Local Hero: Beverage Program

An Interview with Zac Hulme, Owner

Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Left: Zac Hulme, owner of Still Spirits, mixing up cocktails. Right: Jalapeño Southside with jalapeño vodka, and Red No. 4 with hibiscus vodka.

Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Zac grew up in southeastern Vermont and spent time in New York before moving to Albuquerque to attend the graduate architecture program at the University of New Mexico. He is the cofounder and owner of Still Spirits.

You definitely opened ahead of the curve. How does it feel to see the local distillery movement starting to catch up to breweries? What can local distilleries do better than those producing at a more industrial scale?

We got the eighth license in New Mexico, in 2017. Now the state has issued forty-two licenses! At one point in early US history, there were thousands of distilleries, so I see it as a renaissance, a movement based on history and invigorating small-scale, localized production. The big distilleries mostly make one product or a couple of related ones, but us little guys can crank out a couple of cases of something and continue to experiment, evolve, and refine.

You somewhat recently rebranded your gin. What’s the story? Did the recipe change along with the packaging and the name?

About the time we went to get our brand copyrighted, we started seeing a vodka on the shelf with the same name, Idol, so our application got rejected. After doing a bit more research, we decided we liked the sound of my name, Hulme, as a gin. It’s of Scottish origin and that seemed like a good fit, and although it’s a common name, we were able to get a provisional registration so that others can’t use it. The packaging has changed but the recipe has not.

Strong spirits lay the foundation for exceptional cocktails. What else is essential to a stellar cocktail program?

Approaching cocktail design like food—being aware of how ingredients interact and diligently working on their balance in the drink. It’s normal to spend hours working on proportions. Often we will stall out on a drink and leave the syrups or whatever we created for that particular creative effort lying around and then pick it up again weeks or months later, approaching the same problem with new perspective and treating it as an iterative, evolving process rather than throwing the whole effort away when it doesn’t work out right the first time.

Left: Zac Hulme. Right: Manhattan, served up.

What is your all-time favorite vodka infusion? How did it come about and how do you use it?

Tough question! I think the jalapeño is my favorite, and it has found its way into a lot of drinks in our tasting room—the flavor and heat just go so well with everything. A good example of looking to food for a cue in pairing flavors, jalapeños are great in so many different dishes. The origins are murky, but the Lavender Jalapeño Gimlet was the first drink we made that featured it; more than likely, we made the infusion and then left it lying around until some moment of inspiration.

Describe your creative process for creating new drinks. What role does local food or food in general play in inspiring you?

It’s haphazard. Typically we find something that seems like a good idea, something that seems fun. Take the Mr. Spicy, for example: it has our tonic syrup, jalapeño vodka, and honey-ginger syrup—all stuff we’ve invented for one reason or another—and mixes the sweet and savory to great effect. Cocktails are most expressive when they combine the same elements you might find in a great meal.

Do you have a favorite bar book?

I really enjoy Meehan’s Bartender Manual. He does a great job of communicating all the various components that make for a great cocktail experience—not just the ingredients or preparation but all the ineffable stuff that goes into that moment you take a sip. It’s easy to forget that the environment (light, music, physical space) is part of what you remember when you think about that glass you enjoyed.

What’s a local food issue that’s important to you?

Farming. We need more of it here, we need more backyard gardens, we need more small-scale production based nearby.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?

I hope that everyone who can makes an effort to support the businesses that care about our community, and that we support those that reflect and act on the values we share. I spend my money at places that see me as more than a customer, ones that support my ideals. Few decisions we make have as much impact on the world we live in as who ends up with the benefit of our financial resources.

120 Marble NW, Albuquerque, 505-750-3138,