Rodney Hu: Owner of Yucca Tap Room, Arizona Distilling Company

Rodney Hu, owner of Yucca Tap Room and Arizona Distilling Company, photographed at Yucca Tap Room, by Nicki Escudero

Rodney Hu, owner of Yucca Tap Room and Arizona Distilling Company, photographed at Yucca Tap Room, by Nicki Escudero

Rodney Hu

Rodney Hu is responsible for some of the Valley’s biggest gems: one of the longest-standing live music venues, Yucca Tap Room, and purveyor of fine local spirits, Arizona Distilling Company. The 39-year-old Tempe resident is proud to be a native Arizonan, which is why he put so much passion into his businesses that show off the state’s talent.

Hu works tirelessly on his ventures and is gearing up for Yucca’s 42nd anniversary, to be celebrated this fall. He’s successfully combined his businesses by serving up Arizona Distilling Company spirits at Yucca, including Copper City Bourbon, Arizona Distilling Co.’s Desert Dry Gin and Arizona Distilling Co. Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey.

Sip on one next time you’re at Yucca, which features live music every night. Keep reading to find out what drives Hu’s work ethic and why he loves being in Arizona after all this time.

What brought you to Arizona?

I’m a native. I was born in Phoenix, went to high school at Marcos de Niza and received my degree in finance from ASU. I moved to New York City and worked at a couple different investment banks – I also did sales and trading before moving back to Arizona about 11 years ago.

How did Yucca Tap Room get started?

Yucca started in the early ’70s. My dad really wanted his own bar, so he took over the bar from one of the older couples who had opened it. I took over Yucca from my dad when I moved back to Tempe from New York City.

At that time, Yucca was just one side – the side known for its live music and dive bar. We’ve always been supportive of the music scene and feature a broad spectrum of genres. When I had the opportunity to take over the space next door, I built the craft beer and whiskey bar. We also added a kitchen.

Why is it important for you to feature live music every night?

We’ve always focused on live music at Yucca. We’re one of the last-standing, original live music venues in Tempe. Yucca has stood the test of time. We’ve seen a lot of venues come and go, and we continue to do what we’ve always done, which is support local, live music.

Why do you choose to have the bar open from 6 a.m.-2 a.m.?

My dad started that a long time ago to serve the factory workers who worked the graveyard shift. He started the first true reverse happy hour at 6 a.m.

How do you choose the live music entertainment you feature?

I don’t think I’ve ever been focused on any specific genre. It doesn’t matter what particular band or music is playing — everyone can have a good time at Yucca. We book reggae, punk, hip-hop, indie, country and heavy metal. We do it all.

Why is it important for you to feature craft beers and craft spirits here?

I think peoples’ tastes and palates are changing and advancing because of the popularity of craft beers and spirits — drinkers are becoming more educated and open to trying new things. Your typical customer may not always demand your brand name spirits or beers anymore. I wanted to open people up to the creative side of brewing and distilling.

What is your vision for the menu here?

Simple street food was our main focus. Our food is prepared quickly without skimping on quality.

It’s also easy to eat. Our street tacos are fantastic, and our “bar food” doesn’t disappoint.

How did Arizona Distilling Company come about?

Arizona Distilling started almost seven years ago. One of my best friends, Jason Grossmiller, came to me about starting a microbrewery. At that time, I told him I wasn’t sure we should do a microbrewery here because Four Peaks was just killing it in Arizona.

I talked to my cousin George about the idea of a microbrewery, and he suggested looking into microdistilling, a progression of microbrewing. High Spirits in Flagstaff was the only place distilling in Arizona at the time. We went up there and checked out what the owner was doing and started researching. Jason was all about it. He and my other partner Matt started going to workshops in other states, learning the business at different distilleries.

Jason cashed out his 401k, quit his job dealing cards at the casino, and started it. And we had no choice but to support him. Here we are.

How has your product line with the company evolved?

We researched the spirits people drank in the Southwest back in the early 1900s — it was all about aged spirits, whiskeys, rye, and a liquor called cactus wine, which is liquor infused with peyote. We decided to make whiskey our first choice, but we weren’t able to do that right off the bat because you have to age the product.

Copper City Bourbon was our first product, launched a year ago. We followed that with gin. We then launched Arizona’s first grain-to-bottle whiskey, which is a desert durum wheat whiskey that we get from southern Arizona. It is a true all-Arizona whiskey. Next, we’re getting ready to launch a collaboration with Four Peaks, a rye whiskey and a moonshine, probably all within the next three or four months.

All our products showcase something unique about Arizona, whether it is the name of the liquor, or the botanicals and grains we source.

Where can people find your products?

We’re distributed in close to 500 accounts now throughout the state, in bars and stores. Some of our largest accounts are Tops Liquors, Durant’s and Casey Moore’s.

We’re not going to go out of state with the aged spirits, but we’re probably going to go out of state with the gin. We’re looking at Southern California, New Mexico and Colorado next.

Why won’t you go out of state with the whiskey?

Supply and demand. We want to make sure we have enough supply to take care of our in-state customers first. With the clear spirits, you don’t have to wait for it to age.

What makes your spirits stand out?

All the botanicals we source for our gin are from the Verde Valley area. Jason wanted to include the “five Cs”: coriander, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon and citrus in the form of lime zest. Apple, lavender and juniper round it out.

We recently were awarded a Silver Medal at the Gin Masters Competition in London, and we received a Silver Medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for our gin. Our Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey earned a Bronze medal at the San Francisco World Spirits competition.

It’s an honor to be recognized abroad. We are the first microdistillery to be internationally recognized in Arizona. Now, we’d like folks in Arizona to get behind us. We want to introduce people to some of the cool things happening around here. We’d like to recognize the people who are working hard to push this state forward and are proud to be from this state. We want to let everyone in the U.S. know there are exciting things happening in Arizona.

Is there a recipe you’d recommend for your spirits?

Yes, local mixologists have created some interesting drinks with our spirits. There’s a popular Tom Collins variation made with our gin and fruit. The French 75 is also a very popular gin concoction. Some people have even used our gin in Bloody Mary’s to add a botanical note. In the future, we’re going to showcase a different local recipe on our website every week. There are so many recipes people are doing with our spirits, the list is endless.

People enjoy our whiskey different ways. Some like the Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey neat. Others enjoy it with an ice cube, or let it sit a bit to open it up. Our whiskey includes grain that’s harvested in Casa Grande. It’s sustainable and all local.

Why is it important to support local products?

I think that’s what we’re all about. Your local restaurant, local butcher and local mom-and-pop shops are what create community.

One frustrating thing to me about Arizona is the shopping-center culture. It’s all so similar. What makes a community unique is the mom-and-pop shops and the local people who frequent those shops.

For me, when I travel to another city, I want to know what all the locals like to do and eat and drink. As a community, we need to focus on what’s created locally. That’s how cities gain an identity. We don’t want our identity to be associated with businesses that were created somewhere else. It’s important for people to realize money spent here stays here. One way to do that is to get behind local businesses.

What makes you a good entrepreneur, and what advice do you have for aspiring business owners?

I think I’m really hard-working. I also get along well with people. I’ve listened and learned a great deal from a lot of excellent mentors, people who have done really great work. I’m naturally curious and love to read about what’s going on locally and across the country, whether it’s about the music scene or about food or bars. I like to make sure I’m on top of things.

For any aspiring entrepreneur, you need to become an expert on whatever it is you’re passionate about. Learn as much as you can from those who have succeeded before you. I’ve found if you pay close attention, most people have something unique to teach you.

What are your goals?

One of my goals is for the distillery to go on to national distribution.

As far as Yucca Tap Room goes, whether we stay in Tempe or we move on to a bigger location in another city, I’d like eventually to realize new avenues for Yucca to explore. We’re probably going to launch a food and delivery service out of Yucca in the next month or two. I don’t want Yucca to get stagnant or stale. I want it to grow and evolve.

What is your favorite local band?

I don’t know if I can say I have one favorite local band. I’ve seen so many great bands come through Yucca, doing cool and interesting things. It’s great to have such a variety of musicians and genres come and play here. It’s impossible to pick just one.

It’s really cool to have seen artists who have played here go on and win Grammys, like Nate Ruess from fun. It’s amazing to see what he’s accomplished. Carla Morrison used to play here in a band called Babaluca, and now she’s a huge Latin American artist who has won Grammys. Roger Clyne and the Gin Blossoms have done really cool stuff at Yucca. It’s an honor to know they came through our doors and played on our stage. I look forward to seeing the next generation of bands make their way.

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