I joke a lot about being a “professional drinker” with friends and acquaintances. No, I don’t have any specialized degrees or expertise that would overtly qualify me from someone else, nor am I an alcoholic by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have a love for good drinks beyond the cursory glance many give to specialty drinks on their first try. When word of a new speakeasy re-opening under El Rey Theater hit my ears, you know I was ready and running.My last experience with the bar that resided underground was brief, and nothing too exciting or disappointing. It was just another stop on a night’s long bar crawl. Founders is the new concept in place, so I was interested to see what had changed to help differentiate them from the previous bar. A small group of us got together, headed over, and prepared to find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes.First thing is first: no password, no entry. The speakeasy concept is in full swing here. No signage, no obvious hidden door, no indication you’re standing over a bar full of people while you’re inside El Rey Liquors. Thankfully, the password can be obtained straight off their website, foundersabq.com. From there, I don’t want to spoil the surprise of how it’s hidden, because that’s half the fun, but before we knew it, we were walking down a staircase and into a very different bar than the one I remembered.What strikes me first is the selection on the walls. It’s impossible to miss, these long shelves packed with labels of things I have never seen before, colorful liquids and bottles peering down from their perch behind the bar. No longer overwhelmed by whiskey (though it is still a respectable portion of stock), you can easily spot gin, rum, vodka and more all over. What catches you most off guard is the fact that ultimately, you very quickly forget you’re underground. The space feels open, the ceiling high enough for someone to not feel claustrophobic. As we sit down, Josh Rivera, head mixologist, immediately comes over to greet us. He’s joined by Elijah Pimentel, general manager, and as we start to look over the menus and introduce ourselves, the conversation kicks off. “We want to source local. We have great beer, and now we’re getting really great spirits. We want to showcase them,” said Pimentel. Very quickly, he shows us 10 different drinks all distilled here in New Mexico. It’s abundantly clear that local flavor is the focus, especially if local is bringing something new and interesting to the table.Right off the bat, you can tell with Rivera and Pimentel that this isn’t just a job for them. This is a passion, something they care so intrinsically about, that talking about their work isn’t a thought process. “We wanted to push ourselves, we wanted to make a closed loop system, to be eco-friendly,” Pimentel explained, while pulling things down from around the bar and showing off different aspects of what helped them stand out. Before we realize it, we’ve got three drinks in front of us, tasters of house-infused vodkas, the history of a rare rum with accompanying sample, and the whole ideology of their business laid out for us. “The idea is once we are busy, nothing will get thrown away. We’re going to be recycling everything, composting things. Even using and making marmalades,” Rivera says, while measuring out this gorgeous whiskey into a glass.The first drink we tried was the Gobernador Sazerac ($13) featuring Taos Lightning Governor’s Reserve Rye Whiskey, a house-made syrup and Chesapeake Bay Bitters, served with a twist. I love whiskey and have come to love the burn of it on the throat, which is why I was so shocked when I didn’t feel that familiar burn. The balance of ingredients managed to just disguise all the familiar burn and leave me with nothing but the clean taste of the rye whiskey itself. This was then followed by a warm heat that just filled my mouth, not extreme, not negligible; just present and aware. Needless to say, the drink didn’t last long in front of us.The infused vodkas were next on the list. The first one we tried was the strawberry infusion, which nearly floored me. The sweetness of the strawberry just flowed across the tongue and there was not a hint of vodka in it. It was so smooth and clean, I had trouble believing it was in any form alcoholic. This was followed by a clementine infusion, which was the same feeling. This amazing orange taste boasted none of the alcoholic bite I expect from vodka. This is when it hits home that for them, this is everything. It’s not about making things good, it’s about making things perfect.Then it was on to the Sangre y Arena ($13), their take on a Blood and Sand. Featuring Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey, cherry brandy, Antica Carpano’s Formula Sweet Vermouth, fresh orange juice and a Luxardo cherry garnish, this is truly the definitive Blood and Sand. Nothing is lost in this drink, and you are left with a truly unbelievable profile of sapidity that is next to mind boggling.We finished with The Modern Whiskey Cocktail, which of course is a recipe from 1850. Featuring a simple syrup made from tree sap, this drink hits strong right off the bat, but it winds down so quick you don’t realize it’s come and gone. The flavor is strong, but the kick of booze certainly isn’t. I believe I even muttered the phrase “dangerously attractive” to my cohorts while trying it.The biggest take away from Founders wasn’t just that they have some of the best drinks in town, but that this is a passion project fueled by the desire to elevate the drinking culture of Albuquerque. Within the hour of talking with Pimentel and Rivera, one phrase in particular remained with me long after I left, and it holds true to the entire idea of Founders: “Respect the ingredients, respect the spirit.”
A glance behind the bar gives an idea of what’s in store.
Josh and Elijah explaining their love for craft cocktails.