When it comes to the whiskey world the two most maligned words are “sourced” and “blended.” Yet, one of the most respected distilleries to come out of the past decade of craft distilling is easily Utah’s own High West, a distillery that exclusively bottles “sourced” and “blended” whiskey. So how did they rise above? Honesty, quality, and experimentation.
Founded in 2006 in Park City, Utah the High West Distillery is the first legal distillery in Utah since 1870. Founder David Perkins fell in love with the idea of applying his work in biochemistry to distilling after a visit to Maker’s Mark in 2001 and they began distilling on their 250 gallon pot still in 2007. If that doesn’t sound like a very big still for the amount of product High West produces it’s not. You might also ask how their first product, Rendezvous Rye, won Double Gold at the San Francisco Spirits Competition in 2008. The answer to both questions is sourcing.
In 1933 it was Utah that provided the 36th vote to the Amendment ending Prohibition saying, “No other state shall take away this glory from Utah.”
It’s an open secret these days that many of the “craft” distilleries are actually just bottlers. Places buy whiskey on the open market, either directly or through brokers, and then finish and bottle it under their own label. This isn’t anything new. Up until the micro distillery explosion of the past two decades there were only 8 distilleries producing 300 brands of American Whiskey. Sourcing and blending has always been the name of the game. In fact, Perkins claims it was Jim Rutledge, the legendary former Master Distiller of Four Roses, who first suggested he purchase whiskey from other distilleries. The idea was to create a quality product to keep the lights on while Perkin’s own distillate reached maturity.
While it may seem outlandish for the man credited with taking Four Roses from a rotgut brand to quite possibly the finest American Bourbon on the market today to suggest sourcing and blending, it fits with Rutledge’s own style. Four Roses essentially created a one stop shop for sourcing and blending under their own roof. They use two different mashbills and five different strains of yeast to produce ten bourbons each with their own unique flavor profile. These are all blended together in various proportions to create the various expressions of the Four Roses line up. Which again makes sense as Jim Rutledge learned distilling while Four Roses was part of the Seagrams distilling empire, which was most famous for it’s blends.
When Seagrams collapsed in the late 90’s, Four Roses was purchased by Kirin and began its resurgence while it’s sister plant, now known as MGP, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana set off down a different path: providing whiskey to other distilleries. It turns out that Seagrams produced excellent distillers and that a lot of the whiskies that they were using as blending agents were damn tasty all on their own. Their most infamous style is a rye whiskey made from 95% Rye and 5% malted barley which if you are paying attention is the mashbill for such famous brands as Bulleit, Templeton, and High West.
The fact that High West was sourcing from the same supply as some less than forthright new “distilleries” caused them to be lumped in with the chaff and disregarded. However, Perkins, and his Master Distiller Brendan Coyle, took Rutledge’s advice and started blending. They spread their nets wide and pulled in a variety of styles, particularly rye, from distilleries across the country.
The problem with sourcing whiskey though is that you don’t control the supply. Take that original release of Rendezvous Rye. It was a 92 Proof, non-chill filtered blend of the MGP 95% Rye 5% Malted Barley as well as a 16 year old 80% Rye from the Barton Distillery in Kentucky. The name actually comes from the meeting, the rendezvous, of these two ryes. However, over the years the proportions and blend has changed until now the Rendezvous Rye is officially listed as “a blend of straight rye whiskeys ranging in age from 4-7 years old.” Certainly more vague but it allows for more wiggle room when stocks fluctuate.
What makes this process unique to High West is that none of this is information that you need to dig for. It’s all available front and center on their official website. This level of transparency, along with the quality of the liquid in the bottles, is what helped separate High West from the pack. But even for a blender the need to control stock is paramount.
A Midwinter Night’s Dram Act 6 Scene 6 was the first release of the Midwinter’s to contain some of High West’s own whiskey in the mix.
In 2015, this distillery made famous by blending opened a second distilling site with a 1,600 gallon copper pot still. The blenders were scaling up. As older stock is being drunk with greater abandon they have slowly been inserting their own distillate into their blends. In fact this year their Double Rye, which was a blend of 2-year old MGP Rye and the last of that 16 Year Old Barton Rye, will now officially be the first blend containing their own whiskey which was completely fermented, distilled, and aged in house. Their own whiskey is finally coming of age but they’re treating it as just another one of the many tools at their disposal, giving them yet another flavor to paint with in their blends.
While this honesty and quality is what helped High West survive I think what has made them truly unique is their desire to experiment. One of my favorite examples of this is the A Midwinter’s Night Dram and not just because I’m a sucker for puns. The Midwinter’s Dram is the basic Rendezvous Rye blend further finished in used Port barrels made from French Oak. This once a year release was the first in a series of barrel experiments that High West has released over the years and in my opinion is their best work. It’s also a fantastic example of how small tweaks can elevate a whiskey. At its best blending is about creating something that is larger than the sum of its parts and when it comes to that High West is certainly on the front lines.
While it may be odd to think about a distillery in Utah breaking new ground in the whiskey world just remember that in 1933 it was Utah that provided the 36th vote to the Amendment ending Prohibition saying, “No other state shall take away this glory from Utah.” So maybe it’s time to have a dram and let your preconceptions about blending, sourcing, and Utah be challenged.
A Midwinter Night’s Dram Act 6 Scene 6 was the first release of the Midwinter’s to contain some of High West’s own whiskey in the mix. So how does it taste?
NOSE: Rich, candied fruit with a touch of that rye baking spice
PALETTE: Dark Fruit, with a decadent mouth feel. The port and French oak add a more nuanced character to the traditional rye bomb. There’s a slight nuttiness and the through line of spice.
FINISH: Spiced clove, ripe fruit and a lingering warmth that is perfect for a roaring fireplace and a leather chair.