Quick, think of things that go well together: girl scouts and cookies; tailgating and football; Sonny and Cher; Justin Bieber and shears; Utah and whiskey.
Utah and Whiskey? Go ahead: laugh it up. Get it all out of your system. Ready? Now listen to what we have to say. In a state somewhat known for a brand of Christianity famously opposed to alcohol, you can find the High West Distillery sitting in the town of Park City. And to make sure we don't bury the lead, they know a lot about making whiskey.
Despite Utah's reputation, High West's website is quick to point out a whiskey tradition in the beehive state. They point to an "annual gathering of mountain men" at Cache Valley where whiskey was a tradition and a staple both in the festival's celebration and its trade through the mid-1800s. They also a note a reference to "Valley Tan," which was some sort of fermentation of available grains used (and abused) in Utah. Even the Mormon religion has some connection to distillation, where they cite the state's revenue collector's records of 1862 showing some 37 distilleries in operation... each of them Mormon owned. But despite that tradition, the last (legal) distillery closed in 1870 and there were none more until David Perkins founded High West and began operation in 2007.
High West was kind enough to provide us with a bottle each of Western Silver Oat Whiskey and Double Rye whiskey. Has Perkins and his team reawakened a western whiskey tradition now lost for over a century? These two bottles have gone a long ways towards convincing us that they have.
Let's start with the Silver Oat (scroll on down if you want to get right to the rye).
The Silver Oat whiskey is not aged and presents crystal clear (hence, "silver") in the bottle and the glass. They say the name is also an homage to the silver mining so prevalent in Utah. The bottle is a beautiful, elegant affair that is thick and slightly iridescent. There are tiny bubbles in the bottle and very tiny imperfections in the surface that give rise to a handcrafted feel that suits the brand perfectly. The whiskey itself comes from a blend of 85% oat (a very atypical grain for whiskey production) and 15% malted barley (the highly typical base of a lot of whiskey). It is distilled up to 176 proof and blended down for bottling with Colorado water, which they prize for its high mineral content. So, we've already got some pretty unusual things going for this whiskey: 1) it's from Utah, 2) it's made from oats, and 3) it's from Utah. High West recommends this spirit in very traditional cocktails like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan... both very classic American whiskey drinks... but since this whiskey is so unusual are we going to run this through an ordinary tasting with classic cocktail recipes?
In our opinion, un-aged whiskey-moonshine, white lightning, or whatever-is somewhat of a kissing cousin to classic grain vodkas. In this case, where High West is distilled to 176 proof before blending back down, vodka is taken all the way up to 190 proof before blending, stripping out a lot of the grain characteristics and yielding the smooth, neutral spirit so prized by so many. Where High West uses oats, most vodkas use wheat or corn for a smoother, lighter, sweeter taste. But we say one of the best things you can do to (usually boring) vodka cocktails is to put un-aged whiskey in them-like the High West Silver Oat-and see what happens. Sometimes the results in trading a smooth neutral vodka with a spicy, robust "silver" whiskey can be spectacular.
So we matched up the Silver Oat with Tito's Vodka, a well-regarded craft-distilled vodka based upon not oats but corn. We felt this would provide the best contrast and highlight the characteristics of both grain and spirit. So what happened?
Round 1: Neat We always try stuff neat right out of the gate with just a little ice. In comparing the aroma, our crew immediately appreciated the difference. In comparison, the Silver Oat smelled of buttery oatmeal with a bracing blast of something. In fact, it engendered a great deal of (largely unmerited) fear in some tasters. "I thought this stuff was going to explode... but it really didn't; it's really smooth." Others noted a greatly increased complexity over the vodka. One person shook his head saying, "Whoa, this is not for the naive palate." Another said, "The vodka's all in the back of the palate... this thing is hitting me all over!" Not everyone preferred the whiskey over the vodka in this setting. "It's just too strong... like I need to use it for peeling paint" complained one taster. It was generally agreed that the whiskey had a much more complex and demanding taste over the vodka.
Round 2: Harvey Wallbanger and Cosmopolitan Cocktails Then it was time to pull out the mixers. We advance now into some of the more famous vodka cocktails. The Harvey Wallbanger typically calls for a measure of vodka mixed with orange juice and a float of Galliano Liqueur, which is a sweetened blast of licorice. A Cosmopolitan, as every football-watching red-blooded American male denies knowing, is mixed with cranberry juice, lime, and a bit of orange liqueur. It presents a feminine pink. No one would generally dream of putting moonshine in these drinks. We did. So how does oat mix with orange and cranberry? Quite well, thank you very much.
In both cases, the vodka vanishes completely into the cocktail. This is actually the whole point of using vodka in the first place... it's supposed to range from subtle to transparent in drinks. The other ingredients are supposed to be the highlight where the vodka is nearly invisible. But the whiskey? The fuller bodied Silver Oat announced itself in both drinks like Mongols sounding horns to assemble the hordes and ransack Asia. It absolutely can't be missed. It's important to note that simply identifying the whiskey doesn't automatically mean preferring it. In our tasting, about half of the group actually preferred the quieter, subtler (and partially nonexistent) vodka in the drinks. But the other half greatly preferred the Silver Oat. One enthusiast summed it up best by saying, "This stuff turns vodka cocktails into something whiskey drinkers will actually like!"
This is an important aspect of this and other tastings. There's no "winner takes all" mentality in this business. Individuals differ; tastes differ. Liquor and the cocktail culture is about exploration and singular identification with tastes and memories. That's the beauty of craft-distilling. It's highly unlikely that Jim Beam or another major brand is going to come out with an oat-based moonshine. But High West has and it allows people to explore beyond the boundaries of traditional drinks. For a hardcore segment of our tasting crew, they'll be looking for the Silver Oat Whiskey next time they're sent out looking for vodka and that's a positive turn of events. The Silver Oat is delightfully different and greatly appealing to some individuals... celebrate the difference!
Moving on to the High West Double Rye Whiskey
The name "double rye" comes from the fact that it's a blend of two different rye whiskeys. The first is a light, 2-year aged whiskey that is 95% rye based. They call it "feisty." The second is a 16-year old whiskey that they call "barely legal" as a rye since its rye content is just barely above half at 53% (the remaining bit is corn with a touch of barley). The bottle is also beautiful-a handcrafted, thick glass with tiny bubbles and imperfections in the texture. In order to provide contrast, we elected to compare it to that classic American bourbon Jim Beam. We thought that contrast in corn and rye would complement the big label vs small label iconoclastic approach to our assessment.
There's a world of difference between a bourbon and a rye. Rye whiskeys will have a spicier, more robust, sharper flavor. We had rye whiskey fans at our tasting and, in our opinion, the High West Double Rye can stand up proudly to some of the best in the business. A fabulous rye whiskey! But as with any rye, tread cautiously... note some of the declarations from our throng upon getting a first taste:
- "That makes me want to go lasso a cow!"
- "Alright, now I gotta go watch all my Deadwood videos."
- "Whoa! After the Cosmopolitan, I wasn't ready for that blast of masculinity!"
Bourbon is generally a smooth and round spirit... almost feminine in some ways. It caresses the tongue gently but insistently. Rye has all the subtlety of a train whistle. But for those who like rye, this is truly an outstanding whiskey.
The Cocktails If one is going to drink rye, then there are two cocktails that have to be investigated: the Manhattan and the Sazerac. The Manhattan is often "bourbonified" but was originally intended for rye whiskey. It uses a bit of sweet vermouth and a dash of Angostura bitters then stirred on ice with a cherry garnish. For most of our group there was just no question that the Manhattan was designed for rye whiskey. The sweet in the vermouth and the aroma of the bitters complement the rye perfectly and the High West Double Rye has the body and the character to take every inch of advantage the mixing gives it.
Still, even after the Manhattan, we had some small minority of doubters on the rye. They thought the bourbon was smoother, nicer, friendlier. Then, the Sazerac cocktail spoke and all arguments ceased.
The Sazerac was invented in New Orleans and calls for a rinse of absinthe in a frozen glass, followed by a dash of Peychaud's bitters, a teaspoon or so of sugar, and a lemon twist. That's it. It's an intense cocktail with the aroma of bitters and the essence of all the herbal characteristics of absinthe blending into the rye. The bourbon simply did not have the machismo to stand up to all that flavor. It's like putting a rookie in an all-star game. Drinking it gave universal acclaim to the Double Rye. It even caused one person-a computer programmer by trade, no less!-to wax poetic:
- "I see myself drinking this in the setting sun in Key West... no, I take that back. I'm drinking this in the swamp. It's evening. The cicadas are chirping. I'm on the sloop. And it's hot as hell. And I have this ice cold drink. And I'm watching the girls on the balcony across the street. I take a sip. I see that they're also noticing me and we smile coyly at each other."
That did it: game, set, and match to the High West Double Rye. In both cases, we can highly recommend the High west whiskeys for those seeking an adventure and to beyond the ordinary boundaries of cocktails. If you thought Utah was being left out of the craft-distilling movement, then you've got another think coming.