Spirit Worship

Altar Spirits turns distilling into an art

I promised myself I wouldn’t drink in the days leading up to my interview with Altar Spirits co-founder Caley Shoemaker. Don’t get me wrong—I know it’s kind of weird to do a booze story without sampling the booze, but I headed into the meeting with high hopes for a piece that would solely focus on the business. Once Shoemaker’s husband and partner, Jeff Gust, offers me a small sip of the company’s Sigil gin fresh out of the still, though, I figure I’ll likely never get the chance again. Bottoms up.

“Now, that hasn’t been cut or anything yet,” Gust announces, “so it’s got some fire to it.”

Truer words and all that...the tiny sip does indeed have some fire to it—but nuance, too, from the aromatic floral notes that hit at the top to the subtle citrus bite that reveals itself in the aftertaste. I don’t regret it, even if I find myself immediately buzzed and start gushing at Shoemaker and Gust about their operation.

“S’pretty good,” I say, “s’pretty cool.” Dumb.

Altar (545 Camino de la Familia, (505) 916-8596) is a relative newcomer to Santa Fe’s burgeoning distillery landscape alongside Tumbleroot and Santa Fe Spirits, and one with a gorgeous flagship tasting room in the Railyard that my friends still in their 20s swear by. Shoemaker tells SFR she and Gust opened Altar in January 2020—we all know what happened two months later. Still, she says, they made it through thanks to a stellar staff, some killer package/retail and batch deals and high-quality products. You’ll find Altar Spirits in restaurants like Joseph’s and La Choza; and while I was originally on the fence about yet another booze establishment in what I refer to as the Railyard Drinking District, consider me an Altar convert.

Shoemaker and Gust, it turns out, care deeply about becoming an asset to the community, not just with their spirits, but with employment opportunities, live music events and monthly fundraising events for local nonprofits. At a recent benefit for Noise For Now, which works toward reproductive rights through concerts among other things, Altar helped raise $2,000 in one-time donations and 25 new monthly donors, according to organizer Amelia Bauer.

To put a finer point on it, Shoemaker and Gust understand Santa Fe’s reticence when it comes to newcomers, but they’re not interested in changing the scene so much as becoming a part of it. They’re dedicated to New Mexico flavor, too, with ingredients like piñon and osha root making their way into Altar’s stuff. You can truly taste those things in their spirits, too—wild when we consider the flavorless quality of corporate distilleries around the globe (looking at you, Stoli).

After the impromptu gin tasting, Shoemaker takes me deeper into the Altar warehouse to see its small bottling and labeling station from which, she says, thousands of bottles get filled and shipped. Deeper still lies the barrel room, a climate controlled space wherein Shoemaker estimates Altar could work with 300-plus barrels but, at this point, houses roughly 60. Still, they took over the massive Railyard space with expansion in mind.

Shoemaker is what we’d call a master distiller. She cut her teeth while in college in her hometown of Denver, where a chance visit to Stranahan’s Whiskey Distillery kicked off a lifetime love of spirits as art. A former session and touring drummer, Gust was already in craft beer when they met. In college at the University of Denver, Shoemaker pursued art, though she now says she should have gone for chemical engineering. Engineering is in her family, she notes, and she likes solving puzzles—distilling, she says, is basically chemical engineering wrapped up in a puzzle.

In the barrel room, she gives me another sip, this time of the Big Nose Kate whiskey, which Altar brings across the finish line after fermentation and was created by Shoemaker’s old distilling pal, Mel Heim. This one’s another winner, though more time in the barrel will make it even tastier. Shoemaker obviously knows this, she’s just excited to show me what they can do.

“I never thought about where liquor came from before I was in distilling, and I think a lot of people don’t,” she says. “A lot of stuff gets to our tables that we, as consumers, are so disconnected from, but the feedback I get from customers is so great that we just want to get out into our community and let people know we’re here.”

At this point, I’ve completely abandoned my no-sips plan, and we head back out to the bar to sample some other things, including the Ritual vodka and the Aradia aperitivo liquer. Shoemaker has me sample the finished Sigil gin, which, while not as intense as its younger brother from earlier, proves smooth and flavorful. In its final form, Sigil’s flowery notes are more noticeable, and the citrus comes more to the forefront. When sipped in tandem with the aperitivo and its hints of cherry bark and citrus peel, I attain a glorious synergy, and by the time I get to the Ritual vodka, I’m ready for anything. Still, this is a small tasting, and nobody’s getting trashed. Shoemaker does light up in way you might confuse for drunkenness, but I think it’s just pride over how much I’m repeating I like the stuff.

“It’s so much fun for me to say, ‘I’m gonna try this recipe,’ and then it’s exactly what I thought it would be,” she says. “I feel like I’ve hit a stride in my career.”

What that means for new items in the future remains unclear, but when Gust pops out front to have his photo taken alongside his wife and the third or fourth sip of gin really starts to hit me, I realize I might have fallen in love with these people. I better tell them I’m tipsy before they think I’m nuts.

“It’s not about, ‘let’s get drunk,’” Shoemaker explains before I leave. “I think it’s where science and art meet.”

And though I re-up my parking meter, leave my car and walk home, I still think about how she’s right all the way there.

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