A Utah distillery proudly drags the whiskey industry’s dirty little secret out of the shadows

The art of blending, in every bottle.
The art of blending, in every bottle.
Image: Ethan Fixell
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Thirty minutes outside of Park City, Utah, High West Distillery’s brand new 25,000-square-foot compound sits amidst vast stretches of open wilderness and magnificent mountain views. Blending modern and rustic aesthetics, the stunning construction set on a 3,500-acre luxury cattle ranch called Blue Sky Utah is any whiskey distiller’s dream-come-true. And yet, the apparent irony of this gorgeous new state-of-the-art facility–complete with a built-to-order Scottish Forsythe Copper pot still–is that High West has best come to be known for blending whiskey, rather than distilling it.

This is not to imply that High West doesn’t make any of its own products: it does, and always has. In fact, when former pharmaceutical biochemist David Perkins founded the brand a dozen years ago, blending wasn’t even a consideration. It wasn’t until Jim Rutledge, (now former) Master Distiller of Four Roses, broached the topic that Perkins understood the value of blending sourced whiskey to a fledgling distillery. “He said, ‘Dave, while you’re making your whiskey, and putting it in wood, and waiting six years, how are you gonna make payroll?'” Perkins recalls that Rutledge suggested he sell whiskey purchased from other plants. “And I go, ‘What? Nobody does that!’ And [Rutledge] is like, ‘There’s 300 brands, and eight distilleries: everybody does it, nobody knows it.'”

Perkins heeded Rutledge’s words, and began purchasing and repurposing whiskey from other distilleries. Though High West Master Distiller Brendan Coyle is a distilling wizard and an unabashed whiskey geek who can wax poetically about “refraction columns” and “reflux ratio” ad nauseam, perhaps his greatest skills lie in blending. Holding a Masters in Brewing and Distilling Sciences from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Coyle is on a mission to open people’s minds to the importance of the tradition that has been honored for centuries in Scotland, where distillers trade their unique products with one another to tweak flavor profiles. “In other parts of the world, blending has always had [a] level of respect…. So we’re on this push to define blending and show why it’s such a great thing,” he explains.

In fact, blending can be an incredibly nuanced science. Beyond the flavor active components in each distillate’s recipe, Coyle also must pay attention to various factors that affect maturation, including humidity, temperature, location, and barrel type. And he must understand the synergistic reactions of combining each of these barrels before pouring them together to achieve a specific flavor profile in a final product.

High West gets much of the whiskey it blends from about a half a dozen other distilleries (whether via brokers or personal relationships), the majority of which comes from Midwest Grain Products (MGP), the former Seagram distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, purchased by MGP Ingredients in 2011. MGP is known for providing some of the largest corporations in the world with rye, bourbon, neutral spirits, and even “food grade industrial alcohol,” to the shock and dismay of many whiskey drinkers.

But Coyle is the first to defend MGP’s output. “If you look back into the ’50s, 60s and ’70s, the Seagram people…who came out of that distillery were very well respected. They invested a lot of time, effort and money in research and development. They ran a lot of scientific experiments to see where flavor compounds are coming from and where you get optimum flavors in fermentation and in distillation. A lot of those protocols [are] still in place at that plant, and the quality of the whiskey is fantastic.”

All this was not to keep critics from giving High West flak for blending other people’s liquid. Renowned whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery notably called High West a “Potemkin Distillery,” as “something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance.” Cowdery would eventually come around to acknowledge High West as one of the more “enlightened” microdistillers, but lumped the company in with notoriously less noble blenders such as Bulleit and Templeton for years.

“We buy stuff from the same place that Bulleit and Templeton do, but I’ll put ours next to theirs all day long,” Perkins defends. “It’s about the blend.” Not only does High West blend exceptionally better than many other brands, it has always been incredibly transparent about its practices, upholding its authenticity. “For me, it’s about no bullshit,” Perkins says.

High West has made a point of actively educating consumers about how long it actually takes to make whiskey, and why blending is crucial in the meantime. “In terms of marketing… it’s really the art of blending that is central,” says Justin Lew, VP of Marketing. “We’re using [whiskey] that we’ve purchased and [whiskey] that we’ve made to create something completely different. I think that message is easier for somebody to understand, so the transition will not be as abrupt two years from now,” he says, estimating when the bulk of their own products will be ready for standalone release.

Meanwhile, by going above and beyond the efforts of most other whiskey blenders, Coyle is getting more respect than criticism from whiskey fans and critics. As he explains: “I think that the industry and the consumers are waking up to, ‘Hey, it’s not just them trying to pass something off. Blending is really interesting, there’s a science behind it, there’s a complexity behind it, and on top of all that, they’re investing in their own production so they can have multiple flavor components to add to the blends.'”

High West has also gotten creative by finishing some whiskies in different types of barrels. A Midwinter Night’s Dram, for example, is their Rendezvous Rye finished in port and French oak barrels, while Yippee Ki-Yay is made from whiskey aged in vermouth and Syrah barrels. And Coyle and his crew even blend different types of whiskey together–as with Bourye (a blend of bourbon and rye) and Campfire (a smoky blend of scotch, bourbon, and rye). The latter is especially difficult to make, and a great example of the skills and many trials required to nail certain blends. “The phenols (the peaty component) of the Scotch whisky were very, very tricky,” Coyle explains. “A little bit too much can dominate the flavor profile. Too little doesn’t stand out enough…. Changing Campfire’s peated Scotch whisky component by a quarter of a percent [made] all the difference in the world.”

Blending may not have originally been part of High West’s business plan, but with 90% of the brand’s sales now attributed to blends made with whiskey sourced from other producers, it faces an interesting quandary: How will High West continue to grow when only a finite amount of third-party product exists? “We’re always looking out 20 to 25 years or so for our inventory management and planning,” says a vigilant Coyle, who constantly monitors the characteristics of different lot years, and considers how to mature each whisky for desired effect.

High West has also taken precautions so that they’ll never depend upon another company for survival. For example, any product might contain different ages of whiskey from a previous year’s release. A rye made with 2-year-old and 14-year-old whiskey could be made up of 3-year-old and 13-year old whiskey the following year for the same desired profile. And High West has been contracting with other distilleries to produce the base components of their products for many years now. The whiskey immediately goes into barrels and is stored for High West, which insures a 12-18 month supply in the event of catastrophic loss or an unforeseen relationship change.

“We can’t have a business plan [that depends] on other businesses, because if they fold, we fold,” Coyle explains. “Blue Sky [distillery] was designed to take on all of our production if it had to. I designed the process, the utilities, the whole infrastructure to be able to produce the amount we would need if, for example, we couldn’t contract any longer with some of the larger distilleries that we contract with.”

 Thankfully, High West was offered the opportunity to move into Blue Sky just before things could get scary. With so much of their house-made malt, rye, wheat, and oat whiskey now matured and nearly ready for independent release, High West’s expansion from a tiny, cramped outpost in downtown Park City, Utah, was nothing short of a necessity. “If I ever write a book, one of the chapters will certainly be called ‘Serendipity,’ Perkins claims. “You don’t know what the future will bring, exactly, but you know what it could bring…. At drug companies, you plan out for 20, 25 years: you prepare for a drug not working…or maybe going great. We basically did the same thing at High West. We always knew we needed the space.” Fortunately, they were offered the perfect place to expand at just the right time.

And Perkins and his team are confident the company will be expanding further. In addition to High West’s 1500-gallon still, the facility has room for three more, which, altogether, could potentially pump out up to 200,000 cases of original product. Yet Coyle is aware of the risks involved with pushing further: “The bigger you grow, there’s carrying cost, and inventory cost, and the amount of inventory that the business actually carries as evaporating inventory just sitting in wood barrels for years and years is an absolutely staggering number. It would make other industries tremble at the knees…. Like, who the hell would do this?” he says with a laugh.

In the meantime, Perkins is most excited about releasing High West’s house-made product and turning the plant into a world-class distillery. But he, too, recognizes that there is still plenty more to learn. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about…. We have a lot of unfinished business: we’re still trying to understand those variables that lead to delicious whiskey.”

Perhaps Unfinished Business could be the title for Perkins’ book.

“Or ‘Patience,'” he suggests. “This is a long term business. But so far, the delayed gratification has been worth the wait.”