A tour and tasting at High West distillery
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.