Santa Fe, N.M., is well-known as a stylish-but-low-key artists’ community with a touch of hipster funk. And, it doesn’t get much more Santa Fe than El Rey Motor Court, a restored and re-envisioned mid-century-vintage road-tripper retreat, and its small-but-potent bar, La Reina. While La Reina is still making plans for an upcoming re-opening amid the current health crisis, it is where head bartender Heather McKearnan honed her signature drink: a take on the Ultima Palabra (or “last word” in Spanish). And her plans are to return to that role as soon the venue reopens.
The affable McKernan cut her hospitality teeth in her teens at the classic Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires (which still serves up some of the best, stiffest, drinks in New England). “I wasn’t always the greatest waitress and server, but I always kept my eye on the bar wherever I worked, and knew that that was where I wanted to be,” she tells us. Her travels took her to New York City, and then to Santa Fe for her first bartending gig at the legendary Cowgirl Hall of Fame venue.
McKearnan had been an enthusiastic patron of the New York outpost of the Hall of Fame, but in Santa Fe she grabbed a tight hold on the reins. She was named Best Bartender in Santa Fe by the Santa Fe Reporter in 2009, but decided to exit the saddle while she was on top and ran a cross-fit gym for a decade or so. Satisfied that she could have a life outside of bartending, she decided to go back to her drink-slinging roots, first at the elevated Mexican eatery Paloma, and then on to La Reina at El Rey. And all this experience and swagger shows up in her Ultima Palabra, which she serves up fast, tasty, and with a smile.
The substitution of a hefty highball glass and rocks (as opposed to the traditional ice-less coupe presentation) and replacing the sometimes cloying Green Charteuse element of many recipes with an earthier, Alpine-inspired Genepy le Chamois herbal liqueur both cowboys up the sippin’ volume and adds an element of high-desert spice and smoothness.
Juicer or reamer
(One of the beauties of this version is that it is an equal-parts drink, so you can easily load your shaker based on how many you want to pour.)
1 part Del Maguey VIDA mezcal
1 part Lazzaroni Maraschino liqueur
1 part Dolin Genepy le Chamois liqueur
1 part lime juice
Luxardo maraschino cherry garnish
-Juice a lime or two and set aside
-Add all ingredients, included the fresh lime juice, to an ice-filled cocktail shaker in equal parts
-Give it the bucking bronco treatment
-Strain into a highball glass with rocks
-Garnish with a maraschino cherry just tossed in
-Find your home on the range
“I am a big fan of equal-parts drinks,” MacKearnan mentions. “Each flavor comes through, but no one is dominant; it’s a conversation of equals. Smoky mezcal plays with the Maraschino liqueur’s light/sweet/tart profile, and the Genepy adds touch of Artemisia (wormwood) magic with sagey notes that mimic the way New Mexico smells. Also, each ingredient is an older spirit; certainly mezcal dates way back, and even the liqueurs were developed in the mid-1800s, but this is perfectly fresh and modern combination.” As the “last word,” that certainly speaks volumes.