Gary Ellam holds up a bottle of his award winning rum in the tasting room at his Elgin distillery. Photo by Pat McNamara

Elgin, Arizona has, according to local census data, a population of 161. Those unfamiliar with the area might miss downtown Elgin, which is marked by an abandoned, dilapidated gas station, and a few buildings, but along with its cattle, wine and pronghorn antelope, this tiny settlement has the distinction of producing some of the premier spirits in the world, thanks to the expertise of Gary Ellam, ‘Maestro Ronero,’  (Master of Rum) who operates the Elgin Winery and Distillery down the hill from the historic Elgin Community Club building. 

Ellam is the first American to receive this coveted title. His Distilera Regalo De Vida is the first licensed craft distillery in Arizona and is the highest awarded distillery in the west. Ellam’s ‘Extra-Aged Rum’ received the gold medal and the best in show award at the 2019 International Wine and Spirits ( IWSC) competition in London, England and also received gold medals for his El Gin and his Arizona Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Ellam’s spirits have also received the top award at the World Spirits Competition (WSC) held in San Francisco, CA. The entries are tasted by judges with the finest palates in the world in a double-blind test to determine the winner.

Having been in the area since 1982, Ellam has developed his recipe for spirits using locally sourced ingredients. The sugar cane comes from nearby Sonora, Mx, the agave and other botanicals from Patagonia and the grapes from Elgin/Sonoita. 

He attributes one of the main reasons for his success to the local water, which makes up 30 – 60% of his spirits, and has trademarked the name of his Elgin water source as “Magic Water.’ Ellam claims that Elgin has the best water in the world. 

The aging process of the spirits, done in bourbon barrels, is accelerated by the climate, with daily temperatures varying 30-60 degrees, and the drier air, which speeds up the water loss. This helps to produce a finished product more rapidly than in the Caribbean, where rum is more traditionally produced. The product can be ready for bottling in as little as five years in Elgin, whereas it takes up to 15 years in the Caribbean. 

Along with his premium rum, Regalo De Vida, Ellam also has a more economical line of spirits called, “The Four Monkeys.” He stated that he “would rather have limited production of a higher quality than a mass produced, lower quality line” so limits his production to assure that each bottle is some of the best created.  

Although few in his local community know of his international success and fame in the spirits industry, Ellam has been featured in USA Today along with other state and national publications. This makes his notoriety a pleasant surprise as visitors, both local and non-local, observe the many awards on the walls of his little distillery and tasting room, tucked away across from the Elgin Bridge in downtown Elgin, AZ.