High West is one of those distilleries that we hear about a lot from other bourbon enthusiasts, and for good reason — we’ve tried some of their spirits before and (despite being a facility that primarily blends and bottles instead of distilling their own stuff) they do a pretty darn good job making a delicious bottle of whiskey. Today we’re looking at the baseline of their lineup: their blended Bourbon Whiskey.
Utah is a strange place to start a distillery.
Starting in 1847, the state was colonized by Brigham Young and his followers of the Mormon religion, and the laws of the church largely formed the laws of the state. According to the 1833 Word of Wisdom, alcohol consumption was strictly forbidden… but that didn’t necessarily stop it from happening.
According to Mark Twain’s accounts of Salt Lake City, in 1851 there was already an established whiskey being manufactured and consumed by Mormons within the state referred to as “Valley Tan”. Up until 1870, a number of distilleries were operating within the state — but by the end of the year, they had all been shuttered.
That all changed in 2001, when David Perkins and his wife Jane decided to bring whiskey production back to Utah. An experienced biochemist, David was visiting the Maker’s Mark distillery and was intrigued by how alcohol production relied on intricate interactions between organic compounds and microscopic creatures to create the spirits that we all enjoy. The couple decided to open their own distillery and start producing whiskey back in Utah, and in 2006 they opened their doors for the first time.
High West Spirits does have a 250 gallon pot still and a production facility, but the majority of its products are blended whiskey that use product from multiple other distilleries (primarily MGP in Indiana), with the blend packaged under their own label. According to one article, this strategy of producing a blended whiskey was born out of necessity to keep a positive cash flow for the distillery, since aging their own whiskey would mean years of losses without any income that the Perkins were unable to cover themselves.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
As a blended whiskey, this is a product that combines multiple different strains of whiskey from different distilleries to create a unique flavor profile. For High West, the majority of their product is reportedly sourced from the MGP facility in Indiana (a common producer for a number of other spirits).
In this case, they are very clear and forthright that this is a blend of straight bourbon whiskies. “Straight bourbon whiskey” is a phrase which indicates that at least half of the grain bill for the spirit came from corn, the spirit was aged in a newly produced charred oak barrel, and (because it’s a “straight” whiskey) that aging should have been for no less than two years.
However, there are no notes on the bottle about what percentage of this spirit came from straight bourbon whiskey. The annoying thing about blended whiskey is that you don’t always know what you’re getting. Remember that this is labeled as a “bourbon” and not a “straight bourbon”… so there are likely some minor shenanigans going on here.
The bottle seems to be designed to evoke images of the Old West, and I think it’s doing the trick.
The bottle itself is styled more like a wine bottle than a whiskey, with a slender round body, rounded shoulder, and a medium length neck. Embossed on the bottle is the distillery’s logo (a horseshoe with their initials inscribed inside) and the name of the distillery. The whole package is topped with a rough looking wood and cork stopper that looks like it was whittled by an old prospector rather than made in a factory.
The label is relatively simple and designed in the style typically associated with hand bills and wanted posters you’d see in an old western. The paper is yellowed and looks worn, and the writing is in big bold block letters in a serif font with an image in the middle of the label.
Something that I do appreciate is that this whiskey doesn’t try to hide what it is. It says right on the front of the bottle that this is “a blend of straight bourbon whiskies”, and they only claim to have bottled it at the facility. Some other distilleries try to pass off blended and outsourced whiskey as their own product (which is my pet peeve), but here they’re being honest and up front about what’s going on. I like that.
There’s a bit of a balance going on here with the design. The bottle itself is understated, but that label is really what drives home the ambiance and gets the first few lines of “Home on the Range” running through my head. The label is also just big enough to get the point across without completely obscuring the liquid within, which is a tough balancing act to pull off.
High West has a remarkable track record of good looking spirits, and this one is no different. The liquid has a delicious amber color with just a touch of orange rust to make it interesting. Coming off the glass are some of the more typical bourbon aromas you’d expect: brown sugar, vanilla, orange peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a hint of cedar wood.
While that cedar component was a small player in the aroma, it happens to be the very first flavor I can identify when I take a sip. After years of doing these tastings, I think I’ve figured out that this is how my brain is decoding the heads-y lighter components from the distillation process, which is a hallmark of the bourbon making process. Quickly behind the cedar, there’s some nice dark chocolate and brown sugar that makes an appearance and adds some depth to that sharp and aromatic start, with some vanilla and baking spices that show up a little later to the party.
For something that started smelling so sweet, it’s a little surprising that there’s a good bit of bite to the spirit. It isn’t quite as velvety smooth as you might be led to believe, which honestly isn’t a bad thing. It’s not unpleasant, and I think that bite gives the spirit some additional character and helps balance the flavors even more.
With some added ice, the aroma in the glass has coalesced into a single note of caramel. There isn’t as much variety or nuance at this point, but it still smells delicious.
The same thing seems to have happened with the flavors: there’s less variety than before, but what’s left still works pretty well. I’m not getting the same cedar notes as I saw earlier — instead, the brown sugar, vanilla, and dark chocolate seem to be dominating the flavor profile. The combination is always a crowd pleaser, but the lack of diversity in the flavors means there also isn’t much to elevate this glass above other similar spirits.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
The flavors we saw when taken on the rocks are exactly the kinds of flavors I like to see in a good old fashioned cocktail. There’s some sweetness, some depth, some richness, and enough saturation to make it all coalesce into a delicious glass of flavor and relaxation. So it may come as no surprise that this is, in fact, a good old fashioned cocktail.
What would have made this truly great, though, is the addition of something unique. Some fruitiness, some smoke, or something else coming through to tweak that basic experience just a little bit more. It’s fine as-is… but there are a dozen other bottles that are fine as-is. I’m looking for something great.
Refreshing and delicious, that’s what we have here. A glass of a textbook Kentucky Mule, with the perfect balance of sweetness and richness coming from the bourbon and the right level of crispness and brightness from the ginger beer and lime juice. It’s something that you could absolutely sip all day long.
Once again, though, it’s not remarkable. While this is an excellent execution of this cocktail, there’s nothing unique going on here. There are no interesting flavors or unique textures in the cocktail, just good solid flavors. That’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t elevate the cocktail.
This is a well executed, delicious bottle of bourbon. And I want to say right off the bat that there’s not a thing wrong with it, and I’d be happy to grab it off the shelf any day of the week. It’s absolutely worth the price of admission, and I feel like that’s what they were going for here.
That said, there really isn’t anything unique or interesting that would set this bottle apart from any of the others in this price range. It’s a well executed bottle of bourbon, but when you “take the gloves off” (so to speak) and start blending spirits from other sources, the world is your oyster in terms of the flavors you can add and mix. You can do anything!
But they didn’t do anything. They made an honest, right-down-the-middle, solid bottle of bourbon. It’s the bourbon equivalent of a Renaissance master painter drawing a simple perfect circle freehand. A simple task on the surface, but one which requires expert skill to execute.
As a reviewer, I appreciate the simplicity and the clean execution. But as a drinker and a customer, I think I want something a bit more striking if I’m going to be spending the money on a bottle of spirits. I like the brand and I like the styling, but I want something with a little more character and uniqueness.
|High West Distillery Bourbon Whiskey
Utah, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $36.42 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A perfectly executed standard bourbon without any frills or tricks. Worth the price, if a bit boring.