Whiskey Of The Week: High West’s Best Iteration Yet Of Utah’s Finest (Only?) Single Malt
I was recently in Park City, Utah, home of the High West distillery. I wasn’t there to visit High West, mind you — I was there for the Sundance Film Festival, specifically to see a film called Theater Camp, featuring a young actress making her professional acting debut.
(Before I go any further, I should probably warn you that this is a combo whiskey review/proud parental humblebrag. Now, where was I….)
The actress in question is my daughter, aged 12, and Theater Camp was an absolute delight — I would have loved it whether or not my offspring was in it. My heart was aflutter as I watched her walk the red carpet, which wasn’t actually red. In fact, I’m not even sure there was a carpet. There was just a space behind some velvet ropes (wait, were they even velvet?) where the cast and assorted directors, producers, costume designers, etc. all posed for photos and did interviews and said hi to each other and that sort of thing. My daughter got to meet Will Ferrell, who’s one of the producers of Theater Camp, and he was the one gushing over her! I’ll tell you, I was one proud dad.
I wanted to visit the High West distillery and saloon while we were in town, but ironically enough, while my daughter was allowed to visit the distillery, the saloon is 21-and-over only. So alas, there was to be no High West Fondue or Elk & Bison Bolognese (two of the restaurant’s specialties) for either of us. Fortunately, I did have a delicious elk filet elsewhere in Park City, and I have plenty of High West whiskey at home.
I’ve been a big fan of High West since shortly after it was founded by David Perkins (who’s since left the company) in 2006. They started out blending and bottling sourced whiskey from other distilleries, most notably MGP in Indiana. But they’ve also been distilling for more than a decade, and most of what they bottle at this point is a combination of sourced stuff and their own (I dislike calling spirits “juice,” so “stuff” it is). They’ve been knocking it out of the park since day one with terrific expressions like Bourye, a combo bourbon/rye that’s my go-to when I can’t decide whether I want a bourbon or rye Manhattan — this happens far more often than I’d like to admit. And their annual Midwinter Night’s Dram bottling, featuring their Rendezvous Rye finished in French oak and port pipes, may be their most sought-after.
High West High Country American Single Malt is another periodic release, which made its debut at the tail end of the pre-Covid era in early 2020. It stands out from most of their other offerings because it’s entirely produced by High West. Previous iterations have used peated malt and a variety of barrels for maturation, including port pipes and Oloroso sherry casks. The latest version, which hit stores this winter, employs new charred oak and “second-use oak barrels,” which I take to be ex-bourbon, since there’s very little fruitiness to be tasted. It’s not missed, either — this is an easy-sipping delight from stem to stern.
A blend of whiskeys aged between 2-8 years, High Country is distilled “on the grain,” which means the barley is left in during fermentation and distillation, which is said to result in a heavier mouthfeel. On that count, I’m not sure it succeeds, but I actually enjoy the lightness on the palate, along with the pronounced notes of chocolate, roasted barley and honey — it’s like a delicious breakfast cereal. At 44% ABV, it’s gentle enough for extended sipping sessions, and complex enough to reward a few refills. And at $80 a pop, it’s not cheap, but it’s well worth the investment.
I’ve had plenty of American single malts, from dazzlers to duds, but this has made the very short list of homegrown single malts I drink regularly, by choice. If there’s another single malt made in Utah, I haven’t seen it, but I doubt it could improve on High Country. I just wish I’d had a glass at the premiere of Theater Camp. Did I mention that it got a standing ovation? And that within 48 hours of the premiere it had been acquired by Searchlight Pictures for worldwide distribution, including a theatrical release? Well, it has! And as warm and funny and moving a film as it is, it’s even better when enjoyed with a little whiskey — perhaps even High Country — to accompany it. I speak from experience.