Written and Photography by Rob McCorkle
Botanicals. Infusions. Purees. Shrubs. Tinctures. The world of cocktails spins on a new axis these days with a growing band of New Mexico distillers using homegrown crop and native herbs to impart to their spirits a distinct Land of Enchantment taste. Mixologists in distillery tasting rooms, bars and restaurants from Farmington to Las Cruces are handcrafting an impressive variety of creative concoctions using everything from native blue corn and green chiles to pinon pine nuts and wild juniper berries. In other words, these ain’t your father’s cocktails.
There’s even an online New Mexico Distillery Trail to help booze hounds find their way to the state’s dozen or so distilleries in a burgeoning New Mexico industry that launched in 2004 amid licensing chaos with the now-defunct Don Quixote Distillery in White Rock. Today’s modern “moonshiners” employ sleek stills and the latest distillation technology to produce smile-inducing brandy, gin, rum, vodka, whiskey, various liqueurs and a 100 percent agave spirit that is essentially tequila, but can’t be called such.
In 2010, New Mexico could only claim one distillery. The state Legislature in 2011 breathed new life into the infant industry by passing a measure allowing craft distilleries to join breweries and wineries in having tasting rooms serving their cocktails and bottled spirits directly to the public. While Santa Fe and Albuquerque function as the epicenter of craft distilling, southern New Mexico is gaining a toehold with three distilleries pouring their handcrafted liquor in four locales: Glencoe, Las Cruces, Ruidoso and Silver City.
Nationally, craft distillers (defined as those distilling and bottling no more than 100,000 proof gallons annually) are rapidly gaining ground on the craft brewing industry that has exploded in the past decade. According to national craft distillers associations, the number of active craft distillers rose 26 percent between 2016 and 2017. As of last year, craft distillers numbered more than 1,800 with California and New York leading the top-producing states, followed closely by our neighbors, Colorado and Texas. One-third of all craft distillers operate in the West. Production is expected to increase by 37 percent over the next five years.
What’s driving the steady rise in craft distilling’s popularity is open to conjecture, but some distillers point to the millennials who crave authenticity and locally produced products. The New Mexico Distillers Guild serves as a clearinghouse of s and respected source of information on taxes, licensing and the like.
President Colin Keegan runs Santa Fe Spirits, the state’s oldest distillery, which employs 13 people. “New Mexico,” he says, “has followed the national trend of growth in distilleries, as nowadays people are much more interested in the back story behind their luxury items. The Foodie Movement has been a big part of that growth, too.”
NATIONALLY, CRAFT DISTILLERS ARE RAPIDLY GAINING GROUND ON THE CRAFT BREWING INDUSTRY THAT HAS EXPLODED IN THE PAST DECADE.
In southern New Mexico, Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery in Silver City been distilling spirits since 2013, recently moving brewing and distilling operations to the former 1930s-era Silver City Liquor Company building and former skating rink only a few blocks from their popular downtown restaurant and bar. Last year, “The Toad” expanded to Las Cruces, opening a tasting room in the heart of downtown serving craft beers and spirits. Their gin, vodka (infused with green or red chile), spiced rum, tegila, bourbon whiskey, coffee liqueur (Toad Kauphy) and other spirits sell by the bottle, by the shot or mixed in a variety of cocktails, such as the Gin Flower Martini (made with house-infused lavender syrup) and Cucumber Mint Mojito (made with house-made silver rum).
“Our best-seller is TeGila, which is a spin on tequila and the Gila National Forest region from whence we come,” explains co-owner Teresa Dahl-Bredine. “We make it from raw agave nectar. The minerals in our water give it a smoky quality that goes nicely with this type of spirit.”
Just as the soil in which wine grapes are grown gives a unique taste to New Mexico wines, regional waters, woods and mountain air, too, impart a distinctive “local” taste to southern New Mexico spirits.
lencoe Distillery co-owner Sherry Barrow says she believes “our sense of place” sets the distillery apart from other New Mexico distilleries by dispensing cocktails that tell the story of Lincoln County.
“People say our GinWillis gin tastes like a winter evening in the Sacramento Mountains and that our Gin Willis Cup tastes like Ruidoso after a summer rain,” says Barrow, who along with husband Glen, and Will and Rebecca Ponder, launched the distillery a year ago. Locals and tourists alike find their way to the Glencoe Distillery Tasting Room 12 miles west of Ruidoso or drop by the Ponders’ Sacred Grounds Coffee & Tea House in Ruidoso to try the latest adult beverages and spirits-spiked coffee drinks made from homegrown products. The Glencoe tasting room serves as a “test kitchen” for dozens of cocktails that run the gamut from espresso martinis to single malt whiskey to six versions of agave spirits (Aguila) infused with locally sourced purees, tinctures and bitters. Glencoe’s house margarita, for example, includes their orange liqueur, Oranjito. As a member of the New Mexico Distillers Guild, Glencoe Distillery prides itself on supporting fellow distillers by serving some of their select spirits as well.
Dry Point Distillers, founded by Dr. Stefan Schaefer and his son, Chris, on the edge of Old Mesilla, is the latest entry into the New Mexico craft distilling market. They parlayed ethanol produced with a small-pot still to fuel their farm equipment and a newfound affinity for fractional distillation into an avocation celebrating the ancient art of alchemy. Chris consulted with cousins at an Albuquerque distillery and father and son read up on the subject of distilling before obtaining a New Mexico craft distillers license and setting up shop in a small strip center on Calle de Alvarez just east of Avenida de Mesilla. Spirits are distilled and stored in the back of the building, while patrons enjoy the finished product at the hickory bar or a table in the intimate tasting room in the front.
The Schaefers and friend Cory Payne, who distill their own gin and vodka, draw an eclectic clientele – university students, millennials, baby boomers and retirees – to their intimate tasting room that opened last October. It’s a comfortable space featuring a rustic Southwestern décor complete with cow skulls, succulents and large regional maps.
In addition to their gin and vodka drinks, Dry Point offers cocktails made with Colkeegan scotch and a bourbon whiskey imported from a large Indiana distillery. The bourbon sports a distinctive rye profile that the Schaefers were looking for and could offer while they wait for their handcrafted whiskey made from heirloom Taos blue corn to age in white oak barrels in the back along with some brandy distilled from locally produced wine.
For the Schaefers, it’s all about using grains, herbs and juices primarily sourced in New Mexico. A big hit during winter months has been a drink called the Golden Apple made with red chile vodka, ginger beer and fresh-pressed apple cider from FARMesilla, a farm-to-market business just down the street. This summer, Chris says he’s looking forward to offering vodka cocktails infused with hibiscus and pineapple.
“We spend a lot of time ensuring that every product we put on the shelf and every ingredient we use in our cocktails are the best they can be,” Chris says. “You get the freshest, most flavorful ingredients that haven’t been sitting on the shelf forever in transit from Florida or Mexico.”
Dry Point meticulously crafted, smooth-tasting vodka reigns as the top-selling spirit, but it’s a classic cocktail – an Old Fashioned made with bourbon, bourbon cherry, citrus and bitters – that customers prefer over all other drinks. Also popular is the house-made gin distilled from imported blue juniper berries that is atypical in that Chris uses unique botanicals to impart various flavors to such drinks as the Ginger Gin Martini and Gin Fizz.
The Schaefers, who currently have a production capacity nearing 1,200 proof gallons, would like in the future to expand at their current location if it proves feasible or open another tasting room in another part of Las Cruces. But for now, they’re content with further perfecting their distilling techniques and creating innovative cocktails with a local flavor.
“The biggest thing for Chris and me,” says Dr. Schaefer, “is starting small and growing slowly to ensure top quality and consistency.”
Dry Point Distillers
1680 Calle de Alvarez, Suite C2, Las Cruces (575) 652-3414; hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.
27495 U.S. Hwy. 70, Glencoe (575) 430-2325; hours: 1:30 p.m.-6 p.m., Thursday-Saturday.
Sacred Grounds Coffee and Tea House
2704 Sudderth Dr., Ruidoso (575) 257-2273; hours: open daily from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, until 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday & Thursday, and until 10 p.m. Friday & Saturday.
Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distrillery
119 N. Main, Las Cruces (575) 556-9934; hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday & Saturday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday.
Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery
200 N. Bullard, Silver City (575) 956-6144; hours: noon-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, noon-midnight Friday, noon-1 a.m. Saturday.