The last time any of us talked to Mick Hahn, he had just taken over the position of head brewer at Tractor Wells Park, having just left Turtle Mountain a few months after winning the first Great American Beer Festival gold medal in the venerable brewpub’s long history.
Then, poof! Covid-19 came along, and soon that new job was a former job, too.
“Last spring, when the pandemic hit, Tractor sent everyone home except for Skye (Devore) and David (Hargis), pretty much,” Hahn said. “They went down to a skeleton crew, and (then) they started bringing people back. I was the most recent on and the highest salary, so I agreed to stay back for a while, as long as I could. By September, six months home, I told them that I realized I wasn’t returning. I continued to stay at home and do what I could there, work on myself a bit.”
As luck would have it, just a few blocks away from Tractor, Hollow Spirits Distillery owner Frank Holloway found himself without a head distiller, and he and Hahn had a good history together.
“A month later, if that, Frank heard that I was not actively working, not really seeking anything, but he heard I was available,” Hahn said. “He asked if I would be interested in spirits, which I’m always interested in spirits, sometimes too much.
“I came in and sat down with him and Donna (Salas, CFO) and Tristan (Rogers, executive chef). I’ve been a real big supporter and fan of what they’ve been doing here at Hollow since they opened. Frank was I think the first person to call me when Wooden Teeth won the gold medal and say, hey, we need that on tap. That was like two weeks before they were opening. I had a pretty good relationship with these guys from the start. It’s always felt really nice coming in here.”
Going from brewing craft beer to distilling craft spirits was not exactly like flipping a switch, but Hahn was able to get the hang of it pretty quickly.
“A lot of the Point A of brewing is the first parts of distilling,” he said. “I’m still doing (a) mash. I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about pH and enzyme activity in the past four months, five months. I definitely took (that) for granted over the past seven years. It’s helping me pay closer attention, hit targets a little bit better, and know how to get myself out of it if I’m not hitting the target.”
About the only thing missing are some little green friends.
“I don’t get to mess around with hops, that’s probably the biggest downside,” Hahn said. “I don’t get that burst of aromatics, but I’ve always been much more of a malt guy anyways. I’m finding my place.”
Hahn did have to correct himself a couple times during the course of our interview in terms of still using brewery terms at the distillery, which he said is one of those little challenges that he is still working on at Hollow Spirits.
“I mean, obviously the slip of the tongue, reminding myself I’m in a distillery, not a brewery,” he said. “Then using the right terminology, especially when I’m talking to other distillers who have been doing it for 10, 15 years or whatever. Converting from SG (starting gravity) to Plato, or vice versa. Those were fun mental exercises.
“But, I think one of the biggest differences, and I tell this to our bar staff, as a brewer I did the best to make the best kind of product that I could, and then hope that our staff is educated and cares enough to deliver it to the customer, that everything goes right along those lines. As a distiller, I’m doing the best to create the best ingredient. Eighty percent of our customers are not drinking the spirit by itself. They’re getting it mixed, usually by our bartenders or by the advice of our bartenders and the recipes we provide.”
Over the last few months, Hahn has been able to start putting his stamp on the spirits lineup, while also keeping the crowd favorites available.
“Yeah, for sure, we’re definitely pushing forward with new products that Frank is really excited for me to mess around with,” he said. “We did already release the pickle vodka, which was kind of in R&D phases before I got here. I took what they had going and put a spin on it that I’m really happy with how it came out. For a pickle juice vodka, it has everything that you could really imagine. I’m sure we need to tweak some of the spices a touch, but we’re still on our first actual batch (released) to the public. It’s miles above what we had in R&D beforehand.”
For those who are already rabid fans of the Pickle Down Economics at Bosque Brewing, a pickle vodka probably does sound (or taste) like heaven.
For fans of more traditional spirits, Hahn has a few of those in the works, too.
“Other than that, we have four barrels filled of single-malt whiskeys,” he said. “We have different specialty malts with those. It’s probably going to be close to two years before we get to see how those turned out. We do have barrel-aged gin that’s been in there for a month. That’s probably going to be three months (total), so probably two more. That I’m really excited to see how it turns out.
“We’ve got a brandy that’s about to come out. That was in the barrel before I got here. It’s coming out great. In addition to that, I’ve got a wheat-based whiskey going right now. It won’t be a bourbon. It’s about 60 percent, almost 70 percent wheat, and the rest is 2-Row (malt). And so, that one I’m really excited to see how it comes out.”
Hahn said he is also working on a new bourbon recipe, which is based in part on his award-winning beer, the aforementioned Wooden Teeth.
“I actually got some toasted malt from Jeremy Jamison, who’s the guy that sold me the malt I ended making Wooden Teeth with the first time,” he said. “He was with Cargill, but they ended up getting bought out by Prairie Malt or something like that. He sent me six bags of Tasmanian Pilsner malt just to mess around with. So I’m probably going to do two batches of this Wooden Teeth-inspired bourbon. We’ll see how it goes. I don’t know if we want to stack too many batches of bourbon on top of one another. We’ll make some fun stuff happen. That is just the beginning.”
As for Hollow Spirits as a whole, a lot of physical and structural changes have already been implemented during the course of the pandemic, and Hahn said a lot more are in the works.
“Something is always changing every time I would come in,” he said. “That hasn’t changed a whole lot in the time I’ve worked here. We are continuing to grow rapidly and be well received, and figure out ways to support the team as best we can, and give them everything they need to make this place the top-notch, not just craft cocktail bar, but I certainly believe we have one of the best kitchens in the city, if not the state. Tristan and the team he’s assembled are incredible. They knock those dishes out of the park.”
A new walk-in cooler has been placed on the east side of the building, which will enable the staff to remove the walk-in that is located right next to the bar inside the pour room, expanding that area.
“We’ll at least hold onto it for a bit,” Hahn said of the old walk-in. “It might become a meat-curing fridge for Tristan to experiment with, who knows? The bar is getting a makeover here hopefully in the next month, two months, we should be done with that.
“We’re starting the construction for our elevated patio now. We’ve got this patio concreted, and we will soon have a second story concrete floor as well for all of it. Expand all that, and then I think once all those go through, I think the focus goes back to the distillery. It’s been a whole bunch of fun to work with Frank, Donna, and see their process of what they apply everything to. We’re building out the bar, building out the kitchen, building out the whole infrastructure for the building in its entirety.”
Once all of that is done, Hahn said they will focus on upgrading and improving the distillery space where he works. And then, after that, comes the biggest project of all, as Hollow Spirits has purchased the property to the south of the parking lot. It will be a three-part structure.
“Plans for out front is a local spirits/wine/beer bottle shop,” Hahn said. “The middle is going to be part storage, mainly for barrels, part event space for renting out for large parties. A lot of the stuff we’re doing that will soon get overcome. There’s talks for a canning line. If that comes in, we’re not going to be able to do a lot of viewing parties back there. The middle section will be barrel storage and event space. The back portion will be Tristan’s high-end restaurant.”
The plan is to have the kitchen on the first floor and the dining room to occupy the second floor, and Hahn said they might create an elevated walkway to connect the restaurant to the elevated patio outside the original building. Hollow Spirits is a strong supporter of the City of Albuquerque’s forthcoming Rail Walk project, which is only in the initial planning phase, with plenty that could change between now and the future.
Still, it all adds up to an exciting future for Hollow Spirits, and for Hahn himself. While the craft beer scene did lose one of our best brewers, he did not go far, and is still putting the same care and attention into spirits as he did into ales and lagers.
A big thanks to Mick for the interview in the midst of his workday, and to the Hollow Spirits staff for taking care of us even as the happy hour crowd began to arrive in force.
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