The unlikely story of how Kentucky-style distillery High West became the embodiment of Utah’s pioneering spirit.
Visitors to High West Distillery pair their boutique drams with an unparalleled view of the Uinta Mountains.
When Bay Area biochemist David Perkins went to a wedding in Kentucky, he had an epiphany while visiting the famed Maker’s Mark Distillery that would radically change his life. He thought, Why couldn’t you Napa-ize Kentucky and do for bourbon what Napa accomplished with wine?
With Park City, Utah on his radar and a plan to move to the mountain town with his family, Perkins started pondering his next venture. While researching the idea of producing his own whiskey, he struck it rich when he learned some unusual tales from the silver mining town’s history. Not only had the local mountain men rendezvoused in summer 1826 in nearby Cache Valley for a pelt-trading whiskey shindig, but the Mormon pioneers began distilling when they first settled, producing Valley Tan, a whiskey that Mark Twain described as “the exclusive Mormon refresher.”
The mechanics of whiskey-distilling haven’t changed much in generations, and in the historic mining environs of Park City, they seem always to have been here.
“Park City was made for whiskey and was the perfect spot for High West, as it gave provenance to our product,” Perkins explains.
Armed with an authentic story and a passion for the Old West, Perkins and his wife Jane launched Utah’s first legal distillery since 1870 and dubbed it High West, inspired by Clint Eastwood’s western High Plains Drifter. Merging his biochemistry smarts with the design savvy and hospitality genius of his wife, in 2009 they fired up a 250-gallon still and swung open the doors to the world’s only ski-in whiskey saloon, appropriately set at the bottom of Quit ‘N Time ski run, next to the Town Lift in Old Town Park City.
High West Saloon in Park City, Utah.
Few ventures ever became hits without taking on a bit of risk, and High West, true to its pioneering heritage, is a prime example. While it crafts its own distillates like its Silver Oat Whiskey and Valley Tan, early on Perkins began sourcing whiskeys and creating new styles with specific flavor profiles through blending, while he waited for his own products to age. And while this practice occurs routinely in Scotland, sourcing and blending was controversial in the United States, and therefore a bit hush-hush. Choosing transparency—and with the help of master distiller Brendan Coyle—Perkins forged his own path, becoming a whiskey pioneer in the process.
Take, for example, Campfire, a beautiful smoky trio of peated Scotch whiskey, bourbon, and rye—a blend with notes of butterscotch, chai spices, and tobacco. There’s also Double Rye, a fortuitous melding of a brash and spicy younger rye with a much older rye into a stand-alone sipper. Fittingly, High West’s limited release Bourye—an older rye and mature bourbon blend—sports the symbolic jackalope on its label, another famous mashup of the Old West. Reflecting the unbridled spirit of the American West, High West’s bold blends garnered celebrity as “Whiskey Pioneer of the Year” in 2011 and “Distiller of the Year” in 2016 from Whisky Advocate magazine.
David Perkins and his wife, Jane.
Pressed to name a favorite, Perkins says, “If you held a gun to my head, I’d say A Midwinter Night’s Dram, our cult whiskey. We put rye into French oak and port barrels that lend a little spice and plum pudding flavor, so the blend tastes like Christmas.”
At Wynn Las Vegas, High West bottles like Campfire, Rendezvous Rye, Bourye, and A Midwinter Night’s Dram line the shelves of SW Steakhouse and Country Club. "Whiskey and steak share much in common,” says David Walzog, executive chef of SW Steakhouse. “Both are highly influenced by aging; the longer they age the richer and more intricate the flavors become. The texture and flavors of our dry-aged Snake River Farm strip loin pairs particularly well with Rendezvous Rye. This cut has a lush marbling that’s the result of its cross of wagyu and angus. The rye has a lush smoothness and beautiful finish that accentuates the flavor of this great steak.” But High West is as much about the experience as it is about the whiskey. Walking into their lively saloon in Park City, one finds horseshoes lining the walls, a nod to its historic roots as a miners’ livery stable. Today, it’s the town’s social hub, thanks to a groundswell of enthusiasm from the locals and the constant global stream of Champagne powder hounds and whiskey fans who can be found sipping flights in their ski boots or savoring Chef James Dumas’s western alpine cuisine—think bison and beef burgers, pan-fried trout and decadent grilled donuts. Up the road, their historic Nelson Cottage has become the stomping grounds for James Beard-nominated chefs during the Sundance Film Festival.
And while the Park City-based gastro-distillery continues to mill, mash and produce oat, rye, and malt whiskey, along with offering tours, High West’s two-year-old Blue Sky Distillery in nearby Wanship is a staggeringly impressive mountainside mecca for whiskey sipping and study.
Snake River Farms gold-grade steak at SW Steakhouse.
“Expanding from Park City to Blue Sky was a stroke of luck, but when the Blue Sky ranch owner came into our lives, we were ready for it,” explains Perkins. Carved into the hillside of a 3500-acre former cattle ranch, the massive architectural beauty, with its exposed wood and vaulted ceilings, houses a shiny 1600-gallon Forsyth copper pot still (with plans for four total) and a booming production facility. At its Refectory restaurant, imbibers drink in the views of the Uinta Mountains over a high country western brunch, elevated by the occasional moose, eagle, elk, or wild turkey sighting.
It’s been quite a ride for Perkins, who sold his company in October 2016 to Constellation Beverages for a cool $160 million. But beyond cashing out, Perkins and High West have become part of the legacy that defines Park City: silver mines, world-class skiing, indie films, and damn good whiskey. Cheers to that.