New Mexico’s Spirits Trail: Part 2
To get a brief introduction to spirits (hard liquor), read part 1 of this series.
Armed with (some) knowledge of spirits, and the willingness to try any liquor, we headed north of Santa Fe to our first stop, the Don Quixote Distillery and Winery. (We’re saving the wine for our next food trail series.)
Don Quixote’s isn’t the easiest place to find. As you head north toward Española on the 84/285, you’ll past it on your left. This is a divided highway so you’ll need to do a U-turn at the next stop light, and then look for the turn off. It’s misleading (you need to be in the exit only lane) and you may zip by the building several times – thus needing a good drink by the time you reach it.
Park around back, cross the patio and enter the cavernous adobe building. The shelves are stocked with a variety of spirits and wines – some are from other vineyards. The wooden bar is wedged in the corner.
Tasting costs $5 (deferred if you purchase) and you pick five from the long list of spirits and wine available. The price includes trail mix and glasses of water to cleanse your palate. Most bottles are around $30.
My picks and thoughts:
Blue Corn Vodka
Subtle herbs and a twice filtered process means that this vodka keeps the New Mexican blue corn flavor. There’s a mild burn, which builds in the throat, but the vodka leaves a minimal aftertaste. I’m not a vodka fan, but this one was above average.
Blue Corn Bourbon
This aromatic liquor (which burns the nose) blends 70% wheat and 30% corn and is aged for six years. The bourbon has a faint orange-yellow color and a gentle aftertaste. Easier than most to sip.
Spirit of Santa Fe Brandy
This light orange brandy is crafted using grapes from southern New Mexico. You can smell the alcohol but it leaves only a mild burn, tickling your tongue.
Spirit of Santa Fe Gin
Oh, this is good stuff. (Disclaimer: gin is my favorite spirit). It’s herbal (with locally harvested pinion and rose hips) and has some citrus zest. The local juniper plays with your nose and throat. Baby, this makes a great martini!
Qalvados (apple brandy)
The apples come from the Rio Grande Valley. The brandy is distilled Cognac-style and aged in French oak for seven years. It offers a light apple taste, with the flavor hitting the back of the tongue before mellowing. This would be the perfect companion to your Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
While you’re in the Pojoaque Valley area (right off the 84/285 by the Cities of Gold Casino), explore Santa Fe’s little secret, Kokoman Liquors. It doesn’t look like much – a warehouse with advertisements plastered all over it – but inside you can find just about any alcoholic beverage you can dreamed of. They stock eight hundred types of beer, shelf after shelf of liquor, and wines from around the world. Kokoman’s showcases a great selection of New Mexican beverages too. I’ve been known to skip merrily through the aisles with a cart in front of me – fully loaded. The pricing cannot be beat.
While visiting northern New Mexico, don’t miss our favorite tasting room – Santa Fe Spirits. (They have two locations. Visitors can tour the distillery at the one by the airport, but we prefer to stop by 308 Read Street in Downtown Santa Fe, next to Cafe Cafe).
Santa Fe Spirits is a small place with a simple but elegant vibe. There are comfy chairs and minimal Santa Fean decor along with a small bar. The staff, especially Howard, (who also teaches a wine class at the community college) is extremely knowledgeable and proud of their products. The bottles range in price from $5 for an airline-sized sample to the larger $32 bottle (gin). The bar also serves (limited) cocktails made from their products.
Notes on our tasting:
Corn-based with no after burn. It’s crisp and clean.
A sweeter, unaged, oakless, clear malt whiskey. You can taste the cucumber notes and some barley. It’s been compared to tequila.
This is a newer item, which combines some smokiness with nutty flavors. It’s a nice golden color with a mesquite essence. If you add water, the flavor really emerges – it’s mild with a hint of caramel. I’m not much of a whiskey drinker, but this was excellent.
Ah, the feel and taste of baked apples with nutmeg. This qalvados-style liquor also opens up well with water.
Named after Wheeler Peak, in northern New Mexico, this gin mingles earthiness with refreshing rain. The gin is infused with native herbs such as cholla, juniper, osha root (which Native Americans used for medicinal purposes), silver sage and cascade hops. Don’t be afraid to ask to sniff the bottle containing each herb.
The final distillery on our list was KGB Spirits. It’s located in Taos and doesn’t offer a tasting room. Instead, their website lists locations where you can sample their products.
If you’re in Santa Fe (or Albuquerque), head to Jinja, which boasts a great cocktail bar. They have their own special concoctions, with an emphasis on old-time cocktails. Try Mark Twain’s Pisco Punch for a real treat. Jinja is also a full-service restaurant with amazing Pacific Rim cuisine (order the lettuce wraps).
But, we’re here for the Taos Lightning. This single barrel, straight rye whiskey has been aged 15 years. (Read the story behind how the whiskey got its name.)
Taos Lightning is a brilliant amber color, with a smokey sweetness. It tingles instead of burns, making it milder than many whiskies. There’s a nice caramel scent and it warms your chest as it goes down. The price is $15 for a generous shot (a buck for every year of aging). Try it neat for the full flavor.
For the finale in the spirit trail series, we’ll be poking around New Mexico, on the hunt for tequila – that wonderful import from neighboring Mexico.
Disclaimer: Lane did the “testing” while Juliet drove. Be aware that New Mexico has very strong DUI laws. If you’re in Santa Fe and heading home from the bars, you can call a cab for just $1. Find out more about discount cab fares.
Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.