A Sip of Santa Fe

MOVE over wine, it’s finally time to share your spotlight. For years, wine has been the go-to beverage for elite dining establishments. Restaurants employ top dollar sommeliers who spend years studying wine and its nuances in order to properly pair the perfect Cabernet Sauvignon with your rib-eye. Some restaurants even have cicerones, experts in the art of ale to make sure you get the IPA with the correct IBUs. But what about the bartender? Bartenders spend countless hours studying spirits, creating cocktails and learning techniques. They are up in the wee hours of the morning polishing bar tops and pulling floor mats. It’s tough on their knees, shoulders, wrists and especially their relationships with the “daywalkers.” They always work on holidays, weekends and evenings. Heck—anytime the rest of the world isn’t working, chances are the bartender is. When you are starting your day, the bartender is just ending his. But finally bartenders are starting to get credit for their creativity and hard work and the popularity of the cocktail is on the rise.

Gaelen Casey

Photo of Quinn Stephenson by Gaelen Casey

There has been a craft cocktail movement all over the world throughout the last decade. In cities like London, Tokyo and New York, the cocktail scene is well-developed and the bartender’s reputation has returned to that of the pre-prohibition days, when bartenders were stars and some even made more money than the president of the United States. The movement has spread and bartenders are now being given titles like “mixologist” or “cheftender” to better reflect the highly skilled profession.

I remember the first time I realized what an art form bartending was. For years, I studied wine. I was always looking for the right wine to pair with food—trying to decipher which wine from what region would have the right acidity level or which grape had the perfect aroma to compliment a dish. I was taking the creations of two other people, the chef and the winemaker, and trying to make a match. One day, I was trying to find a pairing for a dish that was giving me some problems. I needed more acidity and was looking for more tropical fruit and I just couldn’t find the right wine. I also thought a little spice, like cardamom, would have been perfect. It dawned on me that I could actually create those flavors in a cocktail myself. A little caramelized pineapple, a homemade cardamom/star anise syrup, some fresh lemon juice, a dash of rum and BOOM! That day my focus shifted from wine to spirits and I never looked back. Continue reading

The Buzz—March 2014

Thank you to everyone who participated in our reader survey—we loved your colorful comments and insightful suggestions. Congratulations to Fionna Buck, who won a cool $250 in the survey drawing (and even promised to spend every penny of it in her favorite restaurants)!

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 Albuquerque

Chris Medina, Michael Wewerka and David Boyd, the partners behind burger joint Holy Cow in East Downtown are very close to opening their newest restaurant, Gravy, in the old Milton’s space, across from Holy Cow. The menu at the upscale diner menu will reflect the space—comfort food with a sophisticated twist, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Beer and wine will be served, and it will be open seven days a week. We look forward to seeing the custom work and enjoy the next project from this talented group. Continue reading

Cocktails, Anyone?

Now there’s a provocative question. When it’s posed with a twinkle and a grin and answered in the affirmative, we know we’re in for some fun. Just the word “cocktail” makes me giggle.

The holiday season is the perfect time of year to try your hand at concocting a few. Gather the ingredients—enticing bottles of spirits, bitters, cream, fresh and preserved fruits, some chocolate, even—and set them out. Invite over the people you love, roll up your sleeves and get down to business. This is the time to break out the panache, add a little flash and do something special. In other words, show off! Live it up!

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KGB Spirits

KGB Spirits

story by James Selby
photos by Kitty Leaken

With this issue, localflavor returns to a series chronicling some of Northern New Mexico’s independent entrepreneurs: wine shops and markets and distillers who offer their customers artisanal creations imbued with the integrity of place and craft.

New Mexico is steeped in history. Many scholars, many books, many museums chronicle its rich, complex past. Heritage that we can taste—whether in a bean or a breed or a beverage—makes history much more compelling. It is this link—from ancestor to present, from farm to table—to which we look more and more to sustain our individual cultures, health, life. Recorded history began 5000 years ago modern history as soon as you finish this article. Is a bottle of Taos Lightning whiskey, bottled in New Mexico, a touchstone of history or a portal to the future? According to John Bernasconi, the president and master distiller of KGB Spirits, located near Alcalde, it’s both.

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The Spirits of Don Quixote

Don Quixote DistilleryYou 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