Updated July 18, 2023
By S.D. Peters
Average Rating: B
Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey is the “aged” version of one of the two Scotch-style whiskeys distilled by Santa Fe Spirits – and another fine example of an independent distiller making good things happen to whiskey in the 21st Century.
An American distillery, set against a backdrop of Rocky Mountain peaks and Rio Grande basin vistas, established in 2010 by an English architect who arrives in Santa Fe via the British Virgin Islands, and producing a Southwestern variation of Scotch-style whiskey? Could this be part of a CM for a new character in another critically-acclaimed TV drama set in New Mexico? Santa Fe Distillery’s hometown of Tesuque, NM, was one of the last places visited by Walter “Heisenberg” White in the 2014 season finale of “Breaking Bad”, but a fictional distiller named Colin Keegan wasn’t the person Mr. White visited.
Colin’s story is very real, as is that of Santa Fe’s distiller John Jeffery. His choice of craft, though rooted in the high tradition of Scottish distilling, is a singular refinement attuned to Willa Cather’s wind-swept immigrants (she mentions Tesuque in 1927 novel, “Death Comes to the Archbishop”), an ironically life-affirming desert still life of Georgia O’Keefe, or the novels of Cormac McCarthy (who also resides in Tesuque).
Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey is distilled from 100% malted barley and bottled at 92 Proof (46% ABV). That mashbill, the base of traditional Scotch and Irish whiskeys, distinguishes Colkegan from most American whiskies, which are traditionally corn and/or rye-based. As Colkegan’s web site says, however, “this whiskey… wouldn’t want to be called Scotch even if it could be.”
It’s one of a unique breed of American Single Malt whiskeys which are adapting the Celtic traditions in new and exciting ways. Early American distillers imported the basics of their craft from Scotland, but initially took to the more durable rye grain in practice as a substitute for barley.
Now independent American distillers are returning to malted barley, and refining the traditional method at the malting level. Santa Fe Spirits isn’t the first – Rick Wasmund’s Copper Fox Distillery, in Sperryville, VA, has been distilling its Wasmund’s Single Malt Whiskey in 2005 – but like its peers, it stands apart from them and other American whiskeys.
The barley base of Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey employs a smoked malt that substitutes southwestern mesquite for peat, an idea now prevalent in Southwestern craft circles. The whiskey is aged in various oak casks, at the Santa Fe, NM, elevation: 7,000 feet above sea level, in the high desert.
In the glass, Colkegan has the mellow golden glow of a classic Scotch or Irish whiskey, and a woody scent of smoky vanilla bean with caramel stripes gives way to a pleasant hint of sliced star fruit and strawberry. The body is warm and relaxing, with a moderate sweetness at first, commanded by the flavors that filled the nose, but grows more earthy with a dash of mown grass and lemon zest.
The result of the malt’s smokiness is uniquely revealed in a mellow finish, where a moderate mix of bark, leather and tobacco harden around a soft, lingering taste of vanilla ice cream laden with fresh black raspberries. Although Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey is rooted in the Scotch tradition, it’s lasting finish is much closer to the triple-distilled velvet of an Irish malt whiskey.
Addendum by Richard Thomas
Scott Peters has long since retired from The Whiskey Reviewer, and his look at New Mexico’s Colkegan Single Malt is eight years old, so this craft whiskey is long past due for a return visit. I found it a simply flavorful American malt with a quite Scottish style.
A golden pour, the nose smacked of honey and cereals. The sharp scent of mesquite smoke is absent from the scent, and to the extent that the nose is smoky, it is faint and very much in the background. That particular aspect comes forward on the palate, which blends and balances elements of honey, oak and creosote. The latter is subdued by way of moderating its sharpness with lack of heft; in other words, with less of it there, the sharpness retains its character without becoming overwhelming. The finish is short, running first with wood-driven spices before fading back onto the smoke, making it the best part of the entire experience. The whiskey would, in my opinion, do better if this pleasant finish ran longer, but it is just fine as it is.
When Peters wrote about this back in 2015, a bottle of Colkegan went for $60. Nowadays, expect to pay $90.