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