I have met many whisky people and it’s hard to find some one more passionate about whisky than the folks at High West. David Perkins, the proprietor, brought legal distilling back to Utah for the first time since way back in 1870, and his vision is good news for whiskey drinkers.
Utah had a rich distilling culture (something Mitt Romney kept from us during the presidential campaign—he is a teatotaller—but this disclosure would have been worth a few more votes…not doubt). Whiskey, back then, was a necessary part of life, acting as medicine and preserving food that would otherwise go to waste. Brigham Young, the “Mormon Moses,” was an American leader of the Latter Day Saints movement and founder of Salt Lake City. He actively distilled alcohol. Mark Twain was on to him and wrote that early Mormon pioneers made his 1871 semi-autobiographical book, Roughing It. Twain wrote: “it’s the exclusive Mormon refresher. Everything made in the Mormon country was known as “valley tan” and the name applied to their whiskey, or first cousin to it. Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone. If I remember rightly, no public drinking saloons were allowed in the kingdom by Brigham Young, and no private drinking permitted among the faithful, unless they confined themselves to Valley Tan.”
Today’s version was inspired by the distinctive aromas of the whiskey Perkins experienced visiting the Makers Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. From that point on Perkins knew that he wanted to make whiskey. He is a working biochemist and a passionate cook and lover of food. Whiskey seemed to him to be the perfect marriage of food and chemistry.
So he moved to Park City, Utah, in 2004 to pursue his new venture in a beautiful place he had always wanted to live. The Utah Winter Olympics of 2002 had helped create an environment enabling the softening of the strict alcohol regulations. Governor John Huntsman, a Mormon, modernized drinking laws, bringing down the “Zion Curtain,” frosted glass partitions that separated restaurant goers from the bartenders. Tasting rooms were still illegal, so Perkins opened a restaurant that became the home of the High West distillery. It was a touch of genius with hungry and thirsty winter sports fans providing a healthy revenue stream.
The initial return on investment is very low in the distilling industry. You make a fairly brisk return on vodka and gin. However good whiskey needs to age properly, so the question arises what do you do in order to survive and cover the wage checks. The restaurant certainly helps, but you still want to be able to serve up excellent whiskies to your customers expecting great things from a restaurant specializing in making whiskey! Jim Rutledge of Four Roses Distillery advised Perkins to start out by sourcing already aged whiskey and bottling that in order to create a brand and allowing the business time to succeed as a distillery. Skeptical at first, Perkins wanted to make his own whiskey right? But he soon became another pioneer, one of the first to start sourcing from LDI Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, the former Seagrams distillery. LDI is a huge capacity distillery making and ageing a lot of whiskey especially rye with a 95 percent rye mash bill. Rye then was not considered very highly at al, and they were more than happy to sell High West barrels of old rye. However Perkins decided not to just bottle and label these whiskies as stand alone ryes of different ages, but to take the rye to a new level of blending and creating a new, very special whiskey.
High West’s Double Rye, for example, is an awesome blend of two very different ryes. A young 2 year old 95 percent mash bill blended with a 16 year old more standard mash with a higher corn content. I tasted a single barrel example of this whiskey that had been aged a further 18 months after blending to allow all the different components of the two whiskies to marry up perfectly. The Nose on this whiskey has bananas, pie crust, and a touch of raisin and through these rich aromas you can still pick up on the younger whiskies grainy more punchy spiciness. The Palate is beautiful full of vanilla waffles and rich cherry fruit.
Then there is the Rendezvous Rye which blends together the aromatic 16 year old, this time with the 95 percent rye at 6 years of age. The “Son of Bourye” is a beautiful combination of Rye and Bourbon.
One of my personal favorite creations is called “Campfire” which is an ingenious blend of bourbon, rye and a peated Highland single malt. The inspiration for this whiskey came whilst Perkins was visiting Islay with his wife on their anniversary.
The kitchens at the Bruichladdich Academy were reducing a bottle of Laphroaig with sugar making a whisky syrup. The next morning this syrup was served to them drizzled over honeydew melon. The smell and taste was something he just wanted to try and capture in a High West bottle and Campfire was the result. I love this blend. The Nose is full of corn, toffee, maple and the most delicate sweet smoke. The Palate starts with a hint of spicy rich vanilla and a slightly sweet cherry fruit note and finishes with a wonderful delicate wisp of pipe tobacco smoke.
The distillery is equipped with a Holstein copper pot still and 2 column stills. They currently produce two new whiskies, The Silver Oat, twice distilled, and the one timed distilled OMG Silver Rye. These are both bottled as silver whiskey and are also currently being aged to be included in the ever developing and evolving whiskey program at High West. These silver un-aged whiskies are excellent. I really enjoy sipping on the Silver Oat whiskey served on the rocks with a citrus twist. The OMG also makes an awesome white or albino Manhattan cocktail. Take equal parts OMG and Dolin Blanc vermouth, dash of orange bitters, stir over ice and serve with a twist of peal. Perfect!
So if you are able to get out to Park City, pop in and visit High West Distillery and Saloon. Start the night with “The 36th Vote,” a barrel aged Manhattan cocktail that commemorates Utah’s deciding vote to end prohibition, or try their signature pairing of Elk and a pour of Rendezvous Rye. If you cannot get there in person, be sure to pick up a bottle and sample something special.