Keegan, who has a broad smile and hair coiffed in a style reminiscent of 1950s film stars, is telling me the story of how he got started in the whiskey business. For him, it began as a hobby: Keegan, an architect, used the apples from his orchard in Tesuque to make apple brandy—which, it turns out, is illegal. (Unlike homebrewing beer, federal law all but prohibits distilling liquor, even for personal use.)
In 2010, he explains, the construction industry took a dive, and “nobody needed an architect.” For Keegan, though, it was an opportunity.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to get a license and see if this hobby goes anywhere,’” he recalls.
Today, Keegan’s microdistillery has gone from a small-scale operation, staffed by two people, to the rare recession-era success story. Santa Fe Spirits—the city’s first microdistillery—started in 2011, with sales of around 300 cases; this year, they’re aiming for upwards of 2,000, and Keegan thinks they can hit 7,000 by 2015.
“And then, in 2016, we can start breaking even!” he laughs, only half-jokingly.
It’s a hot, bustling Saturday afternoon (Spanish Market weekend), but the microdistillery’s latest venture—a cozy downtown tasting room adorned in hardwood and leather—is cool and quiet. At one end of the space, bartenders offer tastings and expertly mix unique cocktails featuring SF Spirits’ various products (Wheeler’s Gin; Expedition Vodka; Silver Coyote white whiskey as well as a more traditional, barrel-aged variety; and Keegan’s original apple brandy). A series of panels along the walls explains the distilling process and forms the basis for virtual tours. Bar snacks are plentiful, and the ambiance is laid-back and welcoming.
Keegan says his goal was to create something that would be “half cocktail lounge, half fun little tour.” In other words, customers can learn “the layman’s terms” of distilling liquor, he says, while also enjoying a tasting or a cocktail (or both).
I order the Manhattan with barrel-aged whiskey ($8, or $7 with Silver Coyote), made with bitters, “a splash of simple syrup” and Luxardo cherry juice—in part because it’s my favorite drink, but also because I love it when bars are classy enough to use real Luxardo cherries. It’s perfect—not show-offy, just classic and reliable.
Keegan tells me that, in addition to the distillery’s current offerings, he’s planning to release a mesquite-smoked single malt in September. I get a sneak preview: the aroma resembles a peaty Islay, except with the mesquite smoke from a barbecue in place of the peat. It tastes like a good, young (it’s only two years old) Scotch—which, Keegan says, is pretty much what it is.
“We just can’t call it that, because it’s distilled here,” he explains.
We talk for a while about the elements of whiskey; clearly, it’s one of Keegan’s chief passions. He hopes to eventually produce five-year and 10-year aged varieties. He’s optimistic about Santa Fe’s ability to support a thriving, local microdistillery—more than one, in fact, since Alcalde’s KGB Spirits and Los Alamos’ Don Quixote Distillery compete with Santa Fe Spirits.
“Santa Fe’s a good town for that, because a lot of people move here to get away from corporate America…There generally seems to be a big wave for micro,” Keegan says, adding that this was part of his own motivation for starting the business—“the Slow Food movement really spoke to me.” What’s difficult, he says, is competing with the major players like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.
“My job’s turned into trying to make sure we can capture at least a little bit of shelf space,” Keegan says—and, he adds, “telling a story in an inventive way, because there’s no way we can match the price point.” So while you’ll never get a $9 bottle of liquor from Santa Fe Spirits, you will get the flavor of apples from Keegan’s orchard and a mesquite-scented single malt that invokes the American West. And evidently, the model is starting to work. Although the downtown tasting room opened just last week, by the time I finish my drink, it’s full of 20- and 30-somethings in hipster glasses and cowboy hats.
“We hope this to be where people can come, hang out, taste the whiskey, have a cocktail,” Keegan says—and, of course, discover the product Keegan takes so much pride in crafting. “We research this a lot,” he grins, “by drinking a lot, of course.”
308 Read St., 780-5906
1:30-8:30 pm Monday-Saturday