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.

Cactus Heart, shot by Lois Ellen Frank

Cactus Heart, shot by Lois Ellen Frank

Santa Fe has an underappreciated cocktail culture, with some of the best bartenders in the country concocting luscious libations every night. Quinn Stephenson is one of the most inspiring bartenders and a mentor to many in the community. He is the genius behind the award-winning bar programs at Coyote Café, Geronimo and the Den. Quinn designs “culinary cocktails” and believe me, just as much work goes into prepping, researching and creating his drinks as it does for a chef creating a menu. Quinn is known for using ground-breaking techniques in his beverage programs. He uses high tech kitchen tricks to create mind-blowing cocktails that are not only tasty, but some of the most visually stunning creations I have seen. Liquid nitrogen, which is cold enough to freeze alcohol (grown-up ice cream anyone?), foams, gels and even molecular gastronomy techniques like spherification can all be found on the drink menu at Coyote Café. Just downstairs from Coyote Café is the Den, going on three years in operation. Quinn  told me he “built the Den to showcase craft cocktails in a lounge atmosphere.” By late evening, the Den morphs into a nightclub atmosphere with DJs and people dancing while drinking Quinn’s Aphrodisiac Shot, an intentionally tart passion fruit lemon drop balanced with house-made vanilla cotton candy. Yep, he makes his own cotton candy. The man is simply marvelous.

Hotel bars used to be the bees knees. They were respected drinking spots that were not filled only with passing tourists but socialites looking for a tipple. That reputation is returning and hotel bars are regaining their allure to locals. Secreto Lounge in the Hotel St. Francis is where you can find Chris Milligan, the Santa Fe Barman (santafebarman.com). Part cocktail historian and part entertainer, he is a wealth of information and the perfect guy to go see when you want to take off your bar training wheels and start to get into the nitty-gritty of the cocktail world. For the past five years, Chris has been behind the stick at Secreto designing cocktails and educating guests on how to drink better. “Our vision is not just to serve drinks, but to give our guests a drink experience,” Chris explains. “Secreto is Santa Fe’s first and only bar that features an entire menu focused on local and organic ingredients and creating garden-to-glass cocktails. We change the menu four times a year to use the fruits, herbs and veggies that are in season.” The bar at Secreto is lined with jars of fresh fruit and herbs and looks like a booth at a farmers market. There are several offerings on the menu that are crafted with fresh and homemade ingredients. Chris also has a menu of classic offerings, each with a little information on the history of the each cocktail, which is true to who Chris is as a bartender, always educating and keeping the guest wanting more.

Another hotel bar in Santa Fe offering a classic atmosphere is the bar at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi. For the past eight years, James Reis has managed the bar and developed a program with a focus on the classics. Order a martini and you will get a real martini. Manhattans, Negronis and Old Fashioneds just like you would get in a hotel bar before prohibition took its toll on the industry. But Anasazi doesn’t just make classic cocktails, it has a signature cocktail menu which is a collaboration of all the bartenders there. “Each bartender is asked to contribute to the menu,” says James,  “typically without much initial oversight. We then bring our ideas together to make sure no duplication exists, and the drinks are tasted and refined. Ultimately, what sets it apart is this air of collaboration, people being encouraged to be creative. We are constantly purchasing new liquors that fit our profile—no cake vodka, no Red Bull—which also helps encourage creativity.” I absolutely love that James pulls in his staff to be a part of the menu development. What better way to honor your staff and keep the creative juices flowing.

Another trend on the rise in the cocktail world is low-alcohol wine- and beer-based cocktails. They are a perfect way to enjoy imbibing whilst not getting too tipsy. Byron Rudolph is the sommelier at La Boca and has a knack for creating wine-, beer- and sherry-based cocktails specifically designed to complement Chef James Campbell Caruso’s Spanish tapas cuisine. His knowledge of everything grape and his incredible palate allow him to select just the right low-alcohol sherries, which he uses in the place of the higher proof spirits typically used for cocktails, like vodka or whiskey. Mont Marҫal Cava sparkling wine, Hidalgo Manzanilla Sherry, mint and grapefruit juice combine in the Sherrito, Bryon’s fun twist on a Mojito.

Santa Fe’s cocktail scene has all the bases covered. Hotel bars, nightclubs and restaurant bars, all with different vibes for whatever your mood. You can venture out and find a fresh garden cocktail or something that resembles a lab experiment. The one similarity in all of these bars is the passion, talent and creativity of the Santa Fe bartenders who create cocktails and smiles for their guests every day, holidays included.

Story by Kate Gerwin


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