When you think of famous homes for American Spirits, Utah has to be one of the last states that comes to mind. In fact, way back in 2013 Time Magazine did a review of the “Best and Worst States for Drinking” and guess who came in last? Utah. Petition to change the state motto to: “the puritanical dream of temperance is alive and well in Utah!” Utah’s influence from the LDS Church has always been at odds with the traditional “Wild West”, where the notion of “take my life, not my booze” is still very much alive today. This volatile cocktail, shaken AND stirred for over a hundred years finally found the perfect mix, the result is a world-class distillery less than an hour away from Temple Square.
High West was created on the ideals of the American West; pioneering self-reliance and barrels of brown liquor. These ideals are on display as soon as you arrive at the property, located just outside of the small town of Wanship, Utah.
To reach the distillery building itself, you park near the highway and take a complementary (and compulsory) shuttle up into the mountains. OK, so maybe the self-reliance part was a bit overblown. This short ride does do two things: one, it allows their property, which is nestled into the mountains, to utilize nearly all of the available flat space for distilling and drinking by avoiding the need for massive parking lots. Two, it ensures that the first vehicle you get into after leaving the distillery isn’t your own, granting an extra 15 minutes for a come-to-latter-day-Jesus moment before you decide if you are sober enough to drive home.
Shuttle ride aside, the arrival experience is to American Whiskey what a trip to Napa Valley is to wine. Rather than being surrounded by vineyards and rivers, High West is surrounded by low peaks, sagebrush, cottonwoods, and cacti. The effect is to transport the thirsty visitor to the old west, uncharted and wild.
Unfortunately due to COVID, distillery tours were closed for the day, so we had to make due with the restaurant (guess that means I’ll have to go back ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). The restaurant/bar/tasting room serves a variety of ‘New American’ fare, everything from salads, to sandwiches, to steak. The drink list, disappointingly, goes for mass appeal by focusing their cocktails on the top two-thirds of the page.
This relegates their flagship spirits to languish at the bottom of the page, a victory for the marketing department over the distiller I’m sure. The lack of ‘off-menu’ or ‘distillery-select’ spirits is also disconcerting, though this might speak more to their popularity and relative rarity than it does to the distillery itself. Still, sitting next to the literal distillery and hearing “well, we only have 2 pours that you can’t get in a grocery store back home” made me a bit sad.
Headwinds be damned, I was trying each of those pours
The first was their barrel select Campfire aged for 14 additional months in Jamaican rum barrels. No mention of the rum brand, unclear if that’s a good or a bad sign… For those who have not had the blessing to try High West Campfire, it’s a whiskey-lovers fusion of traditional American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Scotch. Campfire is a proprietary blended whiskey (don’t laugh, It works!) that highlights the fire and sweetness of the American whiskeys with the delicate, smoky finish of a Scotch whisky. The time spent in the rum barrels adds sweetness, body, and color to the spirit without negatively impacting the delicate balance of whiskeys therein. Cut with a bit of water or the melt from a whiskey rock, and the flavors come to life.
High West prides itself on the ability to pair whiskeys with food and the recommended pairing for the Campfire was a barbecue platter. Yes, you read that right, I let what I was drinking choose what I ate. When done well this should be an international standard. The variety of meats on the platter were a perfect match to the whiskey. The sweet and spicy barbecue sauce played off the American whiskeys and the smoky char on the meats mirrored the Scotch, creating a pleasantly cohesive experience. I was genuinely unsure how whiskey/food pairings as a specialty would play out. I’ve had numerous beer/wine/whiskey pairings that were more about what they were trying to get rid of rather than what went together, but High West pulled it off with aplomb.
Much of the history of American Whiskey centers around the use of corn, wheat, and rye as primary ingredients. A distinct degradation of the soil quality on the prairie leading up to the rocky mountains made growing corn a challenge, so many of the first ‘mountain whiskeys’ were either 100% wheat or 100% rye. High West’s most ‘authentic’ mountain whiskey, Valley Tan was unavailable, so I settled for another throwback spirit, the 100% rye 16 Year Rocky Mountain Rye. Hoo boy, this dram was a powerful rye experience. The nose and palate were all about highlighting the natural qualities of this spicy and intense grain. A silky smooth finish owes to the lengthy, but necessary, aging process. I’d recommend sipping this one slowly to savor the full rye experience.
High West continues to be one of my favorite distilleries in the American West. They consistently produce top-tier spirits, many of which are highly sought-after or even personal favorites like fellow Abov owner Eric. The distillery experience matched the quality, and unfortunately the scarcity, of those spirits. I’m already looking forward to my post-COVID trip back to get the full experience and try a few more elevated whiskeys in the mountains of Utah.