Sunday, August 7, 2011

Whiskey from inside the doughnut hole

PARK CITY, Utah -- Inside Utah’s doughnut hole that is Park City is the state’s lone distillery, churning out a startling array of whiskeys and developing a national reputation.

Yes, doughnut hole. Surrounding Park City is the rest of Utah, one of America’s most politically conservative states and home to some of the country’s most bizarre and restrictive liquor laws. Park City, of course, hosted much of the 2002 Winter Olympics and continues to be home to Robert Redford’s annual homage to independent film-making, the Sundance Film Festival.

Naturally, we took a tour of High West (and when I say, "we," I mean the lost, brave and/or curious from our mostly Mormon family reunion).

The distillery is housed a block from Main Street in a restored Victorian home and a next-door historic building that has been home to everything from a livery stable to a gas station. The still sits between the two in a custom-built narrow space. The product ranges from a clear, un-aged spirit that is tastes like a cross between vodka and tequila, to a smooth 21-year-old rye aged is used oak barrels. High West also is part of the resurgence of rye whiskey, including a unique blend of bourbon and rye called “bourye.” High West also makes several vodkas from grain.

Regrettably (and, for a journalist -- even one off-duty -- unforgivably), I didn’t get the name of our delightful tour guide, but I do know that he’s originally from Charleston, South Carolina and moved to Park City to (what else?) ski. Part of my excuse is that I started the tour with a double rye (neat, no water) and ended it by sampling four other products, so the visit was enjoyable but the memory is a tad fuzzy.

High West is fairly new, so the older whiskeys are brought in from Kentucky for blending and casking. Some folks might not know that all whiskeys start out clear (just like moonshine) and get their color from spending years in barrels of American white oak that have been charred on the inside. The oak lends bourbon, rye and other American whiskeys their characteristic hints of vanilla and caramel. The un-aged stuff -- not my thing -- is pretty bland.

The middle-aged High West whiskeys are a combination of spicy and sweet, and they get smoother as they get older. The really good stuff -- 21-year-old rye -- runs 130 bucks a bottle. Why, you ask? Same reason older Scotch and Irish whiskey is spendy. As the whiskey ages inside the barrel, it loses about 2 percent of volume per year in evaporation (called the “angels’ share” in Scotland), so the longer it ages the less there is to sell.

The mash is prepared before distillation.
High West makes a wide variety of quality stuff, but the company may better at marketing than anything else. The location, the tours, the complete excellent web site, all indicate that someone has given a lot of thought to the sales side of the business. High West even got legislation through a pretty persnickety Utah legislature allowing them to sell their whiskey on ... gasp! ... Sunday.

We visited High West the same weekend as the annual art festival in town, so the High West restaurant was booked solid that evening and we had to dine elsewhere. However, we’ll go back one day, particularly because our unnamed tour guide said the chefs there use whiskey in everything they prepare. That is powerful motivation to make a return visit.

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