High West Distillery
Proprietor and Distiller- David Perkins
Started in 2007
Located in Park City, Utah
Produces Rye Whiskey, Western Oat Whiskey, Vodka, BouRye (Bourbon/Rye Blend)
Online Handle- www.Highwest.com
Where Available to Buy:
Who would pass up tasting a spirit named BouRye, especially one that was awarded “Best of Show” and “Best Blended Whiskey” at the 2010 ADI Craft American Whiskey Competition?? What about their Rendezvous Rye?? A blend of 6 year old and 16 year old Rye that was rated a 95 in Malt Advocate. High West is at the top of its game after just 4 years in—receiving impressive accolades from the press so soon out of the gate is surely a sign that this is just the beginning for this small distillery…I can’t wait!!
The first legal distillery in Utah since the 1870s, High West is doing some interesting work; even being called “pioneers” for the whiskies they made by blending old barrels of whiskey mysteriously sourced with younger rye whiskies. Professional accolades aside, their spirits are compelling, unique and definitely worth sourcing. Elixrr was lucky enough to get David Perkins, distiller and proprietor of High West to take some time to answer some of our questions. Interview with High West’s David Perkins, founder and head distiller to follow.
E- I read that you worked in Kentucky and in Scotland, could you tell me more about where you worked and what was important in this work background that has influenced what you do at High West today?
DB-I was able to spend time at Four Roses and Labrot and Graham in Kentucky. And in Scotland, my wife and I spent a week at Bruichladdich, which had a program where they put you to work in the bottling room or the barreling room or where ever they needed help that day. It’s amazing what small details you can pick up that are really important and might otherwise take you a few months to figure out or a few costly mistakes. One example is how to roll a barrel properly so you don’t smash your fingers with 500 pounds of bone crushing wood and lots of rolling momentum. Or, how to clean the equipment after you have used it and with what to clean it. Or, what tool you use to pull a bung out of a barrel or how the big companies pull hundreds of bungs per day. Or, how the Scots make their whiskey differently from the Americans. So many foreign details. Invaluable.
E-How did your background is as a biochemist in the biopharmaceutical industry influence or help in your decision to become a distiller?
DB-The whole whiskey making process is almost exactly the same as how they make several of the drugs at Genentech and Amgen. Essentially through growing yeast that make a by-product, either a drug like erythropoetin or a drug like ethanol. The equipment is the same and the processes are the same. Many of the quality controls are the same. I felt right at home and knew distilling was something I could do and do well. There wasn’t any question.
E-Were you worried about locating your distillery in Utah, especially since there hasn’t been a new distillery established since 1870?
DB-When we moved to Utah, we moved with the idea of starting a distillery and, honestly, I thought the idea would just go away and die…[due to] both legal and cultural barriers. The other question was “would distilling even be legal in Utah?”
E-So, was it challenging to obtain a license in Utah? Was the state supportive at the end of the day?
DB-It is challenging getting a license in any state mainly due to the fact that governments control alcohol for tax purposes. I read the Utah state laws and found out there was actually a law allowing distilling. No one knows when it was written in the code and when I applied for my distilling permit and had to go before the governing body of the UDABC (Utah department of alcoholic beverage control). Well, since I filled out the mountain of paperwork very carefully and checked all the right boxes, I got my license. In fact, the UDABC has been nothing but helpful to me in getting the business up and running. The Utah legislature even changed a couple laws improving things for small distilleries, one allowing direct sales at the distillery, something that was critical for success. We are actually working on [a law] allowing sales of bottles at the distillery on…SUNDAY! I think it will happen which will make us the only place you can buy a bottle on a Sunday in Utah!
E-I notice you have amazing distribution, even managing representation in the UK where I currently live (Yay!), what has been the greatest help to establishing your brand presence?
DB-The most important thing is to have very tasty stuff! The second most important thing is to differentiate your product so they stand out from the competition and so you have something to talk about as people always want to know what is new or different. Fortunately, High West has been very fortunate on both of these. It is a little luck and a lot of work. My team and I spend a lot if time testing and tasting different recipes. I am pretty much a perfectionist as far as the “cooking” and know what I like. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it will sell. Fortunately the customers and whiskey reviewers have liked what we put out!
When we were developing the bottle and the labels, we wanted to have a Western look and feel because that is what we liked. We hoped that the Western-ness would be attractive to potential customers, but you never really know until you put it out there. So, I guess that might have helped, too.
Back to making your products unique, I spend a lot of time thinking about that and have tried to make every product that we sell unique:
Bourye – The world’s only whiskey that is a blend of both Bourbon and Rye
Rendezvous Rye – The world’s only rye whiskey that is a blend of a young rye and an older rye, a 6 year old and a 16 year old. Double Rye – The world’s only rye whiskey that is a blend of an even younger rye and an older rye, a 2 year old and a 16 year old. Vodka 7000′ – The world’s only Vodka made from oats. The 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan – The world’s only barrel aged Manhattan in a bottle. Rocky Mountain Rye 21 year old – The world’s only American Rye whiskey aged in used cooperage. I bet it hasn’t hurt either that we are in a major resort town that has visitors from all over the world. That was part of our “bet” for why we even picked Park City.
E-You have some really interesting products, the Vodka 7000, the Bourye, a Silver Whiskey and an American Single Malt that are really unique items for mixologists to work with and ultimately for consumers to enjoy.
How did you come up with this range?
DB-I think about it all the time! And back to the earlier question, I really, really, like to be different and innovative. I think an entire career at cutting edge biotech companies has pounded that into my head. But not to innovate for innovations sake, but innovate to add value and create something that is better than what is out there. So the products have to be different AND taste good.
E-What gave you the idea to develop the Bourye?
DB-I had just gotten very lucky and was able to purchase some beautiful 10-year-old Four Roses Bourbon. When I tasted the sample I knew it was so good, and knew High West could sell it, but I didn’t know what form that would take. One night my wife and I were sitting around tasting the Four Roses whiskey and I said “I wonder what would happen if we mix the bourbon and rye?” …I did it and I was really surprised by the result! It was really good and had a unique flavor profile where the rye spice was a second chapter. Normally, in a high rye bourbon, the rye is even throughout the taste. Not with Bourye. The spice kicked in second to the sweet decadent phat up front corn in the bourbon. I really liked it! As far as the name and the jackelope, I came up with it that night. I thought it was pretty stupid and goofy at first but after learning about the folklore of the jackelope…I was hooked!
E-The Vodka 7000 is the only vodka in the world made from oats, you mention it was used in earlier times, but is now cost prohibitive. Can you go into further detail as to why High West uses Oats, the benefits over potatoes and other grains?
DB-The benefit for me was first and foremost the taste. Oats have a very soft and gentle vanilla-ish flavor that I really like and since most people want a vodka that is “smooth,” oats just seemed to me to be the natural choice. When we made the first batch, I knew oats were the one. Frankly I didn’t really care about the cost. It was all about the taste. Cost was just a thing to throw in and talk about!
E- High West currently sells a Rocky Mountain Rye 21 year and 16 year. Could you expand a little bit how those Ryes came to be part of your portfolio and what will you do for future mature stock?
DB- For the older whiskies that High West sells, I really owe it all to Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller at Four Roses Distillery in Kentucky. Jim mentored me on how to set up a distillery, make whiskey, etc. When it came to starting the business, he suggested I buy some already aged whiskey that another distillery had made. Now, I wasn’t really interested in selling someone else’s whiskey. Then Jim asked; “while you are aging your own, how will you pay the bills?” Well that was that. So, Jim introduced me to a few people that made whiskey. One had some old rye whiskies that I tasted. Now I had never thought much about rye up until that point and thought it was mostly rotgut and for dinosaurs. Boy was I hooked. These ryes were some of the best whiskey I had ever tasted. When I asked why they would sell them to me, they said; “nobody drinks rye and we don’t think we can sell any.” That was about 10 years ago and the world has changed dramatically for rye whiskey. I bought everything they would sell me! And, I had a few smart people tell me I’d lose my shirt! As far as future mature stock, that will likely all come from High West, as no one in their right mind would sell amazing old rye whiskey to anyone nowadays. So basically, I got very lucky.
E-The High Country Single Malt is made in a similar fashion to Single Malts in Scotland. Could you liken the flavor profile to any particular region in Scotland? What makes it different/same to single malts there?
DB-I would say a cross between a Speyside and Highland. I am after an elegant whiskey with a light yet complex flavor profile. Ours is both fruity with banana and a background of chocolate and hazelnut. I kind of liken it to Ben and Jerry’s chunky monkey ice cream. We are aging it in barrels that previously held our rye whiskey so it will have a flavor profile very much like a Scotch versus an American whiskey, which is almost always aged in brand new barrels. Scotch drinkers don’t typically like American whiskey, as the new barrel flavor is too sweet. I had a well-known master distiller from Scotland taste our new make and felt really good from his comments on it. But you’ll have to wait at least 2 more years!
E-Where do you see High West going in the future product-wise?
DB-Right now, we are focusing on making rye whiskey, malt whiskey (like Scotch), and oat whiskey and getting these in barrels and aging them. That is our future. In the near term, we are just launching our 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan. This is the Manhattan cocktail made and aged in a whiskey barrel for 4 months. It is really delicious! We also have several other things up our sleeves, but I can’t talk about them, as they aren’t perfect yet!
E-Any new markets you are looking to crack?
DB-Anyone that will buy our stuff! Just kidding. We are taking a pretty slow and careful approach to adding new regions. First, you have to get the right distribution partner and we have been very fortunate with our distributors. Second, you have to be able to deliver supply in a reliable fashion and expanding too fast can really hurt your reputation if you can’t deliver. Having said that, I am really excited about our potential first order to China!
E-What is your favorite High West spirit?
DB-I have 2 kids and my daughter always asks me “who do you like better?” Now, I can’t answer that! They are all superb and I wouldn’t sell any of them if I didn’t like them. Unlike kids, where you don’t have a choice of how they will turn out, (well I know I have an influence) I do have a choice on my products!
E-What is your biggest lesson since starting the distillery?
DB-Do what you love and love what you do.
I should have started High West earlier! Sure is fun following your passion, makes it easy to get out of bed in the morning.
E-What do you wish your consumers to know that they may not know about High West?
DB-High West is a really fun place to visit and I really hope all our customers get to come visit us one day. We have a lot of passionate employees that love what they do in the 2 different businesses that High West is and they are all about excellence and giving the customer the very best. Most of our employees work in our restaurant, which was just voted the best restaurant in Park City and was just Zagat rated and is one of only 20 restaurants in Utah listed in the printed Zagat’s guide. Now I am really proud of what these folks have done. And the folks that work in the distillery just received what I consider the ultimate accolade from America’s leading whiskey magazine – Malt Advocate. They just named High West the “Whiskey Pioneer of the year.” I am a proud papa!
E-What do you think differentiates High West from other micro distillers?
DB-Utah, having a really good restaurant, our passionate people (I think most micro-distillers have passionate people but ours are different!), you can ski right up and come in your ski boots!
E-Lastly, outside of High West, what distillery do you most admire?
DB-There are so many [distilleries] that I admire. I’d have to start with Four Roses and Jim Rutledge. His products are so elegant and he is such a perfectionist [and] so passionate about sharing his love of whiskey with anyone who asks him…He’s also the most humble guy in the world. I’d like to be just like him. I love Bruichladdich and Jim McKewan. He is the dog’s bullocks. He is passionate and innovative and irreverent and very classy. I’d like to be like him, too. I love John Glaser who runs Compass Box. He is such a pleasure to be around and he’s smart and innovative and such a gentleman. He’s helped to turn scotch whiskey on its head by pushing the envelop with his products. I’d like to be like him.