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.
Alcalde is situated on the dry plain north of Española often regarded as a worn welcome mat to the Taos Mountains, a lonesome landscape to traverse on your way to the slopes. This is too bad, because there are greener pastures adjoining the Rio Grande to the west of Highway 68. There sits, for example, the most spectacular 19th-century hacienda in New Mexico, Rancho de los Luceros, the former estate of Mary Cabot Wheelwright, founder of her namesake museum in Santa Fe. Located on the ancestral site of the San Juan Pueblo (which was later occupied by the Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate), the 140-acre Wheelwright property is now a museum and houses Robert Redford’s film institute, Milagro at Los Luceros. Yet despite this lustrous pedigree, Alcalde is still in the boondocks. When I ask Bernasconi for an address I could google, he replies that it wouldn’t help—even the state police can’t find his place. Indeed, it takes a couple of passes by some disdainful cows to get on the right path; I then go across an acequia and along a plowed field with clods the size of laundry baskets until I arrive.
The distillery, one of three to receive a license in New Mexico, is housed in a straw bale structure of a former winery. John Bernasconi—slim figured, with mussed, espresso-colored hair with a touch of crema, in plaid shirt and jeans—is waiting in the sunshine. Only after you hear the laundry list of his varied life experiences (including a degree in engineering and another in art; full-on careers in restaurants, hospitality, wine and spirits retail, as well as sales and distribution; time spent developing the distillery) do you begin to fathom the fact that this guy is in his middle age.
For someone who has lived in New Mexico for 25 years, Bernasconi is far from laid back. He speaks with such intensity and intellectual acuity it leaves you in awe, like watching Fred Astaire tap dance. After one articulate rhapsody, Steve Jarrett, KGB Foreman and de facto Marketing Director, asks him mischievously, “Is your head about to explode?” The two met when Jarrett was chef/owner of Tulips Restaurant in Santa Fe and Bernasconi sold wine.
“Steve brings a great ability to differentiate and extract flavors and contributes immensely in developing the profiles of our spirits,” says Bernasconi. “He’s also a lot neater than I am.”
Jarrett, who resembles Andre Agassi, is measuring rare botanicals, spices, and herbs into small muslin “tea bags” to be placed inside one of the two copper alembic stills designed by Bernasconi and custom-built by Arnold-Holstein in Germany. (Those years in engineering school paid off.) The bags will flavor a batch of Los Luceros Hacienda Gin. Like a chemist in an apothecary, Bernasconi has a trove of organics in glass jars and bags: Sicilian bergamot (immature peel of an orange) and manna (or flowering ash), juniper berries from Tuscany, cinnamons from Madagascar and Sri Lanka, and black cumin, considered an ancient medicinal (the same variety was found in King Tut’s tomb).
“We’re a local business,” says Bernasconi, “but to make a world-class product—and it has to be, to be competitive in the handcrafted spirits market—we use the best ingredients. I’d love to use local products, but there are 50 types of juniper in New Mexico, most of them poisonous.” Finer quality spices and botanicals have higher essential oil content, producing more intense aroma and flavor. Says Bernasconi, “Who wouldn’t want those in a spirit?” He does have plans for the rustically plowed eight acres in front of the distillery. Sorghum, the stalky grain used to make a type of molasses, will be planted to produce rum, and for Bernasconi, “local” will soon mean “outside his door.”
Simeon Turley (there’s a name to take your hat off to), a 19th-century distiller in Arroyo Hondo, north of Taos, was a major supplier of grain and spirits to the U.S. Army before being pursued and gunned down by a mob during the Taos Pueblo revolt of 1847. He called his whiskey Taos Lightning; it was the oldest branded name of whiskey in the American West. More than one hundred years later, KGB acquired the trademark for Taos Lightning from a retired jeweler in Taos. “There’s history behind this product and a story to tell,” says Bernasconi.
KGB’s product labels, narrow and cannily detailed, were created by Bernasconi. (Those years in art school paid off.) The design for the Hacienda Gin has a filigree border resembling antique money. Historically, spirits were a medium of exchange and are recession-proof. “Ginebra,” an archaic Spanish word for gin, appears in minute print. In homage to KGB’s illustrious neighbor, which you could hit with a sling shot from the distillery, are delicately drawn architectural details of the Rancho de los Lucero’s hacienda porch spandrels. (Taos Lightning has a rendering of the Winchester rifle, though Bernasconi admits the weapon came along a few years after Turley met his demise.)
The distillery’s common, neutral spirit is used as the base for its gin, for its soon-to-be-released Brimstone Absinthe, and for its Vodka Viracocha (named for the Inca god of creation; KGB can take their products out into the world, but they can’t take the Santa Fe out of their products, at least not altogether). It is distilled from potato, which gives roundness in the mouth and makes these three offerings easy to sip unadorned. “Bartenders tell me, ‘Let’s make up a cocktail!’ They miss the point. Cocktails were invented during Prohibition to mask the taste of lousy booze. Why distill layers of complexity and wonderful flavors only to have them covered up with passion fruit puree and flambéed?” evangelizes Bernasconi.
Newly converted, I taste my way through his collection. Inhaling the distilled aromas from the world’s gardens and then sipping the bracing, pleasurable spirits is rather like taking the first glimpse of actress Rooney Mara on the silver screen: I am stunned by an unorthodox beauty. Subtleties of flavors in the gin and absinthe draw me in. As with fine wine, the intricacies are deep, sensual and cerebral. The craft is evident. Each is superb.
Twice during my visit, as if daring himself, Bernasconi picks up an entry application to the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, an annual event held in March for artisan distillers. “If we could win a medal here, it would give us international recognition,” he says. For John Bernasconi, the loquacious, ascetic entrepreneur who has been in near isolation in the New Mexico mountains designing and building a distillery, mastering his craft, it’s time to let the booze do the talking.
Note: KGB does not have a tasting room. Products are available at select, independent fine wine and spirits shops and restaurants in New Mexico.