Craft Distillers

Enchantment in a Bottle

Monterey Bay California USA

The making of a Pumpkin Flip cocktail at Glencoe Distillery.
Photo courtsey Glencoe Distillery/Marcus Kauffman

The state tops lists for its craft beer, but these five must-visit distillers are emerging with another craft craze featuring made-in-New-Mexico flavor.

By Michael Dax

While craft beer has held a special place in New Mexicans' hearts for more than 30 years, local spirits are a newer phenomenon. In 2004, Don Quixote Distilling of Los Alamos secured the state's first distilling permit, and since then nearly a dozen distilleries have popped up across the state. Although New Mexico still has far fewer distilleries than its western neighbors, those in production have helped spark a new appreciation for the inimitable flavors, styles, and mixtures that craft spirits can produce.

Hard alcohol hardly conjures images of refined sipping and savoring; however, New Mexico's distilleries have embraced the local-food movement, bringing care and consideration to what we consume and how we consume it. Not only have these distilleries found innovative ways to infuse local flavors like chile, blue corn, and piñon into classic spirits and cocktails, many have made a concerted effort to source local ingredients including grains and botanicals to produce the tastiest and most meticulously cared-for spirits.

After all, much like craft beer, it's all about the experience. Some distilleries are bottling and distributing beyond New Mexico, but most are focused on local tasting rooms where mixologists craft drinks that match the carefully curated atmosphere. For these distillers, a cocktail is only as good as the environment in which it's consumed, so that dedication to "craft" has transcended the spirits or even the cocktails themselves. Meet five distinctly New Mexican distilleries raising the profile of spirits in the Land of Enchantment.

Glencoe Distillery, Glencoe

Craft DistillersNew Mexico's newest distillery is also the first in southeastern New Mexico. About 10 miles east of Ruidoso, Glencoe Distillery, opened in early 2018, already has two tasting rooms — one in the town of Glencoe and one attached to Sacred Grounds Coffee and Tea House, another business of co-owners Will and Rebecca Pond.

Originally from Texas, the Ponds gave up their business raising miniature donkeys eight years ago when they moved to Ruidoso. They soon met Glen and Sherry Barrow, and two years ago, the foursome obtained a distillers permit with the idea of designing spirits that would reflect their love of southeastern New Mexico's unique landscape.

Beyond anything else, the area is perhaps best known for producing the real-life manifestation of the U.S Forest Service's mascot, Smokey Bear, following a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains in 1950. With this in mind, many of their spirits feature smoke, including the Applewood Smoked American Single Malt Whiskey and their Smoked Aquilla, a blue agave spirit available in both 80 and 110 proof. Glencoe also features a regionally significant mesquite wood–smoked whiskey and a more traditional American single malt whiskey smoked with peat shipped from Scotland.

Bottles are available for purchase at the tasting rooms, and each bottle comes with a recipe card for a cocktail. The Miles 2 Go is a New Mexican twist on a white Russian made with Glencoe coffee liqueur, which is produced with Sacred Grounds' coffee, and topped with freshly grated nutmeg.

Both tasting rooms embrace Ruidoso's rustic aesthetic. The Barrows, who also operate Woodswan, which makes furniture and other wood products from locally sourced dead and down timber, constructed the bar and shelving at the Glencoe tasting room, providing an extra layer of local charm.

Left Turn Distilling, Albuquerque

Craft DistillersBrian Langwell distilled his first batch of vodka after receiving a chemistry set for Christmas when he was 15. He was a hobby distiller for 38 years before closing his machine shop, selling the business, and retrofitting the building into a distillery. In 2013, Left Turn became Albuquerque's first distillery, deriving its name from an obscure Bugs Bunny reference, and has since provided a home for Palmer Brewing and Cider House, which shares the same space.

Fittingly for the former machinist, Langwell made all of the stills and storage tanks himself as well as the bar that serves as the tasting room's centerpiece. Since then, he continues to make all of the distillery's equipment in addition to overseeing the New Mexico–inspired spirits.

Since it opened, Left Turn has featured its Rojo Pinon Rum, a traditional Caribbean rum aged in oak and flavored with local pinon nuts. The NM Blue Corn Whiskey is distilled with New Mexico–grown blue corn and, unlike most whiskies, is only aged for a week. "It's a distinct kind of product," Langwell says about the whiskey, which contains hints of toasted popcorn and chocolate.

But Left Turn isn't resting on its laurels. Earlier this year, it released a straight Kentucky Bourbon, whiskey made primarily from corn — the first in New Mexico — along with its Conservationist Gin, which is aged for a year and a half in red wine barrels and is reminiscent of a port or sherry.

Left Turn also showcases a line of infused vodkas that range from more traditional flavors like red and green chile to black peppercorn, dill pickle, ginger, and bacon. Mixologist Oscar Leon has even used bacon to infuse the Blue Corn Whiskey for drinks like his Breakfast Old Fashioned, which also includes a maple simple syrup. As of 2019, Left Turn is now bottling and selling 10 different spirits.

In addition to standard drinks like the Tom Collins, a cosmopolitan, and a gin martini, Left Turn offers a rotating seasonal menu with a long list of innovative cocktails as well as a variety of Mules that mix house-made ginger beer with each spirit.

Little Toad Creek, Silver City

Craft DistillersTucked away in the southwest corner of the state, far from the craft beer and spirit revolution taking place in northern New Mexico, Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery has been bringing craft beverages to Silver City for more than seven years.

Owner and overlord of brew and spirits Dave Crosley began as a homebrewer, but when he applied for a brewers license, he thought, Why not get a distillers license as well? Compared to brewing, which he describes as an art, distilling is much more of a science. "It's 100 percent chemistry," he says. "That is the reward — when it hits and it comes off right is really an incredible thing."

Although he has less room for creativity in distilling than in brewing, he has found ways on the back-end to experiment and fine-tune the final product. He didn't like the char on the oak barrels he was buying to age his Sapo Grande whiskey, so he started charring his own, occasionally employing mesquite wood as well to impart extra flavors. Similarly, Crosley continues to perfect the mixture for his spiced rum. And although Little Toad Creek doesn't make its own vodka, the Diablo Verde and Diablo Rojo, infused with green and red chile, respectively, are of their own making.

These spirits feature prominently in drinks like their bloody mary, Green Chile Cucumber Gimlet, or Red Chile Chocolate Martini, made with Mexican chocolate, cinnamon, and mole bitters. However, according to Crosley, the Gila Rita — a classic margarita made with TeGila Silver Agave — remains their most popular drink.

And the opportunity to taste some of these distinctive spirits recently became easier when Little Toad opened a second tasting room in downtown Las Cruces. "I do think the distilling world is getting bigger," Crosley says. "People are starting to see how interesting it is to have something local, different, and special."

Santa Fe Spirits, Santa Fe

Craft DistillersDefying both space and time, Santa Fe Spirits' tasting room — tucked away only a few blocks off the plaza — perfectly blends the atmosphere of an English pub with the rustic charm of Santa Fe's adobe architecture. And this is no accident, as founder, Colin Keegan, originally from England, wanted his tasting room to feel like home. "This is supposed to be like either going to an old English pub or sitting in someone's living room," Keegan says. "It's supposed to be a warm, cozy place to have a cocktail."

Santa Fe Spirits is focused on developing and distributing uniquely New Mexican concoctions. To date, it bottles and distributes nine different spirits, whose ingredients are all sourced from within 30 miles of Santa Fe.

This includes three different varieties of the signature Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey, which recently received high marks from Whiskey Advocate. Traditional Scottish whiskies are smoked with peat moss, but in a New Mexico twist, Colkegan derives much of its flavor from smoked mesquite wood.

One of Santa Fe Spirits' most distinct creations is the Atapino liqueur, whose name is an amalgamation of Atalaya Mountain, a prominent feature on Santa Fe's east side, and the pinon trees that cover the popular peak. Using its Silver Coyote Whiskey, the liqueur's flavor comes from a mix of roasted pinon nuts and resin from ponderosa pines, which give off a sweet, vanilla flavor. "Atapino is supposed to capture a walk in the mountains on a warm summer's day," Keegan says.

If Atapino is intended to represent the mountains, the flavor profile of the Wheeler Gin evokes the desert. With a combination of white sage, cascade hops, cholla cactus blossoms, osha root, and juniper, Wheeler Gin puts a local spin on this classic spirit and has become one of Santa Fe Spirits' best-sellers.

Santa Fe Spirits bottles can now be found in 11 states, and although their focus is more on their spirits than their cocktails, Keegan still recognizes the importance of the tasting room and this year plans to open a location in Albuquerque.

Still Spirits, Albuquerque

Craft DistillersLocated in downtown Albuquerque, Still Spirits' stripped-down tasting room perfectly matches the aesthetic that owners Zac Hulme and Peter Arathoon have cultivated since opening in April 2017. Much like the vodka and gin they distill on-site, the cinderblock walls and naturally finished wood tables are the blank canvases that allow their creativity to shine.

The ever-changing menu contains a mix of classic cocktails and more experimental drinks. "Since we don't have a full bar, we just have to be creative and try to come up with cool stuff," says Arathoon, who oversees distilling. "We try and come up with a new cocktail every few weeks."

The drink menu changes regularly, but some mainstays include the Kontiki, a concoction of pineapple-infused vodka, orgeat, and lime; or the Raskolnikov, a white Russian made with cold-brew coffee. Other staples found regularly at Still Spirits include cocktails featuring ingredients like turmeric, hibiscus, cinnamon, and ginger. And instead of a salt rim, many of their drinks that incorporate fresh-squeezed lemon and lime include a paprika-sugar mix on the rim that complements the bitterness of the citrus.

They have also been developing liqueurs. The chile negro liqueur is especially noteworthy. Rather than just the spice one might expect, the dried chile gives off a dark cherrywood color and expresses notes of plum along with a bit of heat at the end. Drinks like El Topo mix their jalapeño liqueur with fresh strawberries and lime, making it the perfect drink for summertime in New Mexico.

As for the spirits themselves, the Idol Gin is a traditional London dry gin featuring strong notes of juniper and coriander. They envision their vodka, which Hulme describes as a "technical product," as a vehicle for their different concoctions. "There's so many different things you can do with it," he says. "It's just a world of experimentation."

Still Spirits is ramping up production of both gin and vodka, which it plans to distribute locally, but for the moment, it remains dedicated to the tasting room. "We're very focused on the cocktails and the bar experience," Arathoon says. The drinks are affordable, and the atmosphere is low-key and laid-back.

Michael J. Dax writes about the intersection of environment and culture in the American West from his home in Santa Fe. He also pens a spirits column for Edible New Mexico.