Since Chef Mark Connell first came on Santa Fe’s culinary scene in 2010, Local Flavor has been keeping a close eye on his career. Stints at Max’s and Tomme showed some true flashes of brilliance, and Chef Johnny Vee called Max’s the city’s “most provocative new restaurant of 2011.”
photos by Gabriella Marks
Story by Chef Johnny Vee
It was a twentieth-century writer named Ernestine Ulmer who coined the phrase, “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” It seems to ring even truer in these uncertain times of drought, fires, debt ceilings, recession, earthquakes and Michele Bachmann. (Get the sweet stuff now, ’cause the shit is about the hit the fan!) I have an old-fashioned palate, however; once I’ve had something sweet, I’m finished for the meal and often forgo saccharin sorbet intermezzo coursesin a multi-coursed dinner for fear my taste buds will yell, “Done!” and I’ll miss out on the meat course.
Mu from Mu Du Noodles introduced me to the concept that in Asian cooking (unlike American) it is customary for dishes to flip-flop back and forth between sweet and savory. For example, on a traditional dim sum menu, sweet custard pastries may be served mid-meal, after steamed pork buns but before spicy spare ribs. Perhaps it is the yin and the yang of that yummy cuisine, but either way, thoughts of dessert light up the faces of both young and old, across every nation and political persuasion. So it was with great delight that I got to sit down with two local pastry chefs on the luminous patio at Luminaria, at Santa Fe’s Inn and Spa at Loretto, on a hot summer evening and delve in to their collective culinary psyche to see what makes them tick.
Darci Rochau, from Tamaya Resort and Spa in Bernalillo, and Andrea Clover, from Inn and Spa at Loretto, are both young, vivacious and already seemingly at the top of their (sweet) games. I learned that they share very similar ideas about the art of creating tempting desserts, despite coming from dissimilar backgrounds. The gals have been competitors in two rounds of competition at The New Mexico Museum of Natural History Foundation’s annual Chocolate Fantasy (Andrea won in her category last year, Darci in her category this year), and Darci has appeared on and won the Food Network’s Chocolate Challenge, taking home first prize for her amazing chocolate train straight out of the Wild West. Clearly, these are two culinary professionals worth their salt … or sugar.
Maybe you’re celebrating the end of a year that’s been good to you, or maybe you’re saying, “Thank God it’s finally over!” Whatever the case may be, New Year’s is a time for joy and jubilation. To help you ring in the new year with style, we talked to four Santa Fe mixologists to get their thoughts on what’s hot in cocktail culture now and what they predict for the coming year. Whether your tastes run toward the classic or the new and inventive, these cocktails will make a splash at any New Year’s Eve party and have you happily toasting well into 2013. Continue reading
1 1/2 ounces premium gold tequila
1 1/2 ounces apple cider, preferably unfiltered
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce créme de cassis
unpeeled apple slice, for garnish
You want to talk handcrafted? At the Don Quixote Distillery & Winery in White Rock, New Mexico, Ron and Olha Dolin take the term literally.
Yes, they craft their liquors, grappas, brandies, ports and wines by hand from local grain and fruit. Yes, Olha draws the labels and etches bottles herself. Yes, Ron, on days off from his job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built the tasting room at their home, where you will see flashes of their two young children, and, in slower motion, Max, the cork-chewing Labrador. And, yes, Ron also designed and built the backyard distillery, which, in 2005, was the first to be licensed in New Mexico statehood. All these things easily establish the Dolins’ bona fides in the realm of local handcrafted goods.
On a cornflower blue Sunday, I arrive early for my appointment and take a ten-minute drive through the residential streets of White Rock. We aren’t in adobe land anymore. These homes—kempt, comfortable and well maintained—could be in Naperville, Hillsborough, or a modern-day Bedford Falls. But winding around the plateau on Rio Bravo Drive above Bandelier puts me in my place.
Settled on the patio in front of the tasting room, the Dolins and I chat over coffee. Ron, whose black hair spikes, one assumes, because of a pillow and not a gel, has the chiseled features of his Central European ancestors who settled in Chicago. At the time, “Big Al” Capone had cornered the market on distilling and bought hard candy at the store owned by Ron’s grandfather.
“When I built my first copper still, a sheet of copper cost $500,” Ron says. “For the fifth, the last I plan to build, the same sheet cost $1500.”
I ask how one transforms a sheet of copper into a still shaped something like an onion dome atop a Russian church. Ron says, as if explaining to a handyman skill–challenged writer how to hammer a nail, “You have to configure how much you need to create the shape, cut it out and weld it.”
Oh, like a dress pattern?
“Yes,” says Ron with relief, “same thing.”
Alembic stills available for purchase—like those from Portugal, where, according to Ron, the best ones are produced—are designed to be used at sea level. The higher the altitude, the lower the atmospheric pressure, so liquid doesn’t have to get as hot to boil. “My stills are designed to use at our altitude,” says Ron. “It’s a much gentler process and results in a smoother spirit.” That spirit, the base of Don Quixote vodka and the newly released bourbon, is distilled of organic blue corn from eastern New Mexico, to put the locale in local.
Olha Dolin (pronounced Ol-yuh) strides from the house and plops comfortably into a chair. She is Ron’s wife and the master distiller in the family. Ringlets of hair mirror the roundness of her eyes and face; her expression reflects an assurance of someone born into one culture and having adopted another. She is articulate, her English clear with a telltale Slavic accent. The couple’s meeting was straight out of a Tom Hanks romantic comedy. While corresponding with a Ukrainian engineer during a project for the lab, Ron suggested he and the engineer get together while he vacationed in Kiev. A sly note was returned to say that the engineer, knowing no English, had been employing an interpreter, Olha, to carry on his correspondence. It was she who was writing. It was she with whom Ron was carrying on. It wasn’t until a year into their marriage they discovered both had experience distilling, Ron as a science geek in his dorm and Olha growing up in the river port city of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, where her father and grandfather were distillers.
“We distill the Old World way,” says Olha. “The Russian way is like American: Grains are cooked in a mash, and it is very much harsher. We use the Ukrainian way. We malt our blue corn, like they do in Scotland with barley.” (Malting is the method of sprouting live grain by adding warm water and turning it by hand frequently over a period of several days.) “It is a slow process, but the blue corn has beautiful flavor and texture that reflects in the spirit,” says Olha.
In the distillery, a small laboratory with interior windows looks onto the main floor where an open tank the size of a large hot tub sits empty. A burlap sack of barley rests beside it. “This is where I malt grains,” says Olha.
Asked where they sourced their barley, Ron says, “Local feed store.” Along one wall, the handmade copper stills are partially encased in bases of white and blue tile. These act as insulation to hold in heat, just as a square Delft oven would. There is a tall rack with two kinds of barrels. While makers prefer to age bourbon in used, rather than new, French oak barrels because they are “neutral” and impart less vanilla flavor and color, initially, by law, it has to go into American oak casks. These whiskey versions are rudimentary country cousins to the French but are only a fifth of the cost. The difference in quality of the barrels is as striking as between a Range Rover and a delivery van.
Bowls of snacks sit on the tiled bar in the tasting room. There are plants, artwork, the occasional child’s toy, and self-made shelves that display bottles of Don Quixote and their second label, Spirit de Santa Fe. (Vodka, gin and brandy are sold under this label in 375 ml. bottles, an idea put forth by their distributor to appeal to tourists.) It has the comfortable feel of a rec room inhabited by an active family. Visitors arrive on the dot of noon, and the tasting room comes alive. Ron and Olha pour us samples of Don Quixote Blue Corn Vodka. The label features Olha’s colorful sketch of the man from La Mancha holding a lance, looking dolefully into the distance.
Usually, when I sip vodka, I have the sense memory from childhood of the taste of a thermometer swabbed in rubbing alcohol. Not here. Blue is the sweetest of corn varieties, and that translates to Don Quixote’s vodka. Its weighty mouth feel, like that of poached fruit, has a lingering finish.
Next, is their wheat-based gin, which Ron, in good humor, calls “free range” due to the botanicals—juniper, chamisa, piñon, rose hips—that he and Olha harvest from the Jemez Mountains. It reveals a citrusy hit from infinitesimal strips of lemon zest added during distillation.
Ron instructs us to put our nose in the glass of Blue Corn Bourbon but inhale through our mouths; otherwise, the alcohol overwhelms the aroma. It works, and what comes across is a nutty, sweet scent of maple. The flavor is sophisticated, slightly toasty and smooth. “Corn is gluten-free,” adds Ron. “Bourbon has to be 51% corn. Our bourbon is 75% blue corn, with the balance wheat and a touch of rye.”
If you are considering starting your own distillery, you owe a debt of thanks to the Dolins. “When we began applying for a distillers license, while federal laws were current, New Mexico laws pertaining to distilling had not changed since 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition,” recalls Ron. “Often the two were in conflict. Now both are more or less in agreement, but that’s why it took us three years and a lot of back and forth to finally get ours. Distillers after us got their license within a year.”
“Yes,” says Olha, “it gave us a long time to work on recipes!”
The Don Quixote Distillery & Winery is located on State Road 4 near Bandelier National Monument, 35 miles from Santa Fe and 19 miles from Pojoaque. In October, the Dolins opened a second tasting room and retail shop in the former Line Camp, a legendary roadhouse on US 84/285 in Pojoaque, NM. 505.695.0817. www.dqdistillery.com.
by John Selby
Santa Fe Spirits is an artisanal distillery sources local ingredients for their sprits, offering a true taste of northern New Mexico in every sip. Owner Colin Keegan talks with Local Flavor about the inspiration, growth and future of Santa Fe Spirits:
Like his countryman Sir Isaac Newton before him, Colin Keegan came to a very good idea while lazing in an apple orchard. This orchard was behind Keegan’s house in Tesuque, New Mexico. As he contemplated what to do with his bumper crop, a young local brewer named Nick Jones paid him a visit, and their conversation led to a plan: apples to brandy. The seed was planted, so to speak, and in 2010 Santa Fe Spirits joined a burgeoning industry of some 400 craft distillers across the nation, small-scale, nimble operations similar to microbreweries that quench a thirst in the marketplace for local artisanal products.
Until Prohibition in 1920, the United States had over 10,000 distilleries. With its 1933 repeal, the business of booze came back in the form of a couple dozen large corporations. Now, nearly 80 years later, Keegan and Jones have opened Santa Fe Spirits, one of only three fully licensed and bonded distilleries in New Mexico. (The first, Don Quixote in Los Alamos, began in 2005, and the newest, KGB Spirits, just released their inaugural bottling in September of single-barrel Taos Lightning Rye Whiskey.)
In a light industrial area tucked into a cul-de-sac off Airport Road, not far from the 599 bypass, Santa Fe Spirits occupies a tree-shaded modern building. Make an appointment to step into its cozy tasting room, and you will be surrounded by the clubby comfort of tangy scents of fermentation, a wooden bar bent like an elbow, and still-life paintings hanging on the walls. Keegan, a former architect of middle years and Polo good looks, offers a welcoming grin and warm handshake, but it’s his voice a visitor notices first. The North of England accent, mellowed from years in London and the United States, has a confident timbre more reminiscent of Jude Law than The Full Monty.
If you’ve walked into a local liquor emporium, you may have seen a bottle of Keegan’s Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey and mistakenly thought it was tequila. The distinctive barrel-like bottle, made of clear glass, boasts a cork closure, a sterling label ringed in barbed wire, indigo Western font, and a sprinting coyote. The liquor inside is as limpid as water. “This is New Mexico’s first whiskey,” explains Keegan, “distilled from malted barley and bottled straight from the still. Unlike Scotch we normally see, with a caramel color, Silver Coyote sees no barrel, no peat. This is unadorned spirit. Flavor is extracted from malted barley and yeasts, period.” (Malting is a process wherein grains are made to germinate by being soaked in water. The germination is halted by drying the grains in hot air, and specific yeasts are chosen to turn sugars into alcohol.)
“Before we taste, perhaps you’d like to see where it all happens,” suggests Keegan.
Glassed off on one side of the tasting room, in a high-ceilinged space slightly larger than a racquetball court, is an immaculate state-of-the-art facility, replete with a copper hybrid pot still from Germany; all the requisite tanks, valves, vapor columns, and catalyzers; a dephlegmator (to separate the water); the gauges and safety features required by state and federal regulators; and—perhaps equally as important—those insisted upon by Keegan and Jones. Basically, the distillation process consists of three steps. First, a pot of substances is heated to a point where vapor is emitted; then that vapor is cooled. Finally, the resulting condensation is collected. This collected liquid will have concentration and purity of flavor. “This is a more sophisticated version of what a lot of folks used to do in the backwoods,” says Keegan, “but, essentially, the idea is the same.”
Back in the tasting room, Keegan puts up a few glasses and pulls the cork from a bottle of Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey. In the nose, there’s a subtle, fruity note, with a soupçon of Good & Plenty. Sipping brings a piquancy of alcohol that quickly transforms into a sake-like roundness of Bosc pear, anise in the mid-palate, and a pleasantly smooth finish. Keegan thinks it is well suited to citric mixers or (appropriately enough, given the heritages of the liquor and the cocktail) as an element of a Bloody Mary. Laurie and Al Lucero, owners of Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe, dubbed “the mother lode of American margaritas,” plan to create a Whiskeyrita.
“There is a natural sweet note imparted from the distillation of the barley that doesn’t require fruit juice,” says Mark C. Johnson, beverage director for Amavi and Junction restaurants, weighing in on Silver Coyote. “We’re planning to put it into small oak casks on the bar, add our own botanicals and make barrel-aged cocktails.”
According to Michael Stein, owner of Tesuque Village Market, who sells Silver Coyote both retail and over the bar, “The bottle has legs. People love the package and that it’s local.”
Over the course of a week, I try to determine for myself where this naked whiskey fits into the canon of the spirit world. After several game attempts at mixing, I decide I like Silver Coyote by itself, with a splash of water.
For those who want traditional flavors of smoke and wood in their malt whiskey, Santa Fe Spirits also has something aging in a cask. On the opposite side of the bar from the distillery is the barrel room, where the temperature is kept at 80 degrees and humidity at 50 percent; otherwise, New Mexico’s climate would dry out the porous wooden barrels and allow too much of the precious liquor to be given over to the “angel’s share,” a natural evaporation that occurs as whiskey ages. Stacked to the roof in new and requisite used barrels (Scotch is typically aged in used sherry or bourbon casks), is a whiskey Keegan and Jones will age for a minimum of two years before bottling, with the eventual release of five- and ten-year-old versions. The barley for this liquor is smoked, not with peat as in Scotland, but with mesquite. Tentatively, it will be named Glenkeegan Single Malt Whiskey.
Getting back to the apple that started it all, Jones, a young man with a round, expressive face, is excited about the release of Santa Fe Apple Brandy made from New Mexico apple cider. “The French have been making Calvados from apples since, well, the 12th century, when the distillation process found its way there from the Middle East,” says Jones, whose interest in distilling began when he was a student at St. John’s and led to work at Santa Fe Brewing Company. Samples are poured from a bottle up on the bar, boasting a painting of red apples on the label by Keegan’s wife, Suzette. Aged in small oak casks, the brandy has a tawny amber color and smells of spice and apple. It is not at all a sweet liqueur, but the fruit flavor is foremost,and there are hints of cinnamon and vanilla. It has a full-throttle warming appeal that makes you want a second sip. Watch for its local release around the holidays.
Along with passion, a huge leap of faith is required for the most determined startup distiller. State and federal laws and regulations are perplexing and knotty. Paperwork and fees can be daunting, and equipment expensive. Though, for Colin Keegan and Nick Jones, it is simply the way of enterprise, and Santa Fe Spirits itself is part of a revival—not only of an artisinal craft, but also of pride of purpose and self-determination, which many, in our corporate-dominated world, have relinquished. “I wish there were more hours in the day,” says Nick, “to do all the things I dream of doing here.”
by James Selby