoran spirit, distilled from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Their spirits encompass many of the traditional flavors of the Southwest, and they pride themselves on “putting Arizona in a bottle.” We sat with founders- Matt & Chris to learn more about their story.
How did you get your start?
Matt: I was a contractor in the housing market boom, and made a ton of money and during that time. My sister and I would swap back and forth the most expensive bottles of tequila we could find. When the housing market crashed I couldn’t afford to keep that tradition up. I was looking for something new to do, and I missed trying all of the different tequilas. I figured I could do anything I wanted to do, how hard could distilling be? Turns out it’s pretty hard, it took me 9 years to figure out how to make this Agave Silver.
Chris: Matt started it all. There wouldn’t be Three Wells without him, or his tenacity and passion. We’ve been longtime friends and he wanted to start a distillery. My first thought was that there wasn’t anything other than “made in AZ” to distinguish his distillery from any other and would be yet another jumping on the “craft distillery” bandwagon. It wasn’t until he made the Sonora Silver for his wife that I thought WOW! This is something unique and innovative; way beyond anything in the traditional spirits category. Made from naturally occurring prickly pear cactus fruit, seasonally harvested, totally unique and tastes amazing!
What was the moment you knew your brand had to happen?
Matt: My sister Sue told me there’s no reason I couldn’t start distilling. I went to Washington, did some training. I came back and saw miles and miles of prickly pear fruit. My wife [Ken’te] basically eats the fruits raw off the plants, she grew up eating them. I got with Chris my business partner, we went out in the desert and got some prickly pear one day and made a booze out of it. At that point I wasn’t even making agave spirits yet. Chris brought the money, and Three Wells was born.
Chris: That first taste of Sonora – at the time it was only the unaged or “silver” and didn’t have a name yet. It is amazing and made from local cactus fruit. The name Sonora follows the tradition of spirits or wines being identified by their region, like scotch, champagne, cognac, tequila, etc. Since the fruit comes from the Sonoran desert we came up with the name Sonora and hope someday “Sonora” will be internationally recognized as a spirit made from over 50% prickly pear fruit from the Sonoran desert.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Matt: I think the biggest challenge is that you kind of have this idea that if you make something people will automatically come to buy it from you. That’s not at all the way it works. Really, it’s the fact that we’re competing against big conglomerates. 85-90% of all spirits are sold by 3 different big conglomerates today, those conglomerates will spend the amount of money on marketing in one week on what we have spent in total in one week alone. Arizona is coming into it’s own with craft spirits but we’re not quite there yet.
Chris: Every week there seem to be new challenges but the consistent challenge is not having enough time. Keeps us busy.
What do you do to make sure you are regularly inspired?
Matt: For me, it’s less about THIS (points to barrels), the art of it, but really I think about my family. I think about how they’ve been here, my wife and kids have been here through all the hard work long hours, me being grouchy. I owe it to them to keep going and get through it. I come up with a way to make something exactly right (like the agave silver) and it takes me 9 years, and that makes it worth it. That is my inspiration.
What’s the most helpful piece of customer feedback you’ve received?
Matt: Here’s the most valuable feedback I’ve received along the line: it was in customer interviews when we did Startup Tucson’s THRYVE program. We had this idea that we put Arizona in a bottle, that’s what we do. Grain to bottle. Our thought was that everybody cares that we’re making it from start to finish, we’re not cheating, not bringing in grain neutral spirits, etc. We found out that no one cared. No one even knew what that meant. It’s all about the passion and the story behind what we do.
What’s your advice for other makers, business owners or someone who wants to start a small business?
Matt: Make sure you’re doing something you have a passion for. Make sure that you do your research…Go out and talk to your potential customers. 9 times out of 10 you’re assumptions are wrong. That’s what I learned in Startup Tucson’s Thryve program. Most people think other people are going to be passionate about what they’re passionate about, and that’s just not the case necessarily.
Chris: I think if you have an idea and passion for something; there is a whole lot more than making a product or providing service. Making the product is the easy part. Better have patience for any permits, licensing, etc the business will need; after that milestone is achieved and you have a business, know you’ll be spending a lot of time at it, and with the fun comes the not as fun but necessary. Make sure you think about all aspects of business, sales, marketing, supply chain, production, operations, legal, HR, accounting, financing, taxes, and more. If that hasn’t scared you out of starting a business; and you think this is something you are passionate about and want to do until you retire, then you may want to start a small business.
What makes you most excited about having your business in Tucson?
Matt: Well, Tucson’s just Tucson, right? Tucson’s very accepting of the craft. Tucson gets very, very excited about it. The community between the brewers and distillers, the mixologists and bartenders. I never thought I would be a part of this industry community. We all support each other.
Chris: I didn’t have to move! I am a U of A graduate and have lived here for about 20 years. Tucson is great, the climate, the culture, the food .. it is the City of Gastronomy for a reason, and everyone is friendly, it is a great place to live, and there are so many things to do in and around Arizona that I don’t know of another place I’d want to be.
If customers come away knowing just one thing about your business, what do you want that message to be?
Matt: We love what we’re doing and we love the people that love what we’re doing. We’ve had a huge amount of support from the community on this.
Chris: “Be proud of your Spirit”® is a double entendre; It is not just to be proud of the liquid, distilled spirit in the bottle that you own but also to live your life in a manner such that you are proud of your essence. We approach our business as we do our own lives, in a manner that we can be proud of. Being honest, having compassion, knowing no is perfect and being forgiving, knowing there aren’t failures, just moments of learning, and putting in the hard work so at the end of the day, you can be proud of your spirit.
Where can we buy your product?
In Arizona: We recommend Plaza Liquors, Monterey Liquors, Rum Runner, JJ’s Westside, Rory’s Corner Market & Magee Road Liquors.
We are also carried by Safeway, Albertsons, some Bashas locations, and Total Wines.
By Amanda Schreiber, Yelp Tucson Marketing Assistant.