The mega-rich homes and fine dining establishments throughout historic Santa Fe make it easy to forget about the classic Western characters, gunslingers and prostitutes alike who called it home. And oh, how they drank. Like any proper Western tale and story from which only a man appears on the highly detailed Wikipedia page, there was a woman who might be considered the brains behind the operation.
Enter Mary Katherine Cummings, a Hungarian immigrant known in impolite company as Big Nose Kate. Her life was scattered around the late-1800s Southwest with legendary figures like Wyatt Earp and her beau Doc Holliday. Thankfully, Kate kept detailed diary entries throughout her adventures, writing about a dance hall in Santa Fe she operated to make a living for her and Holliday as a part of her many adventures.
As a whiskey, Big Nose Kate hosts an earthy tone and a sweet aroma, finishing with a light spice that very much lingers. There’s an air of the old West in its notes—sort of like you’ve dropped into one of the early episodes of Westworld and you’re taking a whiff of Thandiwe Newton’s perfume, which we know has just got to be good.
SFR spoke with Portland-based distiller Mel Heim to discuss the Santa Fe roots for Kate and the whiskey (distilled locally at Altar Spirits, which opens this winter at 545 Camino de la Familia in the Railyard), as well as women in the spirits industry.
SFR: Who exactly was Big Nose Kate, and what are her Santa Fe connections?
Mel Heim: Kate was a person who experienced everything. She was called Big Nose Kate not because of her features—it was because she supposedly stuck her nose in everyone’s business, whether in Santa Fe or beyond. I love that nickname, too, because of how it relates to whiskey and the senses.
She wasn’t a major tour de force. Hollywood has romanticized her role being involved with famous gunslingers—the arm candy to Doc Holliday, her longtime lover. Instincts in survival led her into extraordinary events [of the West], like the gunfight at OK Corral. She was clever, resourceful and an entrepreneur. In Santa Fe she ran a dance hall, allowing her to survive in an era where there weren’t many options for women in the West, though historians are still trying to figure out just where this dance hall was.
She could’ve married Holliday or could’ve been a maid, but she really enjoyed her independence. I love so much about her. She was the product of randomness, just like us. I developed this whiskey in my kitchen. There were so many iterations of it. I didn’t want to do another bourbon—bourbon didn’t feel like it fit with Kate’s journey.
In your publicity campaigns you’ve talked about the whiskey’s flavor profile being directly inspired by the Southwest and the lands in which Kate roamed, namely New Mexico and Arizona. What are the details on that, and how does it differentiate this whiskey from others?
When we’re talking about the Southwest, we’re talking about barley malt, especially up in Colorado. So I wanted to use malt as my base, playing to the fact she was a European immigrant, and then venture into rye, sort of as if you were hitting the Southwest plains. Rye brings a nice little spice, that was definitely her personality, and I wanted it to have a ‘big nose,’ so to speak; when you’re smelling it, you want people to really ask what’s going on in the glass.
Distilling whiskey is great, but blending it is another story. A machine can’t do it, it’s a hands-on art form. So I knew we’d need a great base spirit and some kind of seasoning. I was really surprised with how well it turned out. Honing in on this was quite the process—it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. A Western whiskey is not really a defined thing. For me, the West means there’s no rules. It’s whatever you make of it, very much like Kate’s life.
Maybe it’s obvious, but what are the feminist bents to this whiskey?
This isn’t a gendered whiskey, merely a female protagonist to the 40 men I could name off [on other brands]. When I started, I didn’t know any other women in this industry at all. I knew there were women out there, but I couldn’t find them. At the trade show and events it was just a sea of men. This whiskey is part of a mission of mine to highlight women in the space. Women are there, but they aren’t shown. There are hundreds and hundreds of female distillers now compared to when I started. It’s empowering to just own it.
So we’ve got this new Santa Fe-themed whiskey being distilled locally. Where can local whiskey fans find this drink, either now or in the future?
Wholesales begin in early December. Altar Spirits will have active sales down there and we’re aiming to be at all the great little bar spaces. Right now we’ve got an e-commerce partner that ships to New Mexico, so you can order online too.
You know, it’s important to have balance and equity in these products. We’re going to immerse ourselves in Kate’s world for this, and it’s kind of amazing. Hers is a real story, with Santa Fe being a big part of it. It deserves to be told even if it’s through whiskey.