Why would 17 bartenders in a row, one after another, pour me noticeably taller drinks than those of the four people seated next to me? Do I have some kind of reputation in this town?
Of course, the tallest pour was about a quarter of an inch deep in a small glass, and I was able to make liberal use of a spit bucket to ensure that I didn’t get too hammered to perform my duties as one of the judges in the Silver Coyote Western Whiskey Cocktail Contest, let alone find my way safely home—but still.
Silver Coyote is the name of the first product unveiled by Santa Fe's first official distillery, Santa Fe Spirits. It's a single-malt white whiskey, meaning it's made with a single grain—in this case, barley—and it's bottled straight out of the distillery without aging or coloring. Instead of the oak and caramel that most people associate with whiskey, it's a pure white liquor with a relatively unsubtle flavor, closer to tequila than bourbon.
I won't be replacing my preferred sipping beverages—small-batch bourbons or mezcals—with Silver Coyote anytime soon, but the presence and laudable efforts of a small distiller in Santa Fe are worth toasting with any beverage.
Craft distilling usurped craft brewing some time ago as the challenging alcoholic-alchemy du jour. As overrated as I find the general cloud of hipsterdom that hovers over Portland, Ore., the craft-consumables scene there is enviable, and its roster of spunky distilleries is downright dreamy.
Santa Fe Spirits is our first shot across the bow, signifying that we're ready to make our mark on this national trend. Obviously, it's unreasonable to open a distillery with eight-year-old whiskeys; you'd have to invest in all the infrastructure and then sit around waiting to launch your product. That's why a cocktail competition was a smart way to launch Silver Coyote. It may not be everyone's go-to porch sipper but, as a cocktail ingredient, its potential is unlimited.
Great cocktails by contest winner Alex Velez of La Casa Sena and runners-up James Reis from Inn of the Anasazi and Matias Guillen from The Compound exemplified white whiskey as a relatively neutral base for inventive mixology. Unfortunately, too many of the contestants simply produced standard cocktails, using Silver Coyote as a substitute: margaritas, Manhattans, Tequila Sunrises, etc. Too few of the contestants made use of bitters, nectars, infusions and the full apothecarial arsenal available to the contemporary and adventurous bartender. But everyone who attended the event at Rio Chama's patio bar was a good sport, and quite a few near misses—cocktails that were almost there—were offered up for sampling.
Santa Fe Spirits won't be resting on Silver Coyote as its sole product for long. An apple brandy is slated for release later this year, and the company has initiated production of an aged whiskey that is likely to see limited release after two years in oak casks.
That gives us just enough time to make sure that New Mexico's strange liquor laws give local distilleries the same options to open tasting rooms as breweries and vineyards currently enjoy.
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