4,750 miles separate Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
One lies just 70 miles south of the Scottish border, an hour-plus away from a land synonymous with barley, peat, and whisky. One lies in the high desert, 7,000 feet above sea level and a full day’s drive from the epicenter of American whiskey.
One man connects them: Colin Keegan.
When you meet Colin, he comes across as a confident – if unassuming and relaxed – businessman. His accent is a mix of London erudition, Yorkshire pub, and a hint of the Scottish border, with the occasional dip into a southwest drawl that somehow meshes perfectly with the pan-British medley already in play.
Founder of Santa Fe Spirits, the oldest still-functioning distillery in New Mexico, Colin is a long-time transplant from his English roots. He moved stateside nearly thirty years ago in his former career as an architect. At the time, he had no inklings of distilling, no thoughts of oak beyond the joists and beams of the houses he’d design.
Over the next decade and a half, Colin and his wife settled into the New Mexico lifestyle. An artist from California and an architect from northern England who met in the US Virgin Islands, Colin and Suzette acclimated to dry weather, moderate heat, and Pueblo-styled surroundings.
Colin’s architecture career brought the occasional gift of a single malt, a step up from the inexpensive blends he imbibed in the UK. To transform him from architect to distiller, though, would take a fortuitous setback… and an opportunity.
In the late aughts, Colin had designed a house for a client on an apple orchard a few miles north of Santa Fe. A modest four-acre property, the orchard produced small, tart apples suited to the dry climate. When the project fell through, Colin and Suzette took a second look at the property, this time for themselves. Shortly after, they bought it, orchard and all.
Apples and Garages
What do you do when you suddenly have four acres of apples? Juice them, of course. Trees became bushels, bushels were pressed, and gallons upon gallons of apple juice and cider soon pushed the couple’s cars out of the garage.
To Colin’s credit, he seems to have known quickly that apple juice and cider weren’t exactly New Mexico staples. Beyond just that, the sheer volume was more than he could sell, even with a highly reductive process. He turned his attention to an even more reductive process: apple brandy production.
As any distiller-to-be finds out, before you can distill, you need the still. Colin spent the better parts of 2009 and 2010 touring every distillery he could reach, asking about still types, the basics of fermentation and distillation, and how to transform his overflowing bounty into a more moveable product.
The first still he used was a 15 gallon beer keg fitted with the valve hacked off and a stainless steel column placed on top, packed with copper and a stainless steel heat exchanger. This produced modest quantities, but a newer, larger vessel was needed.
It’s not easy to pick a still. If you’re in America, you’ll likely look first to Vendome. In Scotland, maybe Abercrombie or Forsyths. When Colin was looking around, he had to look far and wide; there was only onefunctioning distillery at the time in New Mexico, which has since folded.
The answer came in a German-built Christian Carl (now CARL) hybrid still, custom made for Colin and his burgeoning spirits dreams. Colin had taken classes with Holstein and Christian Carl on distillation. Familiarity led to choice, and thus was born a 300 gallon still from which all of Santa Fe Spirits’ distillate flows.
With a custom-built still in a small, 4,000 square foot facility, the apple brandy began to flow more freely. The Keegan’s orchard produced Jonathan, Gala, and Golden Delicious apples, enough at first to keep the juice flowing (today they supplement with additional apples from southern Colorado). The brandy was made Calvados-style, an apple brandy made in Normandy with a DOCG and a dry profile, aged for one year in 25 gallon barrels.
As Colin would quickly find out, though, brandy still wasn’t enough.
At New Heights
The brandy was flowing and selling, but Colin knew it would take more to be sustainable, as not many people were drinking apple brandy in New Mexico. This is the early-to-mid 2010s; bourbon was exploding. Rye was filling up the tank for its own drive. Craft distilleries were in their second decade of growth, and recipes, techniques, and flavors new and old were returning.
Colin was more familiar with another grain: barley. Distilled, malted barley. To this day, his favorite whiskey not of his own is Ardbeg, about as classic an Islay single malt as they come. And so, the thought came: forget bourbon, rye, and wheat; what about an American single malt?
American Single Malt was – and still is – a tiny category under the American whiskey umbrella. As small as it is today, a decade ago it was miniscule. Just a few distilleries were even producing it, including McCarthy’s in Oregon and Westland in Washington State. A few years later in 2016, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission was formed (with Santa Fe Spirits as a founding member) among 16 distilleries across the country. We’ll return to them later on, though.
At 7,000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe Spirits is one of the highest distilleries in the US, if not the world (the current record holder, to my knowledge, is Breckenridge Distillery at 9,600 feet). It is, above all, dry. The average temperature hovers around 65 degrees and is rarely extreme on either end of the spectrum, similar to southern Scotland. Unlike Scotland, the humidity is almost nonexistent. Also compare this to Kentucky, where temperature can swing from freezing to over 100 degrees with sometimes oppressive humidity, and you have a unique environment in which to create whiskey.
Santa Fe is also nearly twice the elevation of the highest point in Scotland (Ben Nevis, not to be confused with the distillery of the same name). The question was quite simple: could an English transplant to New Mexico produce single malt in an arid, high desert?
Smoke and Oak
Mirroring Scotland, not all American Single Malt (ASM) producers smoke their malt. There are plenty who produce flavorful malts that have never touched peat, woodsmoke, or other flavoring. If your favorite whiskey is Ardbeg, though, chances are your own whiskey will have some smoke to it.
But what was Santa Fe Spirits to use? Locally, only two tree varietals grew, neither one very tall. The first is Piñon (also written Pinyon), the tree from which pine trees are harvested. Tradition is driven by what is available, and so pine nut rum is a regular tipple in the area. The wood smells incredible when burned, sweet and roasted, but Colin found that when used to smoke barley rather than burn as firewood, Piñon created an acrid flavor. So, Colin moved to the second tree: mesquite.
Mesquite wood is more commonly associated with barbecue than whiskey. It’s a hard wood that burns hot and grows quickly, requiring little water to grow, making it perfectly suited to the American southwest. It imparts an unctuous, meaty sweetness, like walking past a smoker filled with pork ribs and pork butts ready to be pulled and slathered in sauce.
The man from Newcastle-upon-Tyne had found his smoke; now, to find the barley.
After a bit of deliberation, Colin decided to keep it simple with a two-row barley. Keep in mind, there wasn’t much room already, so in-house malting was out of the question anyway. The 30% of the malt that was smoked would come from Briess Malt in Wisconsin, using the mesquite wood from New Mexico. The other 70% would come from BSG (Brewers Supply Group) in Minnesota, unsmoked.
Why 30%? It wasn’t an arbitrary decision. Colin and his colleagues tested smoked barley percentages of anything from 0% to 20%, 50%, and 100%. The 20% was “too weak” and needed something extra, but the 100% blew the barley flavor away and got too woody.
According to Colin, it took them a solid two years to find the smoke level they wanted. The mesquite smoke didn’t emerge until about 6 months of aging, and then he and the team waited a full year to see if the smoke kept developing as they intended.
There was another facet to consider: at Santa Fe Spirits’ beginning, they only had used casks to age the whiskey, mostly if not all) ex-bourbon. The experiments with smoke levels forced another change to Colin’s thinking, and new oak casks were incorporated. One-third of the whiskey is now aged in new oak, with the remaining two-thirds aged in used oak. Both are aged for at least three years in their warehouses before the liquid is ever sampled.
To this day, Santa Fe Spirits uses a mix of new and used cooperage for the whiskey. With no categorical regulations from the TTB, the mixed-use oak is fully permissible. If anything, using ex-bourbon casks is closer to single malt aging around the world than using only new oak casks.
Coming of Age
Everything was now in place: the malt varietal, the still, the wood, the smoke level, and the casks. Whiskey flowed from the CARL into the casks, which were then placed on two-barrel wine racks in a steel building being used as the warehouse.
The warehouse! How could I have forgotten. Let’s walk it back a bit…
The first barrels of whiskey were aged in a building on the western edge of Santa Fe, offsite from the apple orchard and in a place that could be federally bonded for whiskey maturation. Since then, four expansions have added contiguous buildings, including a brand new steel warehouse.
On a recent media call with Colin, Jake from BourbonLens asked a pertinent question: Santa Fe Spirits is at a similar elevation to Frey Ranch in Nevada (kind of – Frey Ranch is at about 4,750 feet above sea level) and has similar humidity, so how do the two aging processes compare, especially regarding the warehouses?
Colin’s answer showed a willingness to evolve and choose the best choice whether it’s the easiest or the hardest. Through 2021, Santa Fe Spirits injected humidity into the warehouse on a trigger basis approximately twice a day. Even with the artificial humidity, the casks still lost 12% per year – 12% – to the angels’ share.
By the time they were sampling the casks, almost a third of the liquid had evaporated. These rates compare more to Goa, India (where Amrut Whisky is made) than most places in the US. Summertime air conditioning was considered, but it was prohibitively expensive. So, after close to a decade of trying to fight Mother Nature, Colin changed course: 2022 will be the first year in which no artificial heat or humidity will be added to the warehouse.
Only time will tell how that will affect the whiskey. Adding to the casks’ new journey is a soon-to-come new warehouse in about a year’s time with a more formal rack system, so it will be several years until we know the true extent of this change. Such is life in the whiskey world; every choice takes years to realize its consequences.
Santa Fe Spirits’ whiskey is now averaging nearly four years old, and the results of the past changes in cooperage are already being seen (spoiler: the results are fantastic). If the thought process that led to changing barrel usage is any indication, the choice to let nature be nature will work out just fine for the distillery’s future.
The heart of Santa Fe Spirits’ whiskey lineup is the Colkegan, the Orange Label bottled at 92 proof. Batched in 15-gallon groups, these barrels form a base profile of moderate smoke, malty sweetness, meaty undertones, and not-too-sweet caramel. Santa Fe Spirits gets between 230-240 bottles out of each barrel, but not before going through a slow, slow, proofing process.
Seriously: this proofing process takes weeks to months for each batch. Using local Sangre de Cristo Mountain water, the whiskey is brought down from a barrel proof of between 124-126 proof (more rarely as high as 130 proof) to the standard 92 proof.
Slow proofing isn’t new, though few lean into the slow aspect as long as Santa Fe Spirits does. When asked why, Colin introduced a new word into my whiskey lexicon: saponification.
When one adds water all at once to achieve the desired proof, the influx shocks the whiskey, causing the oils and non-water-soluble compounds to clump together in unappealing blobs. This glob-forming is called saponification. If you’ve ever put an ice cube into a non-chill-filtered whiskey, you’ve seen a similar process in action called flocculation or flocculating, where the sudden cold causes similar compounds to drop out of solution and cloud the liquid.
To avoid this, the team adds just a half-gallon of water a day per 15-barrel batch, an insanely slow rate. Dropping from around 125 proof to 92 proof means adding approximately 62 gallons of water per batch, just over four gallons per barrel in the batch. The distillery is now on batch 22 of the Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey, and every sign points to this extra-slow process being the right move to create the whiskey they want.
Every once in a while, though, Colin and his team come across a barrel that is already at the perfect balance of oak, smoke, and caramel. These lucky casks become the Colkegan Single Barrel Barrel Proof, or the Colkegan Green Label. For now, these casks are bottled at 118 proof, only because when the label was first submitted to the TTB, regulations did not allow distilleries to hand-write proofs on the label.
This has since been changed, but in a sign of where Santa Fe Spirits is in their growth, they still have plenty of these labels left over. Colin has promised that once those labels run out, the barrel proofs will be actual barrel proofs (the new label has already been submitted), which tend to be between 124-126 proof and as high as 130 proof.
Despite that 12% angels’ share mentioned earlier, the casks do not shoot up in ABV as quickly as I thought they would. They clearly gain proof; there’s no moisture to absorb to counter evaporation, and water molecules move more easily through the wood and into the atmosphere than the much larger alcohol molecules.
The single malt distillate comes off the still at up to 120 proof (it can vary a bit – this is human-controlled, after all) and enters the barrels at 116 to118 proof for the same reason. Jumping 1% ABV/2 proof points per year isn’t extreme, but it does have me salivating to taste this at even higher proofs.
The last core whiskey product is the closest to home: Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey finished in Apple Brandy Barrels. Completing the circle from where Colin’s dream began, this 92 proof bottling is aged for an additional year in Colkegan’s own 25-gallon apple brandy barrels. After the brandy is matured, it is dumped and bottled, leaving the barrels for the whiskey.
Colkegan’s own Single Malt Whiskey is quickly poured into the barrel. This is a wet barrel for sure, with about two gallons still in the barrel (by weight) when the whiskey is added, according to Colin. Only a few hundred gallons are taken from each distillation run for this product, and Colkegan produces eight barrels at a time from the 25-gallon brandy barrels. By the time the apple brandy-finished whiskey is ready, 8% of the liquid is apple brandy that has seeped from the wood back into the liquid.
Finally, my favorite, the Colkegan PX (Pedro Ximenez) Finished Single Malt Whiskey. For Santa Fe Spirits’ 10th Anniversary, Colin wanted to do something special that celebrated the American spirit while honoring the Scottish tradition, all while making a unique and delectable whiskey.
He chose to finish his Colkegan Single Malt in PX-seasoned casks. Pedro Ximenez is a grape varietal and a sherry (fortified wine from Jerez, Spain) commonly used to finish Scotches. It has an intense sweetness and a syrupy mouthfeel on its own, the definition of a dessert/after-dinner wine. PX can easily overwhelm whatever it’s finishing or maturing, so it’s a testament to Colkegan’s profile that it can stand up to the sweetness.
The PX has a shorter proofing-down period than the classic Colkegan Single Malt and the Apple Brandy-finished version, both of which go down to 92 proof. The PX finish is proofed down to 103 proof before entering the casks.
As usual, Santa Fe Spirits didn’t take the “usual” route for their PX casks. Understanding that buying and transporting PX casks is not only expensive but highly competitive, they took a left turn at Albuquerque: Colin bought 60 gallon casks from Kelvin Cooperage, who acted as a broker rather than a cooper. The team then poured two full cases of sherry into these larger-than-average barrels and sloshed it around for a while before steaming the casks to push the sherry into the staves, effectively refreshing it for a new maturation.
Their whiskey enters the barrels and ages for another few months. What leaves the barrel stands up to any core-range, PX-finished peated Scotch I’ve ever had. Hell, it’s better than many of them. Bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV), it evokes scent memories of walking past a smoker full of sweet, fatty pork. The mouthfeel is rich and syrupy without being too heavy or too sweet, with enough proof and smoke to balance the PX and malt. If I had to choose a specific comparison, I’d have to either go with a sherry-finished Caol Ila or Balvenie.
In short, there wasn’t a single whiskey I tried from Santa Fe Spirits, not one bottle from the Colkegan line, that I can advise against. Each has a clear message to send and a new facet to showcase. Start with the orange label and work from there – trust me, it’s a journey worth taking.
Newcastle, New Mexico, New Voice
As of 2022, there are 22 active distilling licenses in New Mexico, with 12 active producers and around 15 functioning as brewer-distillers. This is a massive shift from the distilling scene Colin entered. In just over a decade, Colin went from touring distilleries to learn about still types and distillation and opening the second distillery in New Mexico (Don Quixote Distillery in White Rock was operational at the time but no longer produces whiskey) to a leading voice and guide to distillers statewide and nationwide.
Beyond New Mexico, the most striking twist since those years might just be the role – the many roles – Colin now plays in the industry.
When Santa Fe Spirits started, American Single Malt was barely off the ground and the number of craft distilleries registered in the US numbered in the low-to-mid hundreds. DISCUS – the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States – was the sole industrywide ambassador of any significance in the country.
Today, DISCUS is still the largest and arguably most powerful lobbying group for the spirits industry, but it now has help. In 2015, Colin met with five other distilleries in the back room of a Binny’s in Chicago to form the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC), an advocacy group formally founded in 2016 and dedicated to setting standards for American Single Malt, especially getting TTB recognition for the category. This group is still headed by Steve Hawley from Westland Distillery, who was present in the back of Binny’s with Colin.
That meeting was on the sidelines of an American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) conference, itself an industry-driven association on whose board Colin still sits. ACSA had been founded only two years earlier in 2013 to push for more support (and tax relief) for craft distilleries across the country while providing resources to start-up distilleries and people trying to enter the industry. As of 2022, the ACSA is led by Becky Harris of Catoctin Creek and has a fully-female executive board for the first time.
These groups – DISCUS, ASMWC, ACSA – and the ADI (American Distillers Institute) all partner frequently to advocate for the spirits industry. Most recently, the partners sent a joint letter to the TTB urging the government body to issue its guidelines on American Single Malt after more than six years of debate and inaction.
Colin is, unsurprisingly, involved in all of these actions. From an architect buying an apple orchard to a leading voice for American Single Malt, Colin’s personal evolution is no less impressive than that of Santa Fe Spirits.
At each step, Colin’s drive has pushed anything he is involved in forward. In 2015, he launched the New Mexico Distiller’s Guild with eight other distillers in the state. The ASMWC is above 75 members and knocking on the door of 100. ACSA has hundreds of formal members and represents the over 2,300 craft distilleries now operating in the United States.
Despite what must be an insanely packed schedule, Colin is a gregarious, engaging personality eager to talk spirits and nerd-out with anyone who reaches out. His wide-ranging industry involvement hasn’t slowed Santa Fe Spirits’ growth, either.
Entering 2022, Santa Fe Spirits employs eight full-time and two part-time employees at their distillery and tasting rooms, operating in an 11,000 square foot facility on the outskirts of Santa Fe. In addition to the Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey line, Santa Fe Spirits produces a pine nut liqueur sweetened with resin and a five-botanical gin made with botanicals all sourced from within 60 miles of Santa Fe.
Santa Fe Spirits’ nine products are directly distributed throughout 11 states, Germany, Japan, and Australia and to 41 states in total through ReserveBar. They’ve delved into ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails, including Negronis and Manhattans. They weathered COVID and came out strong, though finding staff continues to plague them. Their current output of 50,000 bottles per year is near-capacity, and direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipping remains a priority for them and the entire industry.
What does the future hold? Colin is talking about adding a 3,000 gallon stripping still to the current setup and considering future warehouse expansions. The current warehouse is only about 4,000 square feet, nowhere near big enough to handle the brand’s growth. At 2,000 barrels per year, it’s time to look for next-stage investors that can help bring in more capital and broaden distribution.
As for Colin? He’s not stopping anytime soon. And the industry – consumers and producers alike – are better for it.
Colkegan Pedro Ximenez Finished Single Malt Whiskey – Review
Color: Amber maple syrup. Splotchy rims and syrupy droplets.
On the nose: Candle-worthy blend of sweet, porky smoke and syrupy PX sweetness. Think pork self-basting in a pit lined with dates and plums and dark fruits, all laid over an orchard wood ember. Mouthwatering right out of the bottle. The PX does take over the nose fairly quickly, with the smoke receding into the background.
In the mouth: Smokier and more savory than the nose, where the PX became dominant. There’s a pleasant oak and proof backbone that tingles the front half of my tongue and lays the foundation for what’s to come. This could easily be mistaken for a sherried Highland or Orkney single malt. Smoke turns minty in the corners of my mouth. Cola syrup and black cherry build to counter the smoke and mint and turn the dram sweeter again. The mouthfeel is silky and syrupy, coating on the chew and lacquering as it dries. Oak and pepper spice grow on top of that lacquer. On the finish, the PX has an initial burst of fruity power before the malt and smoke roll in, reasserting themselves and balancing the pour. Powerful and delicate at the same time on a medium-to-long finish.
This could easily stand up to sherried single malts that have sweet-and-smoky profiles, particularly a Caol Ila or Highland Park. Pedro Ximenez sherry is syrupy and sweet on its own and can easily overpower a whiskey, but Santa Fe Spirits does an excellent job holding the PX back just enough to allow the malt and smoke their chance to shine through. It’s porky, smoky, fatty, and sweet, just excellent. Some Scotch drinkers might find this too sweet at first, but it’s the perfect dram for bourbon drinkers interested in sweeter single malt whiskies on both sides of the Atlantic. The price is well within range for the product’s age and quality and won’t break the bank.
I want to give this an 8, I really do, but I think a 7 is more appropriate. The Colkegan Pedro Ximenez Finished Single Malt Whiskey is a superb pour that should prove to doubters how much promise American Single Malt has. Beyond the malt itself, Santa Fe Spirits’ use of the PX cask to powerful yet balanced effect shows restraint and discretion. This is one to share with friends until there’s nothing left, then go buy a new bottle.