New Mexico’s newest distillery opened in Santa Fe late last year, kitted out with a sizable Scottish-style pot still, vodka columns, and a richly decorated cocktail bar and tasting room that wouldn’t seem out of place in San Francisco, Portland, or Austin. The sleekly branded Altar Spirits sprung up seemingly fully formed, looking more like an established and well-resourced venue than a startup craft distillery.
But it is fully craft, the brainchild of Caley Shoemaker, formerly head distiller at Hangar 1 Vodka, and her husband, beer industry veteran Jeff Gust. After spending more than a decade at Proximo Spirits, first as production administrator at Stranahan’s in Denver and later tapped to open and lead Hangar 1’s Alameda, Calif., distillery, Shoemaker departed just prior to the pandemic and spent the last two years planning her own venture: a distillery where her passion for making spirits and her high-level expertise in running a business combine.
Though Shoemaker has left corporate culture in the rearview, the knowledge she gleaned from working within it helps her every day at Altar Spirits, from building out the distillery and creating the products to managing the budget and serving as the face of the brand. Unlike almost all other new craft distillers, Shoemaker knew exactly what she was doing from day one — and it shows.
VinePair talked with Shoemaker about how her experience at Proximo informs the new venture, what she hopes to achieve with Altar Spirits, and how strategies like contract production and direct-to-consumer sales factor into her long-term plans.
1. What inspired you to leave corporate life and start your own distillery?
I absolutely love working in craft distilleries and making spirits. As much as I enjoyed my time with Proximo and Stranahan’s and Hangar 1, I was really ready for the next step in my career and I was trying to decide what to do next. I spent so much time building Hangar 1 and helping to expand Stranahan’s that I felt like I was really ready to take on the challenge of stepping into my own venture and doing it in a place that felt like home to me.
2. Why did you choose Santa Fe even though you’re a native of Colorado?
I’ve always had a love affair with Santa Fe and thought it would be some place I’d live someday. When we started business planning and realized that New Mexico had actually newly legalized craft distilling in 2011, and then put a bunch of laws in place to make the legislative landscape for distilleries very favorable, it made sense to come here. And then as we started researching, there weren’t any distilleries close to downtown where you could sit and have a cocktail and see the process through the window. And so we thought, let’s go for it and make a sort of first-of-its-kind experience here in Santa Fe and be somewhere that we truly love being.
3. Tell us about the spirits that you are making at Altar.
We started with vodka. I’ve distilled vodka for so long, it felt natural to go that route. I’m really passionate about single malt whiskey too. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re working with a local brewery to source Rocky Mountain malted barley for us and to brew it into a wash. Then they deliver it to the distillery and we distill it two different ways. One is distilled through our pot still and then a 24-plate column still to achieve that higher-proof, more subtle vodka expression. The other is double-distilled through our pot still to create whiskey and fill barrels. So we’ll have whiskey in a few years, but for now the vodka is the flagship. We also recently released a gin that’s made featuring the three botanicals most prevalent in Northern New Mexico: juniper, piñon, and sage. We really feel like that gin tastes like a sense of place.
4. Obviously you bring distilling expertise to this business, but are there other skills that you gained over the years with Proximo that have helped you as you get Altar Spirits up and running?
I started my career in distilling in the tasting room. Actually, I sort of fell into it from waitressing, doing tours and tastings, and really saw the power of creating a consumer experience on site. From there I moved into more of an administrative role and spent a lot of years managing supply and demand and budgets and things like that — purchasing, all kinds of order planning, things that are required to keep a business going. When I moved to California to launch Hangar 1, I was really tasked with the entire buildout of the facility and then hiring the staff, establishing all of our processes, and putting some of that administrative and distilling knowledge to work. But I learned and grew so much during that process that I really felt ready to take on construction of our own distillery. I feel like I have a really good baseline of distillery business management and administrative skills to add along with my actual distilling skills to get things going. And of course my husband’s worked in beer since ‘97 and he is fantastic in the sales arena, so we feel like we have a really nice, well-rounded skill set to launch this bird.
5. How does contract production factor into the business?
As we were planning and building the facility, we originally thought, let’s just build this really cool facility and make our own brands. Through working with some of our partners and some of the consulting work that I do, it became clear that there’s a market for contract manufacturing on a smaller scale. There’s plenty of places where you can go and get 25,000 cases of a brand made, but if you only need a thousand a year, it’s a little more difficult to get in somewhere. We purposefully built a medium-size distillery, not starting super small, knowing that we’d grow into it in a few years, and bringing on the contract manufacturing really made sense for us for a variety of reasons. One, it lets us leverage the extra equipment capacity and space that we’re not using right now in a way that generates revenue for us. Two, it lets me do what I really love, and that’s work with other people to collaborate and create cool new stuff. And so through contract manufacturing, my team and I get to make a lot of really cool things that we may or may not have made for our own brands.
6. Altar Spirits has a big cocktail bar and tasting room that seem much more robust than most new distilleries. What motivated you to emphasize the hospitality and cocktail part of things from the beginning?
Having a cocktail lounge on site is really crucial to our business model for a couple of reasons. First, I love the idea of people being able to come to our distillery and taste our spirits presented in a way that we’ve created specifically for them to see them in their best light. And that lets us not only have a cool craft cocktail bar, but really a curated brand experience that can help us tell our brand story in a really effective way while we’re still building out the wholesale aspect of things. Second, obviously it’s a great revenue stream for us as a startup. Being able to have, essentially, a bar and bottle shop lets us sell directly out the door at the best margins, right now this weekend, rather than this long-term cultivating of big wholesale contracts with all kinds of different stores and stuff. So we’re really interested in both, but we like the tasting room aspect because of its revenue capability and because of its community power. Bringing people in to see our spirits, taste what we’re doing, spend some time with us, and really connect with our community is just smart business, but it’s also a blast.
7. Does that built-in sales model allow you to do more experimentation?
Yeah, absolutely, and that’s part of that amazing legislative landscape that New Mexico offers. In many states, you’re really limited to the number of tastings you can do or whether or not you can serve cocktails. Some states don’t even allow that; some states don’t even allow direct bottle sales to consumers. And so here in New Mexico, not only can we do all of those things, but we can also serve spirits from other New Mexico distilleries. So it lets us create this really robust cocktail program and have a built-in shop where we can sell whatever we want. We absolutely do plan to do small-batch runs. We get a lot of apricots here in the summer and I’d love to do an apricot brandy. We’ve got some amaros underway and, with having the shop, it does allow us to just go ahead and put those things right on the shelf and see how they do before we decide whether we want to wholesale those to the greater market.
8. Do you anticipate direct-to-consumer beyond the tasting room becoming a part of the business?
Absolutely. Ideally I’d like to launch something like a wine club-style program. We get so much tourism through Santa Fe, but I think it’d be very cool to create a quarterly cocktail shipment or something along those lines, that members locally can pick up and people can sign up to be members when they’re visiting Santa Fe and get all that goodness shipped to them. Obviously there are some challenges with direct-to-consumer shipping in spirits, but there’s all kinds of legislation coming to light as a result of Covid-19 that I’m hoping we’ll go through and make that a little bit easier for us to do ourselves.
9. What are you aiming to convey with the name and branding of Altar Spirits?
Through my career distilling, I’ve done tons of research on the origin of spirits, and I’ve always thought it’s fascinating that distillation was invented by an alchemist and fermentation as a whole was something that was oftentimes undertaken in a religious context. And so as we started trying to decide what we wanted our brand to be, I realized that the tasting room and spirits make a lovely gathering place for people kind of in the way that a worship session would, and that people use spirits in an interesting ritualistic way to celebrate the little things, whether it’s Friday happy hour with your coworkers or traditional wine or spirits service at weddings. I think it’s really beautiful how they integrate into our lives and create these secular rituals that we all participate in. So we began thinking about that and decided that altar was a great place for us to start. We think of the bar and the distillery as our altar, as a place where people can come together and have those little ritual moments. It also gives us a lot of really fun ways to name our spirits and play around with the mystical as much as we want and really learn about not only our own cultures, but a variety of others as they come in and tell us what kind of spirits they drink and why they drink them and how they’re presented. I think it’s a great way for us to connect, in a secular way.
10. What are your goals for Altar Spirits in the coming year and beyond?
Our immediate goal is we really want to, as my husband would say, own our backyard. We believe that our best customers are always going to be our community, people that love something that’s made right here locally in Santa Fe. So we want to be the premier spirit in Santa Fe and throughout New Mexico. As we grow, we plan to distribute to the Southwest as well as some other larger markets. I anticipate that happening as we get to our second and third year in business. And we really want to expand our whiskey program. I’m excited to see our first whiskey go into barrels, and then, as it starts to come out, to be able to play with different barrel finishes and things like that. So I think we have a lot of really exciting stuff coming up.