High West Distillery is located in Park City, Utah, home of some of the best ski slopes in the country, if not the world, as well as the location of the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a small town but, as a tourist destination, it is a relative pocket of liberalism in conservative Utah, which is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is dominated in many ways, social and political, by Mormon beliefs and the church’s influence.
High West produces vodka as well as several types of whiskies, most currently blended from other makers’ whiskeys, as High West is too new to have had time to properly age its own whiskey. While High West is considered a microdistillery (according to its proprietors, it’s the world’s only ski-in gastro distillery), its products are distributed internationally and the brand has made a splash in whiskey and cocktail circles.
High West’s ryes, in particular, have been garnering accolades as rye whiskies in general are gaining traction in the whiskey world. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible gave the distillery’s Rendezvous Rye 93 points with this praise: ““Brilliant! ... A very different rye ... Absolutely seething with character and charisma,” while High West’s Bourye was named the best craft American whiskey at the 2010 American Distilling Institute Craft Whiskey Competition.
In 2011, High West was named “Pioneer of the Year” in Malt Advocate Magazine’s annual Whiskey Awards.
“[High West proprietor David Perkins] is blending American straight whiskeys, something that distillers had largely stopped doing decades ago…no one else in America is doing this, and [Perkins is] doing it well, pioneering in new territory. He’s bringing whiskeys to light that might otherwise have died a woody death, and making something great out of them, by blending them together…really, really well. These are killer whiskeys,” stated John Hansell, the editor of Malt Advocate.
The “Pioneer of the Year” is a particularly appropriate designation, given Utah’s 19th-century pioneer past. And although High West’s brand identity trades on Utah’s history, instead of focusing on the pious Mormon pioneers, it looks instead to a more universal Old West of cowboys and mountain men. Even the distillery’s location reinforces the brand’s associations with a whiskey Old West: Park City was originally a hard-bitten mining town known for its saloons. The distillery itself is located in a renovated livery stable.
The distillery’s logo includes a horseshoe and mountains, and labels sport antique-style lettering. The brand’s Bourye label features a picture of a jackalope, the mythical creature native to the American West that is part rabbit and antelope, in a nod to the spirit’s mixture of bourbon and rye. The Rendezvous Rye is named after the annual trading gathering of mountain men that took place from 1825 to 1840, what High West calls “the first recorded whiskey-fest out West.”
Drinking alcohol is forbidden in the Mormon religion, and the state’s liquor laws reflect this, with strict control of alcohol by the state. Although there are no absolutely dry areas such as exist in the southern United States, the laws in Utah can often seem perplexing and frustrating to outsiders.
However, 2008 and 2009 brought changes under then Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., who advocated loosening the laws in an attempt to make the state more visitor-friendly. One major change was the elimination of a law requiring drinkers to have a “private club” membership to get into any bar that sold hard alcohol. Another change was allowing distilleries such as High West, which was established in 2009 as Utah’s first legal distillery since 1870.
While High West is certainly using Utah’s cachet to build its brand, High West’s success with whiskey geeks certainly couldn’t hurt the state’s reputation among consumers who know their cocktails – just the type that tourist industries generally love to have. Utah’s High West may be just the sort of thing someone looking to counter Utah’s conservative image would invent — a high-end, high quality product with Old West cachet. As the distillery proclaims, “We invite you to share in our passion for good whiskey, our love for the American West, and our gumption to bring spirits back to Utah.”