Desert Drinking 

A trip to New Mexico offers fresh spirits.

I am writing this week's Spirits column from a balcony overlooking Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is my first "real" vacation in two years (trips to the Gulf Coast to see my mom, to New Orleans or Nashville, or that 24 hours I spent in Harlem last spring hardly count), and m-a-a-a-n am I enjoying it. Within an hour of my arrival at the fabulously laidback Hotel Chaco, I was seated at Level 5, the rooftop restaurant, where I sipped on a cocktail while watching the sun set over the Sandia Mountains.

My first drink was Hotel Chaco's variation on the gin and tonic, called the Botanist. Zippy and peppy, their recipe included pepper, thyme, preserved lemon, and house-made kombucha. I drank it with zest.

click to enlarge Hotel Chaco
  • Hotel Chaco

With dinner, I drank the beautiful pink-hued Hummingbird, a sweet, fruity Patron tequila-based drink that included lime, agave, damiana, and hibiscus. I had to google damiana to find out what I was drinking — turns out that it's a native woody shrub that was used to make many patent medicines in the 19th century, including Pemberton's French Wine Coca, a drugstore brew concocted by the creator of Coca-Cola. Mexican distillers still use leaves from the bush to make a traditional liqueur, while herbalists make tinctures and teas that are seen as either relaxants or stimulants. Let's just say that I felt both energized and chilled out afterward.

At breakfast the next day, I splurged on a Bloody Mary, which, as it turned out, was worth every penny of the $10 I paid for it. The drink was as spicy as I expected, being in the Southwest, but it came with an added bonus: In addition to the requisite celery stalk and olive garnish, two strips of perfectly fried smoked bacon lay crossed atop the glass. I don't know how the locals do it, but I dipped my bacon into the vodka-tomato juice mix and ate it, then slurped down the drink.

Later, I strolled through the aforementioned Old Town, the historic center of Albuquerque, founded in 1706. I wound up stopping for lunch at Backstreet Grill, which had seven beers I've never heard of on tap. I wish I could say I tried all of them, but I'm just one person — and I already felt a little lightheaded from the altitude.

I did sample the Bosque Lager, a Pilsner-style beer with 4.8 percent ABV that was brewed just a few miles from my lunch spot, at a brewery on San Mateo Boulevard. I also drank a glass of a slightly lighter beer, the 4.3 percent ABV Body Czech Bohemian Pilsner from Boxing Bear, another craft brewery located in Albuquerque.

Unfortunately, I had to bypass samples from other local brewers like the Boese Brothers, La Cumbre, and Steel Bender. Back at my hotel, I did some online searching, and it turns out that Albuquerque has a robust beer scene, with 23 breweries active within the city limits. Marble Brewery, big contenders in the World Beer Cup, are on my short list to try before I fly home to Memphis.

Next, I'm heading to the desert, where I'm spending two days far from any luxuries, including bars, refrigerators, corkscrews, and taps. When I return to civilization, I plan to hit up Garduño's at Old Town, a 40-year-old restaurant and cantina located inside the venerable Hotel Albuquerque. Monday night is margarita night at Garduño's, and they have no less than 16 varieties on the menu. The restaurant served as a location for a pivotal scene in season five of Breaking Bad — it's where Walter and Skyler White met up with Hank Shrader and his wife (and Skyler's sister) Marie after Shrader discovered that Walter White was indeed the meth-making Heisenberg. Things didn't go well for anyone sitting at that table, but then again, Walt didn't stick around for a margarita.

I'll try just one, then head to Left Turn Distilling, the distillery behind La Luz Vodka, Rojo Piñon Rum, Brothers Old Tom Gin, and NM Blue Corn Whiskey, a twist on corn whiskey that is made with New Mexican water and locally sourced and ground blue corn. While Left Turn also has a happy hour on Mondays, I'll buy my drinks for the road — or for the plane flight home. Local spirits, after all, make the best souvenirs.

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