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Spanish spirit: Vara offers Iberian-inspired gin, with a New Mexico twist

Scott Feuille has been named head distiller of Vara Winery & Distillery. (Courtesy of Vara Winery)

Right out of the gate, Vara Winery & Distillery’s new gin is bringing home prestigious accolades.

Its recently released High Desert Gin received double gold and scored 99 points out of 100 at the 2020 PR%F Awards in December in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event’s main sponsor is Food & Beverage Magazine and Delta Sky Club.

Vara stayed true to its mission of producing an international family of Spanish and American wines and spirits. Vara co-founders Doug Diefenthaler and Xavier Zamarripa were inspired to create a gin after noticing Spaniards’ affection for gin during their frequent trips there. Gin is the No. 2 spirit in Spain, after Spanish brandy. Diefenthaler attributes that to the British having a large influence on the Iberian Peninsula and introducing London dry gin to the area. The Spanish began to make their own gin using botanicals and blossoms found in the Mediterranean. Diefenthaler and Zamarripa wanted to emulate that style of gin. The only problem was that Albuquerque is not near any large body of water and does not have the same botanicals found in the Mediterranean but what it does have is high-desert mountainous aromatics. Vara’s small-batch gin features 13 botanicals and is distilled from New Mexico grapes.

“The only other major unique thing about this is it’s not from a neutral grain spirit; it’s from a neutral grape spirit,” Diefenthaler said. “So we start with a fruit-based distillation to make this, as opposed to a grain-based distillation. … The aromatics that are in this from our region like to attach to that grape spirit. This is just unrivaled. It’s got nice weight, a nice texture and finish.”

Vara Winery & Distillery’s High Desert Gin won double gold at the 2020 PR%F Awards. (Courtesy of Vara Winery & Distillery)

The gin and other Vara spirits are available at the winery and distillery, 315 Alameda NE, online at varawines.com/shop and at local retailers including Jubilation Wine & Spirits, Quarters Discount Liquors, Stone Face Package Liquor, and Total Wine & More.

Vara has released its Vermut Seco, a dry vermouth, and Vermut Dulce, a sweet vermouth, inspired by Spanish vermouths. Vara offers a cocktail that blends the two vermouths over ice. It is a nicely balanced apéritif named Sweet & Seco.

“Every afternoon before we go back to the hotel, take our break and then go out for the evening we’d stop at a tapas bar for la hora de vermut,” Diefenthaler said of the couple’s visits to Spain. The hour of vermouth, this is cultural; this happens every day among Spaniards north and south, east and west, the hour of vermouth. You take a vermouth and maybe an ice cube and some tapas and you relax or you unwind your afternoon every day at the hour of vermouth.”

Diefenthaler and Zamarripa relayed their ideas of the Spanish-inspired spirits to distiller Scott Feuille. He was able to execute the products they were hoping to achieve. Feuille is now the head distiller at Vara. He also is the founder and distiller of Taylor Garrett Spirits, which has its distilling operation at Vara.

“He came in a couple years ago, and he showed us a couple samples of things that he did, and it was really pretty impressive,” Diefenthaler said. “It was some whiskeys, some rums, things like that. We were, like, this is really quite amazing. We talked a bit about technology, and we kept coming back to what it was. I said, why don’t we extend what we have here because we’re not using it all that often. You can do Taylor Garrett here, and we’re going to continue to do Vara brandies and who knows whatever else down the line.”

Vara’s co-founders soon realized they needed someone with Feuille’s attention to detail to run its distillery.

“Obviously, the focus that it takes to run the distillery and the focus that it takes to run the winery and the focus that it takes to run the place in general needed to have its own focus,” Diefenthaler said. “… At some point, we just said … why don’t we invest in Taylor Garrett and you can invest in Vara and you become the head distiller for this whole enterprise, and it was absolutely natural and, duh, it’s the right thing to do.”

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