Whiskey Review: High West Whiskey American Prairie Bourbon

I was looking through the list of whiskey reviews we’ve done and noticed that there are a lot of states that are missing from the list. Craft distilling is happening all over the United States and I feel like I need to branch out a little more beyond just Texas, New York, Kentucky and Indiana. So when I saw a bottle from the state of Utah I knew that I needed to give it a try.

History

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. They 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) and packages the blend 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.

Product

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 (which is a common producer for a number of other spirits).

In this case, the American Prairie Bourbon is reportedly a blend of straight bourbon whiskey. “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 not less than two years.

However, there’s 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 and (like in the case of Ancient Age) you could be getting only 20% actual whiskey with mostly “neutral grain spirits” comprising the remainder.

Packaging

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 stuff, 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.

Neat

Right off the bat, this is hitting all of the usual notes for a bourbon. It smells very sweet in the glass, which is a direct result of all the delicious sugary corn in the grain bill. I also get the usual hallmarks of a bourbon, namely caramel and vanilla in the aroma along with a touch of cinnamon. The flavors mix in a specific way that reminds me of oatmeal at breakfast — sweet, with some brown sugar.

The very first thing I taste is oak. Seriously, it’s as if I just licked a wet oak plank. It’s earthy and rich, with some of those vanilla notes coming in loud and clear. From there, the spirit has a distinct peppery spice that starts creeping in, which would make sense if there’s any rye in the source whiskey. It reminds me a lot of the Elijah Craig small batch bourbon we reviewed not too long ago.

The finish is those two flavors, the peppery rye and the distinctive wet oak, locked in a rolling scissors dogfight as they fade into a black hole. There’s a bit of bitterness on the tail end of the taste but it comes and goes quickly.

On Ice

The ice actually does a fairly good job of pulling back the oak flavor. As a result, the spirit becomes significantly heavier in the caramel and vanilla areas, which makes it sweeter and more delicious to drink. It still has all of that oak aroma but now it’s nowhere near as front-and-center as it once was.

Sadly, though, the peppery spice is also diminished. I don’t get it nearly as much as I did when taken neat, but that slight bitterness seems to have stuck around instead. Usually it’s the opposite story — the bitterness takes a hike and the peppery spice sticks around — but in this case the bitterness isn’t going anywhere.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

I was afraid that this would happen.

The spirit itself has that bitterness already built in, and with the added orange bitters there’s just way too much in there to balance out naturally. You’re going to want to make sure that you muddle a good bit of sugar into the drink to offset that bitterness and probably a good helping of fruit garnish.

That’s not to say that this is a bad cocktail, it just needs a bit of help. There’s the vanilla and caramel notes under the surface just wanting to shine through and that peppery spice to make things interesting, but it needs a bit of help to get to the point where it all starts to come together.

Fizz (Mule)

With the added ginger beer I think the drink is finally balanced. There’s enough sweetness to kill the bitter finish, the caramel and vanilla flavors compliment the ginger, and overall it’s just an enjoyable experience. I even get some of that peppery spice coming through to make it a touch more interesting.

Overall Rating

A blended whiskey tends to “mellow out” the constituent flavors. It’s hard to take a bold and brash spirit and mix it together with a bunch of other stuff and still retain all that power, and the result we see here is pretty much the best you can hope for in that situation. There’s some peppery spice that comes through in measured quantities and a distinct bourbon style oak flavor, but in general it’s a fairly generic bourbon.

The problem is that it’s a blended bourbon in a crowded market. For example, the Kooper Sweetheart of the Rodeo Blended Bourbon comes from the same source (MGP) at roughly the same price point — but ends up packed with flavor and does great in all of our testing. With High West blended bourbon, it’s okay but it has some rough edges. It needs to excel to stand out, and the only thing it excels at is branding, in my opinion.

High West Distillery American Prairie Bourbon
Production Location: Utah, United States
Classification: Blended Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $35 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

Overall Rating: 2/5
A very well designed package containing a very average blended bourbon.

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