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