Two years after receiving their federal distilling permit, Zac Hulme and Peter Arathoon opened Albuquerque’s newest craft distillery last April. Still Spirits is across from Marble Brewing’s downtown taproom. While new craft breweries have swept the nation—Albuquerque now boasts more than twenty—local distillers have been much slower to embrace and adapt to this local craft movement.
As both Hulme and Arathoon lament, many people don’t even realize that spirits can be—and are being—made locally. “We’re starting at square one,” says Hulme, who handles the technical side of the business, including the distillery’s equipment and tasting room design. “Some people don’t even understand that you can be a distillery.” That’s exactly the mindset they’re determined to change. In addition to making high-quality spirits, Hulme and Arathoon are committed to educating their customers that hard alcohol isn’t just for parties, but can be sipped and appreciated, too.
Hulme and Arathoon have known each other for twelve years, initially meeting as architectural associates at a firm in Albuquerque. They’ve experimented with the distilling process for roughly five years, but distilling, unlike homebrewing, is strictly regulated by the federal government. It wasn’t until they secured their current location that they were able to receive a federal permit to begin official operations. Since then, they’ve been building out the space and refining their recipes. “We enjoy the process and the hands-on aspect of it,” says Arathoon, adding, “we appreciate the nuance that spirits have.”
Like many new distilleries, Still Spirits’ first product is a vodka, which Hulme describes as a “technical product.” It’s supposed to be neutral and flavorless, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. “There’s so many different ways you can go with vodka,” Hulme notes. “It’s a world of experimentation,” which is where Arathoon, who designs the cocktails, lets his creativity take over. In addition to standards like Moscow mules, gin and tonics, and Bloody Marys, all of which Arathoon is particularly proud, their menu features experimental drinks like the Turmeric-Tonic-Tini, Raskolnikov (vodka, cold-brew coffee, half and half, and simple syrup), and the Red No. 4 (hibiscus-infused vodka with ginger beer, soda, and Peychaud’s). Arathoon has also experimented with different tinctures to flavor new, innovative drinks. “There’s a whole, vast spectrum of flavors you can put together that don’t necessarily fit into most people’s idea of what a cocktail can be,” says Hulme.
Arathoon has also been in the process of developing a gin and a whiskey. The gin will likely be a traditional London dry gin with heavy notes of juniper and coriander. For the whiskey, instead of using wheat or rye, Arathoon has opted for the locally available triticale, a hearty Scottish grain he describes as being somewhere between the two more commonly employed ingredients. “That’s one of the great things about distilling,” says Hulme. “You come up with some unique and interesting stuff with what’s available.”
After this two-year process of opening the tasting room, Hulme and Arathoon agree that the positive reactions they’ve received from customers, both those who are already familiar with craft spirits and those experiencing them for the first time, have been the most rewarding aspect.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all about the drink. “Your experience of the drink in your hand has a lot do with the things in it,” says Hulme. “But it also has a lot to do with the person who served it to you and the process they went through making it.” To this end, Hulme, who built the bar, tables, and drink rails using natural wood that complements the building’s more industrial roots, wants the low-key aesthetic to match the casual atmosphere they’re attempting to foster. “We wanted to let our ideas and our presence evolve from the place we’re in.”
Hulme and Arathoon view Still Spirits as a quieter alternative to some of the other downtown bars and want customers to think of it just as they would a high-end restaurant where they can come to try new things and experiment with different flavors. “We want people to keep their minds open,” says Hulme.
Looking toward the future, the pair hopes to open other tasting rooms and expand distribution, but for the moment their focus is on making quality drinks. “We’re just concentrated on the bar and the drinks and the culture and making a really good product,” says Hulme. “We want to be super proud of the stuff we do.