I’ve always been fascinated with ‘the west’, clichés included. The cowboys, mountain men, and possibility of adventure can hold my attention without a hitch. Salt Lake has more than a touch of these dusty elements, and my inaugural sip of High West Double Rye had it in spades. Sit up straight, cross your god damn legs, and savor. This is serious.
High West is Utah’s first legal distillery since 1870, and it’s a screaming testament to our state’s tilt toward quality and pioneering efforts. Officially, they’ve been in production since 2007. Back then, they were producing 800 bottle batches a month. Today, the numbers are significantly higher and the stats impressive; they’re putting out 3400 bottle batches three to four times per week. Those are figures we can get behind. Mostly because we’re drinking it right now.
I figured it best to get in before their inevitable next step [world domination], so I had a chat with the passionate pioneers behind the booze-soaked curtains. Lead Distiller, Brendan Colye, and Proprietor, David Perkins, have dedicated the better part of their lives to bringing us goodly Utahans [and outsiders] the caliber of whiskey, bourbon, vodka, and brandy that we’d never sipped prior. There’s some legit knowledge of the process here, too. Brendan traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland where he attained a Master’s of Science in brewing and distilling. He’s also a judge for the American Distilling Institute, which means he’s the guy you keep your eye on when there’s a national tasting to be chewed over. It’s a keen palate not to be trifled with.
Our tour began in the blending, maturation, and bottling facility here in Salt Lake [the distillery and saloon are located in Park City]. High West products are currently distributed in 38 states and 6 countries, so it was surprising to see just a handful of magic makers producing daily bottling runs, hand-labeling, and boxing them up for distribution. It’s in this same facility that quality control, cataloging and research, and development take place. Full disclosure, the management and care required to put out the best possible whiskey seems daunting, but High West is equal to the task. A myriad of factors play into each batch, including portions reserved for the unseen. The ‘Angel’s Share’ is a term that refers to the amount of alcohol that will evaporate during the maturation process; climate and location will affect the process, among other things, which results in varying flavors. The process can take years, and High West’s share is yet to be determined.
Part II of the tour included the COLLECTIVE crew and some genuine joy. At Brendan’s hand, we were edified with details on enzymes, fermentation, and maturation of the good stuff. His knowledge and passion are infectious, and it’s clear why High West products are so on-point. After class, we got a COLLECTIVE schooling on whiskey and food pairings in the saloon [we highly recommend this for any human that eats/drinks]. Much of the amazing menu utilizes grains and spirit-related products, which we discovered was a delicious idea. Black coffee and bourbon-glazed cod [untellable, it’s so tasty], shaved Brussels sprouts, and Shishito peppers…roasted and whiskey-battered, then paired with Rendezvous Rye, Silver Oat, and the American Prairie Reserve [from which 10% of all proceeds go to the American Prairie Reserve in Montana to preserve the land].
For our part, we’re both proud and thirsty. Quality like this is hard to come by, but having it here at home makes us beam. Our chums at High West are taking the whiskey high road, and at every possible turn, we’ll COLLECTIVELY do the same. We asked them a few questions about the process, the pitfalls, and the joy they bring to our mouths. Read on…
Is there any particular aspect of whiskey [or whiskey making, for that matter] that people don’t understand? What is it that you think the general public should be aware of? We always strive to make sure people realize that whiskey comes from beer and that the only difference between the beer that we make to distill into a whiskey and the beer that you drink from the tap is this: 1) Our beer doesn't use hops, and 2) We leave the grain in our beer all the way through the process, as opposed to filtering it out like the beer you drink off the tap. Other than that, the beer-brewing and whiskey-making processes are VERY similar.... it all comes from natural grains... just like bread.
Is there any part of the whiskey-/spirit-making process that is particularly tough for you? Any quicksand you need to constantly look out for? The most important part of the process is the health of your fermentation (and the health of the yeast in that fermentation). That is when all of your best flavors and aromas are created. We always pay attention to our fermentation very closely, and track its health and performance in the lab with various tests. You can't take your focus off your fermentation or you'll screw it up. It's also the part of the process which has the most variables to it (water chemistry, nutrients, temperature...the list goes on and on). The best distillers (and brewers) out there are the people that have a high level understanding of fermentation science.
You’ve clearly put much thought into packaging – we like the historic warmth and feel of a modern-day saloon. How was the design process for you? Anything surprising? Our specific packaging is a hand-made bottle which has its own unique "flaws" (read: attributes) to each individual bottle, which is a big part of the charm. However, successful packaging operations are based off of consistency, so running a consistent packaging operation with slightly inconsistent bottles is a major challenge! But we think it's worth it.
You’re a high-end, small-batch distillery. Speak a bit more to the quality of your products, and why you’ve chosen to take this road. There are three ways to compete out there: being the best, being the cheapest, or being the most unique. We're quality-focused individuals. We want to make the best and that means sourcing the best ingredients and using the best process methods, which isn't cheap. Our customers are the type of people that are willing to pay a little more for something a lot better. We also focus on innovation and doing things differently in our industry. So in our eyes, we're extremely competitive on two of those three points above. We'll always be looking to make our whiskey as affordable as we can because we want everyone to be able to experience it, but when you're striving to be the best, you can only go so far on cost. We think our fans appreciate what we are doing.
We like boundary pushers, and you seem to be one of them. What's coming for High West? Any bullets in the chamber you're excited about? The main focus right now is getting our new facility, High West at Blue Sky, built and open, which is looking like the beginning of 2014. We may do a small run of brandies this fall since we all like them and it would allow us to utilize the amazing fruit in the great state of Utah, but that may get pushed to next year if we're too busy. The one really cool thing going on is that we found an actual historical reference to a Valley Tan recipe, which we're experimenting with at the moment...so don't be surprised if, on the next release, it's a bit different. The other product we're making a lot of right now (but no one will see it for years to come) is a malt whiskey (essentially scotch, but we can't say that because we're not in Scotland). We're really looking very forward to that release down the road...and we can assure everyone, we're taking a very different "twist" on that product, as well.
High West Distillery & Saloon | 703 Park Ave., Park City | 435.649.8300