High West is a company we’ve reviewed here before — and while all of the bottles we’ve tried have performed respectably, none of them have really blown my socks off. But we’ve only tried their bourbon, and they also make a couple strains of rye whiskey with the potential to provide a bit more kick and interesting flavor choices than before, so today we’re looking at their Rendezvous Rye 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 resulting 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.
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) — but unlike the other bottles we’ve tried from High West, for this bottle they also produce some of the spirit in-house at their own distillery.
In this case, the Rendezvous Rye Whiskey is a blend of two specific straight rye whiskey strains: an MGP sourced spirit that uses 95% rye and 5% malted barley in its mash bill, and their own in-house distilled straight rye whiskey that is 80% rye and 20% malted rye. High West proudly points out that unlike other rye whiskies, where the grain bill is just barely above 50% rye, they use two strains where rye grains make up over 90% of the total volume of the raw ingredients.
In either case, the grains are milled, cooked, fermented, and distilled to create the raw rye whiskey. That spirit is then placed into new charred oak barrels for a period of at least four years (but reportedly between 5 and 15 years in reality) before it is blended together to make the bottle we see here today.
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” different whiskeys, 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.
There’s also a good 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.
When it comes to the aroma, a good rye whiskey has a tendency to remind me of a green Jolly Rancher and this one is no different. Right off the bat, I’m getting some green or sour apple mixed with caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla. It gives the glass this impression like you just bit into a delicious candied apple at a state fair. Mixed in is some black pepper and cinnamon spice, as well as a bit of rye bread to round things out.
One of the biggest differences between a rye and a bourbon is the spicy black pepper kick, and that’s present here as soon as you take your first sip. Black pepper and cinnamon are the very first things I taste, followed by some brown sugar, vanilla, and then a hint of green apple. On the finish there’s a good bit of tingle on the lips as the spicy black pepper lingers, but it seems to slightly out-stay its welcome and leaves just the slightest glimmer of bitterness at the end.
I’ll be honest… a good rye is actually a little too spicy for my delicate palate in most cases. I find it a bit overwhelming when done properly. Which is the point — rye is typically considered a spirit to be mixed, not necessarily one to be taken on its own (with apologies to the WhistlePig folks). That’s why I look forward to adding a little bit of ice to the glass, something that typically helps to reduce the impact of those spicy notes and letting the other flavors shine through.
That’s exactly what has happened here, with much less emphasis on the black pepper and cinnamon and more focus on the interesting and surprisingly complex flavors. I’m still seeing some of that green apple, but it isn’t quite as bright and flashy as it was before. Now it seems to balance much more with the brown sugar and vanilla components, making a delicious welcome to the experience. As the flavor develops, there’s some of that baked rye bread note that makes an appearance, and then a hint of dark chocolate which provides a bit of depth and complexity near the finish without any of the bitterness we saw before.
At this point, this is something I’d sip just as-is. But I feel like there’s a lot of potential here for some good cocktails.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This is exactly what I want to see in an old fashioned. Normally, you’ll get a bourbon-based version of this drink that’s either too boring or too fruity, and what it really needs is that spicy and rich kick in the pants that only a good rye can provide.
In this case, there are two things that are really doing most of the heavy lifting: the fruit notes and the black pepper.
Up front, there are some fruity notes from the apple and some depth from the dark chocolate that provide excellent complimentary flavors to the aromatic bitters and make for a well balanced cocktail. There’s some levity, some depth, and some interesting components that all work together to make something that will keep your taste buds entertained. But the real kicker is the, well, kick — that little bit of black pepper spice that has stayed behind and adds an interesting texture to the cocktail.
There’s still room for improvement here, specifically with some more unique flavors than the very typical green apple and black pepper, but it’s a solid cocktail.
When I reach for a spirit to make a mule, there’s a reason that usually I’ll go for a rye and not a bourbon (or, God forbid, a vodka). The flavors and textures that come through with a good rye really elevate this cocktail and make it truly amazing, compared to the more mediocre and bland versions out there with other spirits. In this case, we have a textbook example of why rye is the right pick for your next mule.
Right up front, the fruit flavors of the apple in the rye do a great job integrating with the ginger beer and lime juice, and the dark chocolate note provides just the right balance to keep this from becoming too tart. As the flavor develops, that black pepper note makes an appearance and adds some interesting texture to the experience, which keeps it from becoming bland or boring.
As we’ve said in other parts of this review, the only complaint I have is that there really isn’t anything novel or unique going on here — this just seems to be a well-executed, textbook rye whiskey.
This is the kind of rye whiskey that should be put on a shelf and referenced as the “gold standard” for the spirit. There’s plenty of flavor in here, all of it well saturated and nicely balanced — and as a result, it makes for some fantastic cocktails. But I think this runs into the same problem that almost every blended spirit faces: namely, that there aren’t a whole lot of interesting flavors or unique characteristics coming through. I would have loved to see something new and different, but it seems like High West played it safe with this bottle instead.
|High West Distillery Rendezvous Rye Whiskey
Utah, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $66.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A delicious, textbook rye whiskey. Well executed, but lacking anything that makes it truly stand out.