Whisky Advocate

A tour and tasting at High West distillery

August 30th, 2012

Sam Komlenic, Whisky Advocate copy editor, recaps his recent visit to High West distillery.

About a five-minute drive from the Salt Lake City airport, situated in a tan-all-over industrial park, hides a place where some of the most innovative recent experiments in whiskey blending have taken shape.  A few weeks ago I found myself at that park, inside the blending and bottling plant of High West distillery.  Whiskey wunderkind David Perkins has been executing quite a number of high-profile, innovative, and sometimes controversial American whiskey blending projects from this nondescript space for the last few years.  David’s broad interest in distilling, after a career as a biochemist, has helped him make friends across the mainstream end of the business, and those connections have enabled him to access some rare and stunning whiskeys with which to work.

It started with Rendezvous rye, a blend of 16 year old and 6 year old ryes, then progressed to Bourye, the first modern combination of straight bourbon and rye whiskeys.  Since then, he hasn’t let up, combining various sourced whiskeys, like a whiskey Dr. Frankenstein, into some intriguing combinations.  A recent effort is a blend of bourbon, rye, and a slightly smoky scotch called Campfire, and it has made even the scotch world sit up and take a bit of notice at what’s going on across the pond.

I had a short tour of the facility, where their whiskeys are entirely hand-bottled, then we moved to the lab/office area where I was able to participate in a group evaluation of three products.  We were tasting the most recent bottling and potential next bottling of Campfire, Son of Bourye (a younger version of its sibling), and their most recent mariage, American Prairie Reserve, a blend of 10 year old Four Roses high-rye bourbon with 6 year old bourbon from the MGP distillery in Indiana.  The staff at High West is actively involved in this process, and we’re all asked to nose, taste, and evaluate the product profiles while taking notes. Each version is then openly discussed among the group.  It was a fascinating look at the very democratic process utilized to assess the quality and consistency of these spirits.

Though well known for these aged whiskeys, High West is also distilling their own spirits at their self-proclaimed “gastro-distillery” in nearby Park City. Demand for their vodkas, rye and oat white whiskeys, and a short-aged oat whiskey called Valley Tan requires distilling seven days a week.  I got a tour of the Park City location the next morning courtesy of Brendan Coyle, their lead distiller.

Trained at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt Institute, and having worked in Scottish distilleries before his arrival in Park City, Brendan is effusive about his duties.  His enthusiasm and willingness to experiment are obvious as he discusses High West’s products and processes, and provides an overview of the operation of what is a surprisingly small setup for such a high profile enterprise.

Situated between what was once a two-story frame home and a livery stable, now a restaurant and saloon, the distillery has room for nothing but a stunning 250-gallon Arnold Holstein still and dual rectifying columns.  Everything else…the mash cooker, fermenters, mill, receiving tanks, and a 25-liter pilot still are housed below quarters, shoehorned into a clean, modern basement space.  Demand is such that Perkins is considering an expansion of the distillery sooner than later, using custom built stills that will replicate the only commercial pot stills known to have been installed in the U.S. after Prohibition, from a Pennsylvania distillery that closed in 1947.

David Perkins is a zealot when it comes to understanding how whiskey was distilled back in the day.  He references volumes of old distilling manuals, and, among other sources, used them to come to terms with the creation of his OMG Pure Rye whiskey, his interpretation of the unaged “Old Monongahela” style that would have been farm-distilled in western Pennsylvania around the time of the Whiskey Insurrection.  He’s passionate about doing things traditionally, but can’t resist including a twist or two to keep it all interesting, as evidenced in High West’s Silver Oat whiskey.

I’m willing to bet that this combination of tradition and innovation will continue for High West and their fans.  From what I saw going on behind the scenes at the foot of Utah’s beautiful Wasatch Range, they’re just getting started.

No Responses to “A tour and tasting at High West distillery”

  1. Lew Bryson says:

    Ha! Great job, Sam! Once we’ve got you writing, we’ll never leave you alone.

    Now, about that Dillinger retrospective…

  2. Joan McGinley says:

    Nice! But I have to admit, I’m jealous…

  3. Jason Pyle says:

    Great stuff Sam! You and I have discussed our excitement over what Perkins and High West are doing. Glad to see you got an even closer view of the goings on out there in Park City.

    More posts man, more posts!

  4. Gary Gillman says:

    It’s all to the good, and I like their products. For years for my own use and that of friends, I have combined bourbons of different distillers, ryes of ditto, and bourbon and rye. You can great great results, and High West does. I like all their products and they are creative to cover the range of possibilities with the products available to them. And indeed, much of it was done before, e.g. in the 1930′s Jameson had a product in the U.S. marketplace which combined its pure pot still and a young American straight whiskey. Scots-style blending shows the path(s), but North Americans had similar practices at different times in the past. High West also select very well for their unblended brands, e.g. its 21 year old rye mash whiskey (aged in reused wood) is outstanding. A company with a great future IMO.

    Gary

  5. sku says:

    Great article about one of the best new producers out there. I’d love to see Sam K. writing in the magazine sometime.

  6. two-bit cowboy says:

    Nice review, Sam.

    Thanks to a friend (RH) in Salt Lake City I was lucky enough to meet David and get his million-dollar tour of the distillery last February. David and the whole gang in Park City exhibit an excitement that’s infectious. Their first release of Rendezvous Rye and, as Gary said above, the 21 year old are stellar. I look forward to David’s own creations when they’re ready for the bottle.

  7. Tim says:

    Just went to a High West tasting. Their rep says they have a single 1000 liter still. That would suggest that they are producing less than 2% of the whiskey that they are selling. So High West is just a packaging company for other people’s whiskey?

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