One of my favorite things in the world is a good mashup. I love the idea of taking two contrasting things and putting them together to form a new and interesting combination with the best of both worlds. If you think about it, this is pretty much the premise of any cocktail. So when I heard about High West Distillery blending a bourbon, a rye, and a scotch whisky… I knew I needed to give it a test.
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 have since largely formed the laws of the state. And since the 1833 Word of Wisdom specifically forbid alcohol consumption, it follows that Utah’s laws aren’t most pro-alcohol… 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. And Utah remained largely void of distilleries for a long time after.
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. David and Jane decided to open their own distillery and start producing whiskey back in their Utah hometown, 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.
As a blended whiskey, this is a product that combines multiple different strains of whiskey from different distilleries to create a unique flavor profile.
What makes this spirit a little different is that it’s a blend of a whole bunch of different things, including bourbon, scotch whisky, and rye. The majority of the bourbon and rye is reportedly sourced from the MGP facility in Indiana (which is a common producer for a number of other spirits). According to their website, there’s also a touch of their own rye blended into the mixture, as well as some blended scotch whisky from undisclosed sources.
There’s no information about the specific ratios and provenance of the blended scotch part, so it’s a bit of a mystery what we’re going to get as we dive in.
The bottle is designed to evoke images of the Old West, and 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 High West is being honest and up front about what’s going on. I like that.
There’s a balancing act going on here, too. 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.
The very first thing I noticed coming from the glass is a fruity and almost floral aroma. It smells almost exactly like a fruit salad, with some melon and strawberry mixed in with the other aromas. But behind that sweet fruit is the usual culprits in a bourbon or aged rye — namely the caramel and vanilla tones that add some depth to the spirit.
Taking a sip is kind of like walking into the departures lounge of Heathrow’s Terminal 5. There’s a lot going on and some significant mixing of different cultures and it takes a second to sort out what’s happening.
First and foremost are some of the flavors that I think I can ascribe to the blended scotch. It’s much the same flavor profile that I get with Johnny Walker Red Label, specifically a good bit of vanilla and some smokey peat flavor. Then the rye starts to kick in, with a peppery spice coming on strong and then peaks and slowly diminishes, lingering long into the aftertaste. While that’s happening, the bourbon finally makes an appearance and contributes some of the caramel sweetness to round out the flavors.
Given the smokey flavor from the peat I can see where the “campfire” name came from.
It’s actually a delightful concoction that I don’t think I would have ever tried on my own. The closest I’ve come so far is the Grangestone Bourbon Cask Finished scotch, which has some of the same attributes but lacks that peppery spice from the rye.
The only note of caution I have about it would be that it’s a bit dry. There’s not the same sweetness that comes from a true bourbon. The result is that it’s pretty well balanced as a standalone neat drink to sip, but that balance may become, well, unbalanced when we start adding it to cocktails.
As you’d expect, most of the subtlety is gone from the drink and all that remains behind are the bolder flavors. There’s a bit of peat smoke earthiness, some peppery spice in the middle, and a hint of caramel left in the glass. Other than that, it’s all been buried by the ice and the dilution.
Again, it’s behaving pretty similar to the Johnny Walker Red label blended scotch whisky. But that peppery spice coming through does give me some hope for the next couple tests and seeing it actually come through in a mixed cocktail instead of being completely buried.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
As much as I was originally curious about the ability for this spirit to balance out in the cocktails, it turns out that I really shouldn’t have been concerned. It makes for a perfectly serviceable old fashioned, with some bonus added tricks. The earthy peat flavor actually is very interesting when mixed with the bright and vibrant orange peel and bitters — and if you pop in a couple cherries, things really get moving.
The only note here is the same note from before, mainly that it’s still a bit dry. There’s not much sugar content in this spirit, so you may want to up the simple syrup or muddled sugar cube content just a tad to compensate.
As sad as it is to use such an expensive spirit in a mixed drink like this, it actually proved to be one of the better uses.
In the mule, all of the variations combine to make something truly unique. The interaction between the smokey earthy peat flavor and the bright vibrant ginger beer makes for a perfect balance, and the peppery rye content comes through to keep it lively. It’s like the best parts of a penicillin cocktail and a peppery Kentucky mule mashed up together and put in a glass. And it works.
The closest comparison I can draw is to the Balcones Brimstone that we reviewed not too long ago. In that bourbon, the smokey flavors came through to make a delicious mule and a very similar thing is happening here.
Even the dry taste is balanced nicely, especially if you use a bit of lime juice in the mix for sweetness and some added tartness.
Blending (when done right) provide a unique experience that bridges genres and creates something completely new. Because High West is primarily a blender, this craft is pretty much their stock and trade, making them very experienced at putting flavors together that form something amazing. And in this case, I think they did a great job of stepping just a little bit outside the box and presenting something new and unique.
High West Whiskey Campfire
Owner: High West Distillery
Classification: Blended whiskey
Grain bill: Unknown
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $60 / 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Proving that 1 + 1 + 1 = 4.