Editor’s note: Just in case anyone thought I might be dooming myself by trying to write every article in the 2015-16 Look Back/Look Ahead Series, what with so many, many breweries out there now, I present the first article in the series written by another member of the Crew. — Stoutmeister
Breweries come in all shapes and sizes in New Mexico. Some are comparatively huge, as Stoutmeister already wrote about with La Cumbre, Bosque, and Tractor. Others are smaller, more modest operations. One of these is Distillery 365, which at first glance seems a bit out of place on a beer news website. But just in case anyone out there has not heard, they are brewing beer in addition to making spirits. I sat down with co-owner/distiller/brewer Matt Simonds to talk about the overlap, how his first year of business progressed, and what plans he has for 2016.
NMDSBC: So, you don’t have a full year, but a little over six months under the belt now, right? Looking back on your not-quite-a-year, what was the hardest part?
Simonds: (Laughs) Opening, everything. Dealing with the licensing at all levels. One we got open, it was about 45 seconds of relief before we had to start working again.
NMDSBC: You’re obviously primarily a distillery. As far as beer goes, I think I remember you saying you didn’t think you were going to put beer on as early as you did. Is that right?
Simonds: Actually, yeah, the beer was always kind of meant to be a second thought. Secondary to the spirits, definitely. At the same time we’ve got all this cool brewing equipment we wanted to try out. We had so much fun doing the first beer, the ESB, and I think we made a pretty good beer …
NMDSBC: That’s what I told you! When I first toured the distillery you were unsure about your brewing skills. Then later when I tried your beer, I said Matt, this beer is good.
Simonds: Thank you, thank you very much. The people who know better than I do or have better experience than I do have given a positive response to the beer. It’s really made us rethink our position on the beer and as a brewery. I don’t want to say or think the beer is ever going to take over as primary to the spirits, but at least here in the tasting room there is no reason they can’t be side by side.
NMDSBC: Yeah, in this spot … We’ll talk about that more coming up. You’re going to have the crowd who wants to stop in for just a beer and does not want to have hard alcohol on their way home or what have you, so you are always going to have that niche, which is great.
Simonds: Absolutely. We followed up the ESB with the Fourth of July — it’s such a unique beer.
NMDSBC: I am such a proponent of the Neomexicanus. (Note: a type of hop completely native to the U.S., specifically New Mexico.)
Simonds: Did you hear the sad news about that? We can’t get it next year.
NMDSBC: And there’s an (overall) hop shortage, so that’s a problem!
Simonds: It’s a huge problem. We won’t be able to do Fourth of July next year. It was such a unique beer and unlike anything people were putting out. There was a crowd that really embraced the uniqueness of it. This also means we won’t be able to do our hops gin, either. But, we just got done putting out our first lager, our Lone Pine Pilsner. If you are going to start doing a lager, you might as well start with the absolute hardest style you can possibly imagine. And it came out fantastic. So we are really having a lot of fun with the beer. It’s been really a learning process.
NMDSBC: Do you think that would be the biggest surprise for you this first year — the beer?
Simonds: Easily, easily the biggest surprise. That has been a huge and very pleasant surprise. The effort that goes into experimenting with the spirits is so difficult. The ability to play around and do some fun stuff with the beer is so much easier because many of the hurdles don’t exist. I can put out a new tap every week if I want to, if I could sell it. The beer has been a great opportunity to express the creative side.
NMDSBC: It’s great for our purposes, for our stories, because it would be hard to tie the distillery into the Dark Side Brew Crew. So, I am really glad you are telling me that.
Simonds: Just on a side note, the fact that you guys have embraced us at all is so cool and we really appreciate that.
NMDSBC: You have been so easy to work with. And it’s good if you can appeal to a wider population. We are a beer site, but we are going to mention the distilled spirits.
Simonds: A lot of distilleries have this attitude that you can ferment whatever you want and distill it and it makes it great. I truly believe that the fermentation is the crux of the creation process. The distilling is really the easy part, more or less. Fermenting is tough, it’s hard.
NMDSBC: I’m no expert, but distilling is within reason pretty much the same process each time, but so many things can happen in the fermentation process …
Simonds: Exactly. The opportunities to screw up — or vice versa — are great. The brewing has really challenged me to be a good fermenter and have good fermentation technique.
NMDSBC: See?! Beer is awesome!
Simonds: Beer is totally cool. And, I think it’s made for better spirits. People taste the vodka and they are blown away, or they taste the rum and they are truly perplexed that you can get such wild flavors from a rum. And, I explain to them that it is really all about the fermentation.
NMDSBC: We’ll move on to looking ahead — the new tasting room at Green Jeans Farmery, the development that everyone knows has been a process.
Simonds: Yeah, it’s been an exercise in patience to say the least. We are lucky we had the distillery location open, so we are still running the business. It’s unfortunate. Look at what all the breweries (and distilleries) do for the local economy. The local story, the local ingredients, the local employees. But, you learn to play the game and you move on.
NMDSBC: There are so many bad stories out there; the brewery scene is a positive, a camaraderie type of thing.
Simonds: Oh, my gosh, yeah. The tourism dollars, the people that are coming to New Mexico now specifically because of how good the beer and the brewery scene is.
NMDSBC: We’re all beer tourists when we go somewhere else.
Simonds: Right. Thankfully I just heard back from the State and our application has finally been forwarded to the City. Hopefully we will be opening soon.
NMDSBC: I know it’s a little sad that you can’t have your beer there at Green Jeans (due to Santa Fe Brewing being located on property). But, people can go back and forth. It works both ways.
Simonds: Certainly Santa Fe Brewing deserves a lot of credit for taking the risk. They truly are the anchor tenant. For us, the fact that we are 15 feet from the largest brewery in the state is, like, OK, you don’t want us to serve beer, that’s fine. We really don’t want to compete.
NMDSBC: People who don’t know who you are, but know the reputation of Santa Fe, will see Green Jeans from the freeway, then see your place, and may stop in or even decide to go to the actual distillery because of that.
Simonds: Exactly, and from a bigger picture standpoint, our goal has always been that the Distillery 365 label is a small part of the overall brand. We really want our products to be the driving force. The vodka and rum are already in some stores and restaurants and bars around town. That being said, there is that opportunity. They show up because of Santa Fe Brewing or Amore or Bocadillo’s, but they see our place and it is new and interesting and then say, wow, by the way they have really great spirits. That’s their first exposure to our brand. What’s interesting, though, as part of talking about moving forward is what about the beer? I foresee a situation where the traffic in the distillery slows down because of the proximity of Green Jeans and the fact that it’s an industrial area and we don’t have the huge crowds that will hopefully be going to Green Jeans. This location may take a back seat.
NMDSBC: I hope not. I love it here. And this location is very convenient on my way home.
Simonds: What we’re thinking is that the Bloody Mary Brunch will always be here. Things like movie night — we can’t show movies in the small tasting room. Special events … but, it may be that we cut down on hours here. It raises the question about the beer because we can’t serve the beer at Green Jeans. There are a couple of thoughts in play. Maybe not for next year, but we’ve got two more of these off-site licenses.
NMDSBC: Right, and I was going to ask you about that.
Simonds: I think you are seeing a lot of movement in the downtown and EDO markets. Certainly, Nob Hill is a desirable location. There are other parts of town as well.
NMDSBC: Are you looking at anywhere out of town?
Simonds: You look at what Bosque did and that was smart. But, internal to their company they had the infrastructure to support and handle that. We’re not quite there yet. We may be in a year or two and that would be awesome. We will continue to look at that going forward — the opportunity to transfer beer and spirits to the Northeast Heights, for example, would be fantastic. But, what are we going to do with our beer identity? We stated very early on that we have no desire to be in the beer distribution business. But, given the response that we have had and our willingness to try beer styles that are a little unique, that might be a niche that we could try to tap into — ha! And, our spirits distributor has already subtly embraced that. I have no desire to be in the self-distribution game. None at all. We will let the distributor do the work and take their cut. It’s worth it. But, that may be an opportunity for the beer to slowly and organically grow. If we get one or two accounts in town, that might be enough for us to just have fun with it. We will never be Marble or La Cumbre, and we never set out to be. That’s OK.
NMDSBC: So, how many seats are going to be at the tasting room at Green Jeans?
Simonds: If you’re lucky and you hold your breath, maybe 15. Think like (Chama River) Microbar downtown. It’s about 320 square feet. The cool thing is the license includes a bunch of the patio area, so we will actually have a lot of outdoor seating.
NMDSBC: It has to be cordoned off, right?
Simonds: Right. The only thing we haven’t figured out is there is no way to have an overlapping drinking space where one person can get a beer from Santa Fe and the significant other can have a cocktail from us and sit together and enjoy the sunset. That may be something we try to work with the State on. It’s all a contained area.
NMDSBC: Anything else about to come out?
Simonds: In the spirit realm there are a couple of things. We’ve got a green chile vodka that will be out in the spring, as well as a super, top secret beverage project for summer. We’re really excited about that. In the beer realm, people have really been hounding me for a dark beer, so we will do that soon.
NMDSBC: That’ll bring the Dark Side in.
Simonds: That’s right! In fact, a lot of it depends on where the cash is and where the demand is, but we are talking about maybe adding a couple more taps. We only have four right now, but if I could add a couple we could do some one-offs, some specialty things. We have a really interesting idea for an IPA we want to try in the spring as well. I’ve never been an IPA guy. You taste our beers and it’s evident. So, the IPA concept we are working on will be really unique and fun. The distributor keeps asking for more product, more vodka. We’re really happy. Our distributor has been awesome and great to work with. Our pecan rum with New Mexico-grown pecans should be out by Christmas and that will be fantastic; I’m just waiting for the labels. (Update as of press time: it’s ready, visit Distillery 365 on Twitter to see a photo.)
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I want to say thanks to Matt. I actually thought this would be a rather short article because Distillery 365 is, first and foremost, a distillery and it hasn’t even been open a year yet. But, Matt is so easy to talk to and so open that this story kind of took on a life of its own that I didn’t expect. Happy holidays to the owners and staff at Distillery 365. We look forward to your new ventures next year!