Whisky Advocate

Malt Advocate Whisky Awards “Pioneer of the Year”: David Perkins and High West

February 24th, 2011

This is going to be a controversial decision, and the cry will be “High West doesn’t make whiskey!” Well…maybe.

Here’s the thing. Perkins and High West burst onto the scene three years ago with Rendezvous Rye, a whiskey that was so good it surprised people. Rye whiskey? From Utah? Perkins was quick to explain that he had blended the whiskey from stock he had bought from an undisclosed source, something he would continue to do, and therein lies the tale.

High West currently has much more in common with Compass Box Whisky from Scotland than it does with an artisan whiskey distiller like Tuthilltown Spirits. Perkins is blending American straight whiskeys, something that distillers had largely stopped doing decades ago. A few examples: Rendezvous Rye is a blend of two rye whiskies, a 6 year old and a 16 year old. BouRye is a blend of 12 year old 95% rye mashbill whiskey and 10 year old bourbon. The new Double Rye mixes a very young 2 year old high rye whiskey with a 16 year old rye. All of these were something anyone could have done, but he actually did it; more to the point, he did it really, really well. These are killer whiskeys, just check their ratings in our Buyers Guide.

Is Perkins “just” blending whiskeys other people made? Sure. And how much of what a master distiller does is just that: tasting, nosing, tracking, identifying, blending? The fact is, whatever he’s doing, he’s bringing whiskeys to light that might otherwise have died a woody death, and making something great out of them, by blending them together.

Meanwhile, Perkins has a distillery in operation, and is tweaking it to create great whiskey…all in good time. While we wait for that to reach true maturity, he’s delivering properly aged whiskey, blended masterfully from existing stocks.

No one else in America is doing this, and he’s doing it well, pioneering in new territory.

Check back tomorrow to find out who has been awarded the “Industry Leader of the Year”.

70 Responses to “Malt Advocate Whisky Awards “Pioneer of the Year”: David Perkins and High West”

  1. Red_Arremer says:

    I think this is a great pick and I was thinking Compass Box before I got to the line were you mentioned it.

    It’s tough to figure out what award to give to folks like Glaser and Perkins. They both make excellent stuff, which can be appreciate by traditionalists, but they don’t make their stuff in a fashion that traditionalists are likely to appreciate or respect.

    I think the Pioneer of the Year award is an sensible fit for Perkins, but what if he’s still making stuff this good five years from now. With no “Blended American” category, where will you put him?

    • John Hansell says:

      His product will always be eligible for the “American whiskey of the year” award, regardless of whether he sources whiskey and creates his own blends (a la John Glaser) or if he makes his own whiskey from his own (new) distillery.

  2. sku says:

    Great choice! You can quibble about blending versus distilling, but Perkins is putting out great whiskey, and that is the bottom line. He’s an amazing innovater, from being one of the first to tap into great stocks of rye that were previously going into blended whiskeys (something a half dozen others are now doing as well) to making things like barrel aged Manhattans and probably the best flavored vodka I’ve ever tasted. Way to go!

  3. sam k says:

    As Sku mentions, the quality David manages to put into every product he creates is obvious. The sourced blends he’s made have garnered acclaim everywhere they’re tasted. I think his Silver Oat is the most distinctive white whiskey I’ve ever had, and the 7000′ peach vodka is killer. Can’t wait to taste his own aged whiskeys once they’re ready.

    Excellent choice, and congratulations David. Long live rye!

  4. I only know the Rendezvous, since High West is barely available in Europe, but I love it. As soon as I read your first paragraph about the controversy I thought they’re like the USA version of Compass Box, just as you said.

    Hope they will be become a bit more famous so they get proper distribution in Europe, but not so famous that it sells out immediatly ;-)

  5. Wade says:

    Terrible choice. David Perkins is a great guy and the High West products are good, but is he a “pioneer”? No way – so many others out there blazing the way in distilling from scratch in craft form and you pick the guy that has some commercial success with products made by other distilleries? Sell out.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Yeah, Wade, we’re such sell-outs we did it TWICE this year, giving Blend of the Year to that no-distilling John Glasier for that merely awesome Flaming Heart stuff.
      “The way in distilling from scratch in craft form” is a different way, and we recognized that with the Pioneer award two years ago. This is a different situation, and has nothing to do with commercial success. Far as that goes, it could be easily argued that Tuthilltown has had much greater commercial success. There’s more than one way to ‘make’ whiskey, and we find it interesting that Dave Perkins is expanding that in American whiskey.

    • Ryan says:

      Wade,

      Even if MA were primarily recognizing High West for their commercial success, there is a BIG difference between the recognition of commercial success and the glorification of commercial success. Just as there’s big a difference between the recognition of, “distilling from scratch,” and the glorification of, “distilling from scratch.” And if you’d really like to decry the injustice of folks receiving undeserved labels, then having called John a sell-out would be a good place to start.

  6. Scott says:

    My wife just nominated me for a Grammy because she likes the mixtape I gave her while we were dating. I didn’t actually make any of the music, but is a great blend of other peoples work that I put my name on and it is unique!

    Next week I will send a bottle of my special house blend of store bought whiskey to the MA offices. It is darn good, so I think I am a lock for the Pioneer award next year.

    Look out American whiskey scene!

    • Ryan says:

      Scott,
      Ask your wife how she’d feel if someone publicly backhanded the recognition of your accomplishments as the owner/operator of a classy and successful bottling operation/distillery/saloon/restaurant in one of the trendiest, most beautiful resort towns in the U.S.

      • Scott says:

        She would tell me to suck it up and take the criticism along with the praise.

        And she would be right.

        • Ryan says:

          Maybe. But there’s a difference between criticism and cattiness.

          • Chuck says:

            I agree with Ryan. Self-important people like Scott seem to enjoy demeaning the accomplishments of others if they feel the work does not measure up to their arbitrary standards. My guess is that MA has tasted countless more whiskeys and visited countless more distilleries than Scott has ever dreamed of. His comment is just snarky for snarky’s sake.

    • Your critics are silly Scott. It would have been right if John Hansell gave the award to me for setting up a brilliant order of serving 6 whiskies last time I did a tasting- Distilling whsky is a craft, but bottling (blending) it is an art…

      Steffen

    • mongo says:

      and if your home blend of store-bought whiskeys was any good and was commercially distributed/available it might be eligible. the man’s not being given an award for making a blend per se; he’s being given an award for making some excellent blends and for raising the profile of blended american whiskey. it’s not so complicated, though i imagine it may be difficult to pay attention while riding a hobby horse.

    • NW says:

      S,

      I would ask you to step back for a minute from your comment (which is silly), consider what the act of blending has done for whisky as an industry (which is basicly establish it) and then consider what Perkins has done for whisky blending in the US (which is PIONEER it). Couple that with the fact that he is a serious distiller in his own right (anyone tasted the oat spirit?) and I think even you might lighten up a bit.

      You may not agree with the pick, but to say that Perkins should not have been considered just shows you to be uninformed at best.

      • Scott says:

        Blends of straight whiskeys were available in the mid 1900’s in the US but they died out as clear spirits began to dominate. If your definition of “pioneer” is doing what someone did before, then you’re correct. Call me snarky, catty or whatever, the point remains that there’s nothing pioneering about what is taking place in Utah.

        • Ryan says:

          I never called you anything. I said that there is a difference between criticism and cattiness, and I was referring to the tone and substance of your previous remarks, not you. Pretty ironic accuracy blind spot considering your pillory against alleged misrepresentation and distortion.

          • sam k says:

            Ryan, you can also check out the thread at StraightBourbon.com where he’s critical of the comments aimed at him here (under a different user name), though he hasn’t come back to face them head on. My question (below), asked twice of him in this forum, remains unanswered. A number of folks who aren’t participating here are also getting comfortably snarky about the High West award while lurking in the SB shadows.

            Come on out where the real action is, you guys…there’s room for everyone! And yes, I guess I’m one of John’s “minions”…and proud of it.

          • Ryan says:

            No point getting bogged-down in disagreement with someone resistant to admitting their own prejudice. Some of us allow that originality is relative, participatory, and does not occur in a vacuum… some don’t. The stated objection against this recognition of High West, is that they are not doing anything that hasn’t been, and isn’t being, done in U.S. whiskey. And I’m aware people outside this comment field have implied outright plagiarism, but that’s a shady accusation at best. Look, the entire legacy of what has been, and is being, done in U.S. whiskey is littered with generations of other parallel, perpendicular, and intersecting endeavors bearing resemblance to each other as well. Detractors are free to insist that there is nothing pioneering about what High West is doing because it resembles the work of others and therefore has not initiated anything previously unknown in U.S. whiskey. But according to the criteria of that insistence, no one currently above ground affiliated with the U.S. whiskey industry is worthy of this award.

          • sam k says:

            Well put. Thanks for the perspective.

  7. Teddy Smith says:

    John, great choice for Pioneer. I live in Utah and am so happy we have a symbol for the outside world that you can get a drink in Utah and a good one at that! I am amazed that there is any controversy as its clear High West is a pioneer in many senses of the word and for a couple more reasons than you list. First, I just don’t understand why people say High West does not distill. You can see the still in the picture that you posted. High West IS distilling its own whiskey and tied for first place in the ADI competition last year for their unaged oat whiskey. Clearly proof they know what they are doing. I might also point out that High West has a Zagats rated restaurant after only 1 year of being in business. I have personally been there and must say the food is fantastic and even better are their whiskey-food pairings. Not only is High West pioneering better American “blends”, they have a superb whiskey they distill from a unique grain AND a distillery-pub with great food. All pioneering accomplishments on their own but in a state not known for alcohol and with quirky laws that I am sure don’t make it easy, kudos to High West.

  8. sam k says:

    Jeez, it’s like these guys didn’t even read the award write-up. Perkins IS making his own whiskey, and just happens to be a rye fanatic who is doing a great job at resurrecting America’s true “native spirit” more creatively than anyone else thus far.

    Why does his sourcing and blending abilities make him any less qualified for this award? Plenty of
    Scottish blenders have been recognized here in the past. Why should a deserving American not be recognized in the same way?

    Relax…celebrate great whiskey by drinking one! I’ll have a bit of Rendezvous this evening in your honor, David.

    • Scott says:

      I read the copy and I am aware of his business and his products. The idea that he is making his own whiskey is immaterial as he is being recognized for his rectification efforts not his distilling prowess.

      I have great respect for John and MA, but I am left scratching my head at this choice. I just don’t see anything pionering about what is done at High West.

      • sam k says:

        Then I’ll have to ask again, “Why does his sourcing and blending abilities make him any less qualified for this award? Plenty of Scottish blenders have been recognized here in the past. Why should a deserving American not be recognized in the same way?”

  9. Mberkow says:

    I don’t get the nay sayers. This isn’t the distillery of the year category, it isn’t the whiskey of the year category, it is the pioneer of the year category. Do we say that independent bottlers are ineligible to win awards because they didn’t distil the whiskey? Do we say that blenders are ineligible to win awards because they are using other peoples products?

  10. JWC says:

    i agree with the dissenters. to atone for his sin, he should lower the price of his products by 45% and make sure the state of texas gets a large allocation of hye west products.

  11. mark davis says:

    I, for one, welcome our new rye mixing overlords.

    • Tim Cababa says:

      I’d like to remind them that as trusted internet blogger I could be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground blending caves.

  12. sku says:

    Wow, I am shocked that this is at all controversial. Have people tasted these products? David’s blended whiskeys are, in my opinion, uniformly excellent?

    Is he a pioneer? Well, who else is making high quality blends of straight American whiskeys from different distilleries? I think the comparisons to Compass Box are apt, except if anything David is more of a pioneer, since Scotland has a long tradition of blending.

    • Joshie says:

      Pioneer or no, can we please stop comparing Perkins to Glaser? They are not doing the same things. The American and Scotch whiskey marketplaces are very difference places. Glaser is obtaining whiskies of different styles from all over Scotland and blending them, while Perkins is obtaining whiskeys of various ages from the SAME distillery and blending them. Not really the same thing at all.

      Also, as a regular poster at SB.com, it is absurd to claim that people are cowardly “hiding out” there. SB.com is a public forum, and one of the things that makes it great is that it is filled with knowledgable lovers of American (and other) Whiskeys who have no difficulty expressing their unvarnished opinions. It’s one of the few honest places left on the internet, and I love it for that reason.

      • sam k says:

        Thanks for stepping into the light, Joshie. This is where the thread started, and this is primarily where the discussion should take place. I appreciate your presence here.

        As goes Glaser and his use of various distilleries, sometime he is, and sometimes he isn’t . The distinctions aren’t always as different as you suggest,

        • Please get over yourself, Sam. Who are you to say where this or any other discussion should take place? If you would just stop commenting defensively on every little off-hand comment you might get the peace in the valley you claim to want.

          • sam k says:

            I tend to think we’re all entitled to an opinion Chuck, and that’s mine. Every one of the contributors here (or on any blog) expresses theirs every time they post a comment…that’s the point. Thanks for stopping by with yours!

  13. Robert says:

    As a local to the distillery, I would have to agree. My Scotch Whisky collection is well over 200 bottles, and I have not loved an American Rye like these for years. He really has something going and I see by their web site that they are working on a single malt.

    Very exciting and well deserved.

  14. Mashbill says:

    High West has always been upfront about what they do. Kudos to them. If there was to be a category for Whiskey Fraud of the Year it should go to Templeton.

  15. Nathan says:

    The KBD has been blending bourbons and rye whiskies for sometime now, and have done a fantastic job at that (just look at the double golds they get from SF). If you’re talking of pioneering in terms of buying and blending whiskies, this path was trod quite awhile ago.

    That said, David blends some great whiskey but I don’t think the award has merit.

    • John Hansell says:

      I agree that Kentucky Bourbon Distillers have been blending bourbon and rye whiskeys for some time (and doing it very well, I must say), and they were also in contention here. But David Perkins also has an operating distillery, is also making whiskey, running a succssful distillery-restaurant, and more.

      • Kyle says:

        What if KBD had already completed their new distillery? It promises to be something unique, would it have still led to the Perkins choice?

        • John Hansell says:

          It’s really a moot point right now. If/when it happens, then it will be worth debating.

        • Ryan says:

          Apples and oranges Kyle. And good for KBD if they ever publicly commit to resuming distillation, but I wouldn’t put any eggs in that basket. Even if they did, good luck being welcomed inside for a rib eye and a cocktail.

        • I always get criticized when I say this, but I guess I’ll never learn. The people at KBD are lovely people but they have been saying they are about to resume distilling since at least 1991, when they first said it to me.

      • mashbill says:

        I don’t disagree with the choice of HW, but the fact that he has a restaurant is a silly argument to use. Who cares if he has a “successful distillery-restaurant…”

    • sam k says:

      I’m not sure what kind of blending is occurring at KBD, since they never mention the practice, and all of their products are sold as straight whiskey, period. They do not promote their products as anything but. Check their website…there is no clarity at all about what they’ve created. High West, on the other hand, is right up front with exactly what proportions of what whiskeys are in their sourced brands. Check their website…they are proud of what they’ve created.

      Hey, speaking of no merit…just look at those double golds EVERYONE gets from SF, more than 50 for whisk(e)y alone in 2010!

  16. JWC says:

    man, this is the first time i’ve seen fellow booze hounds going after each other. i think it’s time we all had a dram or two or three and chill out.

  17. Robert says:

    Cracking open a bottle of Rendezvous :)

  18. David says:

    Malt Advocate,
    Thanks for the humbling award. To even think I am mentioned in the likes of Buffalo Trace (really goodstuff!), Glenfarclas (my ATF), John Glaser (whom I respect so much), Amrut (kick bu#*), and others, I am nothIng but a lucky guy. To all comments, thanks for the kind words and criticisms. Nothing I can think of that gets the juices going to make better stuff for the consumer. Its not hard to mix up a complex and balanced spirit (not when you enjoy it!). It’s all the associated details around getting it to market. But the best part is discovering all the different possibilities a particular style, say rye, can make. I just hope I’ve brought pleasure to orhers palates as I have mine. Thanks for making this a provocative award and humbling day for me.

  19. Gary says:

    I have to say the High West products are pretty darn tasty. I have had the pleasure of tasting both the Rendezvous Rye and the BouRye. Neither bottle lasted very long.

    Congratulations to you David. John a very worthy choice in my humble opinion.

  20. Joshie says:

    Pioneer or no, can we please stop comparing Perkins to Glaser? They are not doing the same things. The American and Scotch whiskey marketplaces are very difference places. Glaser is obtaining whiskies of different styles from all over Scotland and blending them, while Perkins is obtaining whiskeys of various ages from the SAME distillery and blending them. Not really the same thing at all.

    Also, as a regular poster at SB.com, it is absurd to claim that people are cowardly “hiding out” there. SB.com is a public forum, and one of the things that makes it great is that it is filled with knowledgable lovers of American (and other) Whiskeys who have no difficulty expressing their unvarnished opinions. It’s one of the few honest places left on the internet, and I love it for that reason.

    • John Hansell says:

      Well, both are blenders. In fact, one could argue that David Perkins’ job is more difficult, because he has less variety to blend with. It’s harder to paint a beautiful picture with just two or three colors.

      But, I think you’re not seing the big picture here. He IS doing much more than just blending stocks of sourced whiskey. If that’s all he was doing, he wouldn’t have gotten this award. For example, he has a distillery and is making some interesting whiskeys right now. (Buy the way, John Glaser isn’t. In this sense, David is doing MORE than John is. So you’re right, the two aren’t the same, but both are doing some cool stuff in their own way.)

      We knew giving Perkins this award was going to be a controversial one. Some will get it; others won’t. All I know is that he has made my American whiskey drinking A LOT more fun and exciting. And I am very grateful for that.

      BTW, I am also a SB.com member and contribute when I can. Both SB.com and WDJK are great places to hang out. What I think the commentor was referring to was that he was inviting SB.com members to join in here and express their feelings here too, and not just at SB.com. You just did that. Thank you!

      • Joshie says:

        “…Some will get it; others won’t. All I know is that he has made my American whiskey drinking A LOT more fun and exciting.”

        I think we can agree on both of those statements!

        I also want to say that conversations like this are what make blogs like yours and forums SB.com great. Sure, private forums can be more gentlemanly b/c of their exclusivity (gendered language used intentionally) but what fun is that?

    • David Perkins says:

      Joshie, just for the sake of clarification, and you will find this same info on other posts in SB, the whiskies High West is blending come from 3 different distilleries: Four Roses, Barton, and of course the old Seagrams plant in Indiana now referred to as LDI or Lawrenceberg Distillers Indiana. All the whiskey combinations in Rendezvous, Bourye and Double Rye are from different distilleries.
      And of course I am flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as John Glaser, I admire him and consider him a friend and love what he is doing for Scotch. Whether we are doing the same thing or not depends on how you look at it! And John Hansell is correct, we have alot less variety of product in the US to work from, not only because its hard to get but also because our flavor (flavour!) profiles (at least in my opinion) are not as wide as Scotch (even though our rules aren’t as strict).

      • Red_Arremer says:

        Hey Dave– Regarding the smaller flavor profile range of American whiskey, an analysis of paintings considered to be “master works” found that most of them had an unusually small range of colors (optically speaking) compared to a larger sample of well known paintings. However these great paintings were not traaditionally perceived to have a small range of color– their compositions often create the effect of seeming quite colorful– Just a though…

  21. David D says:

    Wow, can’t wait to talk about this with Perkins on our podcast this week. This is crazy.

    Using a different analogy, let’s look at the Bay Area’s esteemed chef Alice Waters – considered a pioneer in cooking. What is her claim to fame? She said that people should use fresh ingredients, grown locally, without pesticides. Her recipes are basic and simple. She is worshiped in San Francisco for this. I personally love her cookbooks and her philosophy.

    But is she the first person to ever do this? Aren’t there farmers and people living all over the world who have been doing this for thousands of years? Heck, my father-in-law grew up in Mexico and was FORCED to grow and cook with his own local “organic” food – it was necessity not a trendy choice. Yet, people consider Alice Waters a food pioneer for doing exactly that. Some people like my wife do not.

    The U.S. is a different place than the rest of the world. Traditions of growing local vegetables in the motherland were lost when a new generation discovered TV dinners and fast food. Agro companies began pumping pesticides into our food to make larger, shinier produce that lost its nutritional value as well as its taste. Alice Waters simply said, “let’s go back to what we originally did” and started a food revolution – if you think that a revolution means doing what millions of other people had been doing their whole lives.

    The United States, however, isn’t the same as other countries so being a pioneer here can sometimes mean pointing out the obvious and doing something that seems relatively easy. David Perkins simply said, there’s a market for good rye whiskey – “why don’t I just buy some rye whiskey, blend it, and sell it? I’ll open my own restaurant, distillery, and whiskey bottling operation.” Sure, the distilleries that made these whiskies could have blended them themselves, but they didn’t. By taking these products and creating the High West whiskies, David merely pointed out to them that they had some fantastic product on their hands, made it into a tasty cuvee, and gave us something delicious.

    To me, being a pioneer can mean taking an industry in the proper direction for growth, even if the direction itself is lacking in novelty. The original pioneers helped lead the U.S. west, although the land was not undiscovered or unused (Native Americans can effectively ask, why are these people called pioneers?) David Perkins obviously saw that rye was going to be big, took the appropriate actions, and did the job effectively well. There are plenty of other rye producers that are out of stock right now because they did NOT see this boom coming.

    I’m closing up shop right now and I just sent my wife a text telling her I’m not going to go to her Oscar awards party because I’m sick with a cold and I can’t get shake it. My wife sent me a reply saying that I’m still sick because I’m supposed to be lying down in bed and resting instead of working. She ended the message with, “maybe I should market that idea and be the next Alice Waters.”

    Ha ha, but maybe she’s onto something.

  22. Jason Pyle says:

    John, I’ve enjoyed all of your awards these last couple weeks, but I think this one may be the one I most agree with. You touched on the polarizing affect the mentioning of High West brings. However there is no question that what David Perkins and his team put in the bottle is stellar whiskey. And they are pushing things forward and paving the way in the US. We are so behind in this country in how we embrace the “source” and bottle approach. They’ve been doing it forever in Scotland. I just don’t see what the big deal is. Give us great products at a good solid price and be honest about it. Having communicated with David on many occasions, he has never once been vague or anything but transparent.

    Congrats to David and everyone at High West for such a fantastic honor. And kudos to you John for recognizing them. Guys like David and companies like High West are going to push the American Whiskey industry forward.

  23. Texas says:

    I am not knowledgeable enough to weigh in on the merits discussion (and that’s a beaten horse anyway..) but I agree with JWC that seeing these products in Texas would be a great thing! I had a bottle of the Rendezvous outside the state and I was the most fantastic whisk(e)y I ever had. One has to be very skilled to source and produce a blend like that. The art of blending has always fascinated me ever since I first had JWB right after having a Talisker..

  24. [...] some time with the incredibly affable and generous David Perkins from High West. He was awarded Malt advocates’ Pioneer of the Year award this year which proved to be mildly controversial, but in my book, well, well-deserved. [...]

  25. [...] fact that their proprietor, David Perkins – raised in Georgia by the way, was awarded the 2011 Malt Advocate Pioneer of the Year Award). It’s no surprise that they’ve been a trailblazer for barrel aged cocktails by the [...]

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