New Mexico is a perfect breeding ground for spirits, in more ways than one. While the national beverage industry is dominated by corporate giants such as Beam Suntory (which sells Sauza and Hornitos along with its Jim) or the Brown-Forman Corporation (which puts out Herradura and Don Eduardo along with its Jack), recent years have seen the marked rise of small-scale, locally owned distilleries across the United States create products that are complex, finely made and absolutely enjoyable. New Mexico's wealth of regional botanicals and broad culture of artesian craftsmanship has emphatically spilled over, like an overpowered martini, into the world of distillation, particularly in the area of gin. Below are a few highlights from the top small local distilleries.
1) Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Gin
Like the highest peak in New Mexico, this gin is named after famous cartographer George Wheeler. The moniker is well deserved, as Santa Fe Spirits' unique dry gin has an unmistakably high-altitude, Southwestern stamp. All the botanicals used to flavor it are locally sourced and distilled separately before being combined together. In addition to a fragrant base of juniper, Wheeler's contains a strong hint of sage. Hop flowers and osha root impart bright, spicy notes and cholla cactus flowers give a hint of cucumber. However, the sage is the dominant flavor, adding complexity and lift to a spirit traditionally dominated by the taste of juniper. It is a quintessentially New Mexican gin, as unique and one of a kind as Santa Fe Spirits' mesquite-driven single malt, Colkegan. Fans of more traditional London-dry style gins will find the alternative botanicals too strong to be palatable, but for the adventurous drinker the breadth of flavors makes Wheeler's well worth seeking out. It makes for an excellent but nontraditional martini, especially with classic proportions of vermouth and gin, since Wheeler's has enough bright, biting flavor to balance the herbal undertones of vermouth.
2) KGB Spirits Los Luceros Hacienda Gin
This refined and polished gin is named for Los Luceros Winery, the original business responsible for the site upon which KGB Spirits is based in the small town of Alcalde, near Española. Besides using purified water, organic botanicals sourced from all over the world and a potato base, distiller John Bernasconi makes his award-winning small-batch gin in an alembic copper pot still custom-made by Arnold Holstein of Bavaria, Germany. While most clear spirits such as dry gin are produced in column stills to emphasize purity, and most brown spirits such as single malt scotch are made in pot stills to add richness and depth of flavor, Hacienda borrows a little bit of processing from the latter in order to bring out rich depths of complexity from the added botanicals, which include Croatian juniper and Sicilian bergamot peel. While it is not the only gin in the world to be made this way, it is certainly unique, with fragrant notes of citrus peel, pine and clove. Because of the bright flavors, it makes an excellent base for a gimlet, needing only a little bit of sweetness and lime to make it pop.
3) Algodones Distillery Ginebra Gin
Algodones is located on a small farm in the Rio Grande bosque, in a town of the same name about 25 miles north of Albuquerque. It was named after the little cotton farms that dotted the area in the 1700s. It is also known as "the Arts and Crafts distillery," since its products are handmade in small batches in copper pot stills according to a unique recipe of local botanicals. Here, Greg McAllister and P David Pacheco craft their Ginebra Southwest Dry Gin in small batches of blue corn-based spirit using artesian well water and flavored with herbs and plants native to the bosque, including juniper, sage, prickly pear, rose, lavender and piñon. The Ginebra is at once both delicate and rustic, with light floral and strong herbal undertones. I like it in a simple gin and tonic, or with soda and bitters, to let the heady botanical elements shine on their own.
4) Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery
The new kid on the gin block in Santa Fe burst on the scene with a lively bar and restaurant in Midtown and is already a favored local producer of interesting spirits from business partners Jason Kirkman and Jason Fitzpatrick. Each batch of gin begins with organic wheat and rye barley beer made along with other brews. Then it's distilled into neutral grain spirits and again using thoughtful blends of spices, local juniper berries and other plants, says Kirkman, who learned the craft of distillation when the duo decided to launch the business. At press time, three gins are on offer at the bars and at Susan's Fine Wines, Cliff's Liquors and even Total Wine: a London dry style, an intense botanical, and a Naval strength with flavor inspirations from chai.