Click on the image below to lauch a slide show from the Craft Spritis Festival. Photos by Daniel Dunn.
It’s chilly in Breckenridge, and we gladly leave darkened streets behind for the peach-colored glow of a local restaurant. We open the door, and laughter washes over us. Bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka and brandy line up like soldiers at a table as I sit down next to Colin Keegan, the owner of Santa Fe Spirits. Keegan’s in town for the Craft Spirits Festival, an annual gathering of distillers in its second year. Tonight distillers pour drinks for a pub-crawl through town; on Saturday, we’ll converge on the Riverwalk Center for a grand tasting. Keegan offers a taste, and I choose the brandy. He keeps our tasting cups filled while I question the distilling entrepreneur about how he found his way from England to the Southwest.
What are the roots of the new craft distilling industry?
This wave of micro-distilleries came about because of microbreweries. After the initial wave of microbreweries, everyone wanted to try their hand at it. As they started to fail, some of them looked to spirits, since the brewing process gets you halfway to whisky. Breweries further inspired distilleries because consumers are now accustomed to drinking something more complex than Coors and that’s expanded to spirits.
What accounts for the popularity of micro-distilleries?
The big explosion in the last couple of years was started by the economy. As people lost their jobs, they looked to something that was fun and stimulating to get back to work. Many distillery owners are idealists. They see a goal and are not afraid to fail trying. The slow food movement has also inspired craft distilling. Taking the time to make a quality product is valued. Mountain towns, especially, are full of idealists because they head to where they want to be, not where they have to be.
You’re an early leader in the industry. How did you get here?
I’m originally from England, but I like America better for business. My wife is from the West Coast, so after meeting in the Virgin Islands, we made our way to Sante Fe because we like the climate. It’s hard to be a distiller in Europe. Many farms make their own spirits and sell them locally, but it’s nearly impossible to actually distribute.
How does the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival represent the industry’s growth?
It is a good indication of where the industry is now. Everyone hangs out together and they want to see what other distilleries are doing. It’s a very friendly atmosphere. We understand that we can learn from each other. We’re all crazy scientists. For us in particular, this festival is nice because there are only three distilleries in Sante Fe. But here, it’s very social. Right now there is one distillery license given every two weeks, but many will not make it. Others will boom, such as Stranahan’s has. They became big enough to be bought out.
What’s the future of the industry look like?
In five years time, there will be someone with a vested interest in the industry, like a bottle supplier, sponsoring the festival. I really appreciate that this is sponsored by a town like Breckenridge because it is not pushing a product on us. Soon there will be a huge amount of attrition due to cash flow. I’m lucky that I’m self-financed, rather than bank financed. Many distilleries will find it hard to get the market capacity they need. Some distilleries are good, but some don’t have a high enough quality to sell products. Others will get bought out. Additionally, the economy makes businesses around us hurt. The bars we sell to don’t have stand-alone managers anymore. The managers have to work the floor and they don’t have time to sit down to sample products to find the best. The financial pressures are on everyone. Another big aspect will be simply educating people on different types of spirits, just like we had to learn what an IPA was.
What’s unique about micro-distilleries?
No two are the same. Some produce a range of products like we do, and some, just one. We are all starting to experiment with aging other spirits in unique ways. We are currently working on a mesquite-smoked whisky. We just released an unaged whisky—well, legally, to be called a whiskey, it has to touch oak. Ours is aged 15 seconds. —Sydney Fox
Visit santafespritis.com or try one of the distillery’s signature cocktails, the Apple Toddy, made with their Apple Brandy. Combine 2.75 oz Apple Brand, 3.5 oz hot water, 1.5 simple syrup, and 2-3 dashes of spice. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and serve. Stay tuned for more on the 2013 Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival here.