New Mexico's burgeoning craft beer industry appears capable of infinite growth. Here in Albuquerque, new breweries and tap rooms continue to materialize like bubbles in a beer glass and year after year those breweries with a consistent, quality product find a place in a market that never seems close to its saturation point. According to Brewer's Association statistics, New Mexico is currently 11th among states ranked by number of breweries per 100,000 21+ adults, with 3.1 craft breweries for every 100,000 of-age New Mexicans (Vermont tops this 2016 Brewer's Association list with 9.4 breweries per 100,000). Clearly, craft beer has captured the hearts and wallets of New Mexicans to a degree only dreamt of by the state's wineries and distilleries, even spawning a beer-tourism industry … wait, distilleries? Wine, sure. New Mexico has a rich history of wine-making stretching from the days of the Spanish conquest to the present—world-famous Gruet sparkling wines are produced in Albuquerque—but whiskey and vodka aren't products that one readily associates with the Land of Enchantment. In point of fact, New Mexico is home to one of the very best American single-malt whiskeys on the market.
Produced by Santa Fe Spirits, a small distillery that also makes gin, vodka and brandy, Colkegan Single-Malt Whiskey made just about every top five list of American single-malt whiskeys last year. Santa Fe Spirits' Colkegan is something special to emerge out of New Mexico's small craft-distilling industry and like Marble and La Cumbre once did for local craft-breweries, Santa Fe Spirits has set a high bar for the half-dozen fellow and future craft distilleries in the state.
Scotch is from Scotland, Bourbon is from Kentucky, Tennessee Whiskey is … well, you get the point. American single-malt whiskey is an increasingly popular new category of whiskey that, like single-malt scotch, is produced from one batch of grain, fermented and distilled, aged and bottled. Most American whiskey is blended whiskey, produced (in great volume) by combining multiple casks of whiskey from multiple distillation processes. American single-malts tend to be less complex in flavor than their Scottish brethren and far smoother and more delicate than traditional American whiskeys. I should point out one thing all single-malts have in common: a price point starting at 40.00 (Colkegan retails for around 53.00).
I was afforded two different bottles of Colkegan to taste. One was from Kokoman Fine Wine and Liquors in Pojaque, NM, the other came from Jubilation Wine and Spirits in Albuquerque. Both establishments had elected to sample and taste from the various barrels single batches of Colkegan whiskey is aged in, then select a particular barrel and decide—by tasting—when its contents were sufficiently mature for bottling under their own imprimatur, Kokomon #87 and Jubilation #226. Bottles of Colkegan on the shelves of most stores are going to consist of a single batch of whiskey blended back together after being aged in about 15 barrels, most of which are always used charred American-oak casks and a smaller number of which are always new charred American-oak casks. Because new barrels impart a heavier, smokier flavor—Bourbon is aged in new barrels—than used barrels, it's fair to say the smooth-as-silk whiskey in each bottle came from used barrels and is representative of the Colkegan any consumer might purchase. Adam Vincent of Santa Fe Spirits more or less backed up this assumption, though we didn't dive into the distillery's barrel notes and bottle histories which I imagine in bound form and occupying great heights of handmade bookcases. Just to summarize, every bottle of Colkegan contains whiskey made from a single batch of malted and smoked barley which is then aged in used and new barrels, the contents of which are reunited for bottling after three to four years.
Scotch is generally aged at least ten years; according to Santa Fe Spirits, Colkegan will never be aged more than five years. Besides mesquite smoke, the main native New Mexican ingredient in Colkegan is altitude. At 7,000 feet above sea level, whiskey mellows more quickly and develops its distinct flavors in a different manner than it would otherwise. Low humidity means the barrels don't swell as much, which exposes the whiskey to more air over a shorter period. The barrels are subject to the same variety of seasons New Mexicans know so well and the region's extreme cold and warmth contribute to the whiskey's maturation. Interestingly, the “angel's share”, the whiskey that evaporates over time during the aging process, is so great as to limit the maximum age of the Colkegan. After 4 years, the “angel's share” of Colkegan can be as high as half the contents of a single barrel! The coolest thing I may ever say about a whiskey is that Northern New Mexico's weather and altitude make for a uniquely aged single-malt that can't be replicated in Kentucky or Scotland. Or Ireland, for that matter.
And Ireland, my friends, is what the taste of Colkegan brings to mind. With a more straightforward and less smokey flavor and mouth feel than scotch and lacking the harsher, tannic “pow”, of American whiskeys, Colkegan immediately reminded this drinker of Irish single-malt whiskey. Both Kokomon and Jubilation have a sweetness in the aftertaste , with Kokomon #87 being slightly more vanilla in flavor and reminiscent of the black labeled Bushmills, while Jubilation's #226 has slightly more complex flavors comparable to the least smokey of single-malt scotches, Bruichladdich. The mesquite smoke really does contribute to a heavier, pelt-like mouth-feel that sustains the gilded sweetness of this wonderful New Mexican whiskey without any of the saltiness that many associate with the words “single-malt” (i.e. scotch). Each sip of this airy new-world whiskey introduces some slight peppery flavors that finish nicely with its overall sweet character and on the whole put Colkegan on par with the finest whiskeys I have tried. Colkegan borrows from other single-malt traditions, but in style and character this New Mexico whiskey helps carve out a niche for for the fledgling category of American single-malts, something Santa Fe Spirits and New Mexico should be proud of.