Twice a week the owners of Rolling Still set up a large wooden table in the courtyard of their cocktail lounge and gift sanitizer to the community. People can walk up or honk from the curb of the town’s main drag and get their bottles filled for free. Thanks to a vase of flowers, the gallon jars with spigots and chalk-on-slate signs reading, “Fill Your Own” are cute, almost festive, rather than despairing.
It isn’t run-of-the-mill sanitizer in those jars. The osha-and-sage scent is so comforting, so decidedly boutique, that one might think Rolling Still set out to produce the crown jewel of the sanitizer market.
The owners of Rolling Still are four friends, Liza Barrett and her husband Dan Irion, and husband and wife Scott and Nicole Barady. Their vision was to create a meeting space in Taos that featured fine, craft cocktails, with an emphasis on vodka infusions.
From their experience helping to found Taos Mesa Brewing Company, Dan and Liza knew that they had access to a secret ingredient most distilleries couldn’t match: water drawn from a proprietary source at 9,200 feet. Their geologist tells them it takes 78 years for their water to filter through the rocks, and the result is a uniquely pure “terroir” base to Rolling Still’s spirits.
The menu of The Lounge features cocktails of their own devising, many highlighting vodkas infused with decidedly New Mexican flavors – Hatch green chile, red chile from Chimayó, lavender from Abiquiú, pecans from Las Cruces and more. My personal favorite cocktail is the Violet Fog, made with their lavender infused vodka, butterfly pea blossom, lemon, honey and egg white.
There’s also the Turley 2.0, with Taos Lightning Whiskey, apple butter and juniper liqueur — a nod to the distilling history of Taos county. Born in Tennessee, Simeon Turley moved to New Mexico in the early 1800s and produced the most popular whiskey in the Old West. His whiskey, Taos Lightning, was known throughout the region, and there are many rumors about what may or may not have gone into it. At the outset of the Mexican American War, Turley was killed and his distillery was burned down during the Taos Revolt of 1847. The name of his whiskey was resurrected by a modern distiller.
Northern New Mexico is filled with such stories, and with characteristic aromas and flavors, many of which nearly beg for a place on a cocktail menu.
Scott, Dan, Nicole and Liza are relentless experimenters, infusing their vodka with anything New Mexico offers. Not every effort makes it to the sales floor. Plum was, reportedly, just not very good, and osha – a local root used medicinally, primarily for lung health – tasted, well, like the deeply earthy medicine that it is, and was thus sent to the back of the storage shelf for nine months
Even stronger than the osha was the vodka infused with bark from the ponderosa pine. It seemed like a good idea. The bark of the long-needle pines found in the mountains above Taos tastes of vanilla, cinnamon and rich forest, a flavor profile that sounds destined for a spirit. As a vodka infusion, it was a disaster. “After a night of drinking it,” owner Dan says, “I felt like my mouth had a hangover.”
And that was the end of the osha and the ponderosa, for a while.
“Our one-year anniversary is Saturday, April 11,” Nicole tells me as the owners and I sat inside the temporarily closed lounge to talk about Rolling Still and how they are adapting to the new environment. “In two days.”
The Lounge now serves as a staging area for their community sanitizer distributions. The tables are pushed aside, the bar cleared out, and clusters of cardboard boxes dot the floor. A stack of woolen blankets, provided for customers on chilly days, still rests by the door, part of the chic blending of southwestern style and subtly feminine decor. Tiny plants and brass votive holders wait for better days in an empty seating room.
The tables have been empty since March 23, when New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered all non-essential business, including all bars, to close, effective 8 a.m., March 24.
Before coronavirus, The Lounge generated about 80% of their revenue, the rest coming from in-store sales throughout New Mexico and, recently, Oklahoma. They were set to launch in Texas at South by Southwest (SXSW) – until the festival was cancelled.
Between the cancelled launch and the closure of The Lounge, “It just seemed like one monster after another,” says Dan. They found themselves with product they weren’t able to move as before and they wondered, “What can we do to continue making space for flow?” Nicole said. To “stay relevant to the community? Helpful to the community?”
That, Dan says, is when Scott suggested, “We can make sanitizer. Let’s just gift it away.”
“At first it was like, we have no money coming in, we’re about to go belly up, and you want to just start giving stuff away?” Dan recounts. Scott’s reply: “That’s when you do give things away. When the wheels are coming off of your bus, and you look around and see that they’re coming off of everybody’s bus, you help out as much as you can.”
“We saw the need right away,” Liza says, “and jumped in and started making it.”
They didn’t really have a plan. They didn’t know how long they would do it, or what it would look like, but they knew they had something their community needed, so they found that osha infusion on the back shelf and got to work.
“We went full force into it,” said Nicole.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau [TTB] relaxed regulations to allow distilleries who follow CDC guidelines to distribute sanitizer without government approved labels, so Rolling Still was able to gift sanitizer within days of the Stay-At-Home order.
They give 15 gallons to the town of 6,000 twice a week on the curb in front of The Lounge.
When the emergency manager at the local hospital caught wind of what they were doing, he asked if they would be willing and able to provide the hospital with sanitizer; the national shortage extends beyond supermarket shelves. The team got to work, and the emergency manager told the other hospitals in the state that the local distillery could make sanitizer for them, too.
Rolling Still sanitizer is now in four hospitals, five pueblos, Sheriff’s departments, fire stations, Navajo Nation, the offices of Sandoval county and nursing homes, with demand still growing. They’ve formed an additional LLC, Rolling Still Wellness, for the sanitizer, and with a phone that’s ringing off the hook, they expect to hire back their employees soon.
The osha infusion became a “happy accident,” and it blends perfectly with sage to create a scent that’s clean without the chemical nose of most sanitizers.
“I’m addicted to it,” said Dan. “I love to spray it on anything. I get in my car and spray it on the steering wheel, just to smell it.”
“I should wear it as a perfume,” his wife Liza jokes.
Between gifting it away to the community and selling it, Rolling Still distributed about 400 gallons of sanitizer in the first two and a half weeks of New Mexico’s Stay-At-Home order.
Their new project isn’t monopolizing all of their time, however. They’re also rolling out a new spirit.
There’s little more intimidating to a vodka drinker than the idea of making whiskey, they tell me. They said they would never do it, and they resisted as long as they could. But, some friends who rehabilitated 40 denatured acres of land used rye as a cover crop and more or less insisted that the crew at Rolling Still take it and make it into whiskey.
In succumbing to the pressure to turn the rye into liquor, they knew they had to do it in their own way. Other whiskey makers have whiskey-for-whiskey drinkers pretty much handled, so the four vodka-lovers set out to make a whiskey they themselves enjoyed.
True to the Western spirit of innovation and adaptation, the team is using what they have — ponderosa bark and pecans — to make an approachable, rapid-aged whiskey. The earlier ponderosa problem, now solved, was one of concentration. The whiskey is ten parts New Mexico and six parts sweet Midwestern bourbon, and it’s almost ready to go to market. Nicole especially recommends Liza’s version of a whiskey sour: 2 parts their own whiskey, ¾ part lemon juice, and ¾ part house-made rosemary simple syrup.
The whiskey isn’t their only new product. The Stay-At-Home order left The Lounge with volumes of fruit: lemons, limes, oranges and more, all of which needed to be juiced or lost. They transformed it into lemoncello and a host of take-home cocktails, bottled variations of their own originals and some classics. They’d been kicking the idea around for a while, and the big wind of change pushed them into action.
Even in docile times, northern New Mexico demands a certain agility of the people who live here — a willingness to pivot with ever-changing conditions. Rolling Still Wellness rose to fill the need of their community almost as quickly as the need itself appeared.
“We didn’t know how long we were going to do this,” Liza said, “but the demand is still there and I think it’s going to continue.” As, almost certainly, will the fleet-footed Rolling Still, ready for the next pivot.