By Tania Soussan
Liza Barrett and Nicole Barady are living what some would consider a dream life. The longtime friends, along with their husbands, have created a successful business distilling craft spirits and serving them up to appreciative fans at two tasting rooms in the scenic Northern New Mexico high country of Taos.
The business, Rolling Still Distillery and Lounge, taps into a growing niche of consumers seeking products that are local, organic and hand-crafted. After considerable hard work, the owners are now are riding the craft cocktail boom that has spurred an increase in small distilleries across the country.
“The more the merrier, I think, with all the distilleries,” Barrett said, adding that the New Mexico industry is more like a family than a competitive group of business owners. “It boosts our economy, the job creation across the state.”
Scott Feuille, founder and distiller at Taylor Garrett Spirits in Albuquerque, is president of the New Mexico Distillers Guild. There are more than 30 licensed distillers in the state, most of them with a fully operational production facility and a tasting room, he said.
“We’ve got a really, really strong brewing scene here in New Mexico and now we’re starting to build that momentum for distilling,” said Feuille, who makes whiskey. “We’re doing almost every type of distilled spirit. It’s kind of a vibrant new scene that’s spreading across the state.”
Craft distilling is the fastest growing segment of the adult beverage market, he said. New Mexico is a good place to do business, in part because of a recent law that allows restaurants to serve New Mexico spirits without obtaining a craft spirits license, which costs close to $10,000.
Barrett and Barady have lived in Taos for more than 20 years, performing together in a women’s circus troupe and dabbling in other food and beverage endeavors.
Their husbands, Dan Irion and Scott Barady, are bandmates, best friends, die-hard teleskiers and former pizza shop entrepreneurs. While they didn’t know all the ins and outs of distilling, they knew a thing or two about brewing beer and culinary magic.
Together, the foursome — now all in their 40s and 50s — decided to start with vodka. “It’s a more simple process and also easy to infuse,” Barrett said.
Several things set their venture apart. The water that makes up 60 percent of their vodka comes from high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where rain and glacial snow melt take 75 years to percolate down through the rocks, picking up minerals, before resurfacing at Phoenix Spring in the Taos Ski Valley.
Rolling Still infuses its gluten-free, non-GMO corn-based vodka with regional single-source ingredients, including roasted green chile, smoky red chile, pecans from Las Cruces and lavender from a family farm in the San Juan River Valley. They also make a classic vodka that is distilled seven times to remove all impurities and enhance its smoothness.
Rolling Still tasting rooms near the Taos Plaza and at the Taos Ski Valley serve up signature cocktails, including a Lavender Honey Drop lemonade that’s popular in the summer and a Macho Mule made with Rolling Still red, green or Christmas chile vodka.
“We always knew we wanted a retail space because that builds your brand,” Barrett said, adding that the ski valley location is “a great billboard because of all of the visitors that come through.”
The team’s newest product is the Sidewinder 4.2 whiskey, made under the Ponderosa Whiskey Co. label. The spirit was born after the Taos Land Trust approached Rolling Still and offered rye grown as part of its Rio Fernando Park soil restoration project.
“It was really hard to say no,” Barrett said. “We knew we wanted to branch out and do some other product.”
The whiskey is infused with Las Cruces pecan wood planks and ponderosa bark that they harvest themselves under a U.S. Forest Service permit. “You can really smell the vanilla,” she said.
When planning the whiskey, Barrett and Nicole Barady wanted something unique, something lighter and more approachable than a typical whiskey. The Sidewinder 4.2 represents hundreds of iterations the owners tried over four years before settling on the current formula, which has won accolades, including a platinum international Sip Award in the American blended whiskey category.
The bottle labels feature a woman seen from the back, perched in a tree with a glass in her hand, watching the sunset, and appearing to wear nothing but a cowboy hat and denim shorts. “This here is a whiskey as smooth as the sunset. A true whiskey of the New West: Owned by Women. Chased by Men,” the website touts
That fits with the story Rolling Still’s owners have worked hard to craft and which they share on their folksy websites with labels like women-owned, family-run, handcrafted, small batch and organically sourced. They also hire women to conduct demonstrations and tastings in stores and at festivals through their Lady Roller initiative.
Now, the duo is looking forward to even more growth. With the help of a rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for automated bottling equipment purchases, they will double their production. They also are buying and rehabilitating an El Prado, N.M., warehouse and plan to introduce a gin this year as well as canned ready-to-drink cocktails.