For years, Zac Hulme and Peter Arathoon have been distilling together as a hobby. In April, they turned their hobby into a business when they opened the cocktail bar and distillery Still Spirits.
Initially, Zac and Peter thought of the bar as mostly a tasting room, with production being an on-the-side passion project. But after they settled into the space and nailed down a drink menu, making their own spirits became their central focus. “We’re excited to be playing around with recipes instead of just installing light fixtures,” said Zac Hulme on a phone call. “Getting the space cleaned up was a full-time DIY job for a while.”
The exterior of Still Spirits is pretty nondescript: It’s a small space right across the street from Marble Brewery, in what used to be a mechanic garage. The garage door is still there, and stays open on pleasant nights, making it feel breezy and welcoming inside. The lights that hang low over the bar and the tables create little intimate nooks in the otherwise minimalist and wide-open space. In the daytime, this bar would look like a San Francisco laptop nomad hangout, with its hairpin stools and narrow tables. At night, while it still has the unshakable millennial vibe, it feels relaxed and informal. I didn’t feel out of place there in my T-shirt and sneakers. It’s a nice change of pace from most cocktail bars.
I first went to Still Spirits at 8:30 on a Wednesday night and the place was quiet, just a few couples having a nightcap. Me and my companion Rachel claimed the bar just as the new Kendrick Lamar album started playing. It seemed like a good omen.
The bartender was friendly and social, and more than happy to give us a spiel about the cocktails and the liquors they’ve been distilling. Behind the bar was a row of jars of various sizes, each containing some alchemical boozy infusion that was either in experimental stages or a staple part of one of the house drinks. A big glass jug full of pineapple glowed in the subtle under-bar lighting—an infused vodka that played a role in one of their specials. Some of the smaller ones were a little stranger: lemongrass infused vodka, for one. That little row of jars says a lot about a cocktail bar, I think. Mainly, that the bartenders are trying out new things every day.
The drink menu consists of some classics and some specialty drinks that are based off their house vodka. The first thing I noticed about the drinks is that they’re blessedly inexpensive: Most of them are $7, a pleasant change from the $13 martinis that a lot of posh cocktail bars think is standard fare. I ordered an Old Fashioned ($7) because I always order an Old Fashioned. Rachel had a Red #4, a house cocktail that consists of hibiscus-infused Still Spirits vodka, ginger beer, soda water and bitters.
The bartender made me a drink that’s light on the sweetness and heavy on the smokiness. Their Old Fashioned is made with Santa Fe Spirits’ Colkegan single malt whiskey, a dark and earthy spirit that I’m already quite a fan of. The Red #4 is a solid summer drink: sweet and tart from the hibiscus, spicy from the ginger beer and pleasantly light. It’s also, as the name might suggest, a really beautiful dark red.
Still Spirits has already released their vodka—which features in all of their signature drinks. You can buy bottles of it at the bar and, in the future, in some local liquor stores. They just recently released their gin, which I tried a taste of. While gin isn’t usually my drink, I couldn’t find many bad things to say about this one. It’s less floral and herby than most gin I’ve tried, and has a clean taste that almost reminds me of sake. They debuted it over the weekend at the first annual New Mexico Distillers’ Guild Spirits Festival, and hope to be selling it by the drink this week, and by the bottle within a month or so. They’re working on their own whiskey next, crafting a recipe based on triticale, a grain that’s a hybrid of rye and wheat. Once they’ve got their own gin and whiskey in rotation, I imagine that their cocktail list will expand to include them.
Peter and Zac have found that the limits of running a small-scale distillery have forced them to be more nimble and creative in their approach. “We’re folding all the profits from the bar back into the distillery right now,” Zac said. “The plan is to grow the distillery as the bar grows. All that distilling equipment is expensive—but we want to keep experimenting and making new things.”