Park City, UT
Seven thousand feet up in the snow-capped mountains of Park City, Utah, distiller David Perkins has an enviable vista from his perch at the High West Distillery & Saloon. A biochemist by trade, Perkins retired his pharmaceutical gloves in 2004, moved from the Bay Area to the high hills of Utah, bought a small still for experimenting, and began penciling out his business plan. Four years later, he was selling his first bottle of High West Whiskey. Not bad for an office swap. Perkins, however, dismisses the notion that this was a radical career change. “I worked at drug companies all my life. They’re essentially just glorified distilleries. After all, beer was the world’s first biotechnology: Man’s use of the living organism for something he wants.”
And what Man wanted in this case was whiskey. But Perkins faced the same conundrum shared by all startup distilleries: how do you produce a quality aged product without waiting twelve years to pin up your first dollar bill over the register? While committed to distilling his own spirits — High West has been producing a white whiskey (OMG Silver Whiskey) and a vodka (Vodka 7000) from day one — Perkins admits, “My passion is aged whiskey.” So under the tutelage of Four Roses’ Jim Rutledge, Perkins purchased a batch of old rye whiskey stock. Not interested in simply bottling someone else’s whiskey, Perkins took the notable route of blending the ryes of varying ages to create a final product that enabled the best qualities of each batch to come forward. “The idea of blending,” Perkins says, “came from Scotch and Cognac, which is often blended from several different years — that’s how they make that beautiful, complex creature…It was my opportunity to make an espresso out of a café Americano.” While confessing to some trial and error at first, the ryes eventually released proved he was onto something. “Blending the 6 year with the 16 (Rendevous Rye), it’s one plus one equals three.”
On Aging (whiskey, that is)
And while these rye blends helped put High West on the map, they have been at it long enough now to be releasing their first in-house aged, oat whiskey, Valley Tan (85% Oat, 15% Malted Barley). What’s the difference between producing a whiskey from found rye and an entirely in-house product? “At the end of the day, it better be delicious. If it’s not, why bother?” Perkins describes High West’s mission in two goals: “Deliciousness and distinctiveness,” using the Double Rye (a blend of 2 year 85% Rye with a 16 year 53% rye) as an example. “The Double Rye is very distinctive — as a taste experience. You haven’t had anything like it. Our job is to turn people onto whiskey. There’s a lot more out there now; people need the tools to taste it. We offer tastings of our products relative to Scotches and Irish Whiskeys. That’s how people learn, through comparison.”
Of course, not every drink is taken straight, and High West’s barrel-aged Manhattan cocktail (The 36th Vote) is a perfect example of a craft distillery’s ability to experiment and have fun. Rolled out (and named) to commemorate Utah’s deciding vote to end Prohibition, Perkins describes it as mellower, sweeter variation on the Manhattan as the barrel enables the flavors to harmonize during the aging process. “It’s a limited thing, but it sure is tasty.”
As for other cocktails? “Well, we have the luxury of a bar and restaurant, which gives us the opportunity to have a lab right here and make these products in real time.” But he says the High West Lemonade and Dead Man’s Boots are must haves. (See Below)
As for leaving the science industry to open a distillery? Perkins argues that his previous career gave him a good foundation for making whiskey, but, if there’s any nostalgia for his past life, you can’t hear it in his voice. “It’s been a great ride…” he says, “I found my calling.”
Recipes from High West Distiller David Perkins
High West Lemonade
1-1/2 ounces of High West Rendezvous Rye
3 ounces Spiced Lemonade (to taste)
Stir ingredients in a rocks glass, and add ice. Garnish with gently crushed fresh mint.
Alpine Spiced Syrup: Combine 2 cups water, 4 cups sugar, 1/2 lemon, 10 cloves, 3 cinnamon sticks, 1 nutmeg, and 1 vanilla bean in sauce pan, and simmer for 1 hour. Strain, and cool to room temperature. Syrup has a 30-day shelf life in a covered container.
Spiced Lemonade: mix equal parts Alpine Spiced Syrup, fresh lemon juice, and water (adjust water to taste). Shake well, and keep refrigerated.
Dead Man’s Boots
1-1/2 ounces High West Rendezvous Rye Whiskey
1 ounce Tequila
1 ounce Ginger Beer
2 wedges of Limes
2 tbsp Sugar
Muddle lime wedges with sugar and a splash of hot water. Add tequila, High West Rendezvous Rye Whiskey and ice to cocktail shaker. Shake, and strain into cooler glass filled with ice. Add ginger beer, and garnish with lime wheel.
Spirits by High West:
12 Year Old Rye
16 Year Old Rocky Mountain Rye
21 Year Old Rocky Mountain Rye
Son of Bourye
Valley Tan Utah Oat Whiskey
Silver Whiskey Western Oat
Silver Whiskey OMG Pure Rye
36th Vote Barreled Manhattan
Vodka 7800′ Peach