Santa Fe, New Mexico
Founder Colin Keegan is making creative artisan spirits like mesquite-smoked whiskey while pushing New Mexico to support growth in manufacturing.
The British-born Keegan did a stint in the Caribbean before landing in Santa Fe as an architect. When construction came to a standstill in 2009, he looked for a second career and soon found one in distilling.
He started growing apples on four acres at his property in Tesuque, 10 miles north of Santa Fe. Making apple cider led to making apple brandy, followed by other spirits other spirits and a 7,000-square-foot facility in Santa Fe. In 2013, Keegan opened a tasting room in the city's hip Railyard neighborhood near downtown.
Running a distillery involves a lot more than just distilling. "We can't be whiskey nerds and survive," says Keegan. "We have to get involved on the business side of things."
That means catering to tourists in Santa Fe. "Downtown outsells the distillery tasting room five to one," says Keegan. "Tourists like to say, 'I met the guy who grew these apples' or 'This mesquite-smoked whiskey is one of a kind.’"
He now supplements his supply with apples with 4,000-gallon tankers of juice from Big B's in Hotchkiss, Colorado. Keegan commends Big B's Jeff Schwartz. "He's nonstop and you've got to catch him when you can, but that's how we are," he says. "We're full-tilt all the time."
With distribution in seven states -- New York is second to New Mexico -- Santa Fe Spirits catalog include the top-selling Wheeler's Gin and the Scotch-style, mesquite-smoked Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey. Keegan calls the former "a very different gin," with cholla cactus and sage among its botanicals. The latter won an Editor's Choice award from the U.K.'s Whisky Magazine among other accolades and awards.
Santa Fe Spirits also produces unaged White Coyote whiskey and vodka and a new liqueur, Atapiño, with such local ingredients as piñon nuts and ponderosa pine resin. Keegan calls the catalog "a nice balance" of white and brown spirits.
A stellar sales curve included 55 percent growth in 2013 and a 45 percent uptick in 2014. "This year we're projecting 35 percent growth," says Keegan.
It all adds up to the largest distillery in the state. "In New Mexico, we're kind of the big dog," says Keegan, noting that there are only about 10 distilling licenses in the state. "We're working on growing our industry."
He says he hopes the distilling industry follows craft brewing in New Mexico, which has doubled to more than 40 breweries in the last five years.
Keegan sits on the board of two local economic development organizations. "We're pushing to get infrastructure into our state and more manufacturing jobs," he says. "We need transportation."
He says the state strategy targets small chile farms and big companies like Tesla, but there's a void in the middle of that spectrum. "There's a big gap in between."
Challenges: "Finding the right balance between growing production to keep up with sales or pushing sales as hard as you can," says Keegan.
Another: a crowded and fickle marketplace. "Some bars love whiskeys, other liquor stores want vodka and gin.
Opportunities: Keegan says Santa Fe Spirits' gin and whiskey stand out, but he sees opportunity for broader growth. "We have good marketing and sales," he says. "Distributors are amazed how much help they can get from us."
Needs: Good employees. "We can't even get people to interview," says Keegan. "There's not a big employee pool."
"It's a young industry we're in," he adds. "We need to recruit young people to it. That's a struggle we have in New Mexico. A lot of young people get up and leave."