High West Campfire Whiskey: Review as Fan Fiction

Every other ghatblammed whiskey writer seems to have waxed poetically on the jackelope-like qualities of High West Distillery’s new Campfire whiskey – a blend of straight rye, straight bourbon and blended malt Scotch that ends up anything but straight. Its like a crooked trail through the dry, magnificent deserts of Utah that ends up in the rain-drenched peat bogs of Scotland, via the rye and corn fields of the great American plains. Actually, that’s exactly what it is.

I’ll dispense with the formal tasting notes, the whiffs of this and the hints of that, and get right into the story. Fan fiction, if you will. A fiction so unbelievable that it just might be true. Here’s the first chapter – grab a glass and take a seat:


It all started with a sip. Not just any sip, mind you. Perk had spent the day chopping up the big oak tree that came down in the lightning storm the week before. You know, that oak tree that used to stand sentinel over his rows of corn down on Lawrenceburg Road. The tree was old but sturdy, not the kind to be felled easily, but lightning has a way of turning tree to toast.

The smell after the storm lingered for days all around, and Perk’s work on the wood just brought it out even stronger: the buzzsaw scent of fresh-cut oak combined with the charred remains of singed bark, a bit of tree sap burnt like sugar in a skillet sticking it all together. Perk liked the chopping, if only for the memories racing through his mind as he axed his way through the downed tree. It was the scent more than the act itself that triggered those memories of a simpler time. A simpler time that was anything but simple.

As he took his first sip of rye that same night, the spice and bite were like a kick in the dusty pants, and those same memories that the oak brought out earlier in the day began to crystallize into something entirely different in his mind. Memories merged with dreams and came out, somehow, as an ambitious but highly suspect plan. A plan that would take him far away from Lawrenceburg Road.

When Perk woke up, his head seemed to drag a few feet behind his body. Those sips of rye had accumulated to something more like a deluge. But through the deluge, the plan he had hatched managed to hold its form. It took a few coffees, amped up on that hazelnut vanilla crap he had grown accustomed to thanks to his last girlfriend, for all the details to come into focus. But that very same morning, memories and plans and dreams actually turned into actions. He picked up the old circular dial phone, the one his dad once used, and called up the airline for a one way flight to Edinburgh. He would take the train out to Aberdeen, and from there… well, his plans hadn’t gotten that far. But he knew, despite the distance, he would find a home where the spray of the sea mingles with the deep funk of burning peat.

Perk wasn’t wishing to wash away the past. On the contrary, he hoped, he knew, that the scents he could only seek in Scotland would stir up memories that even the oak and the lightning couldn’t. He knew there was a key, hidden in the Scots mist, to unlock the same mystery that his father before him couldn’t solve. He knew he had to go.


High West Campfire Whiskey, Batch No. 1, Bottle No. 646
A Blend of Straight Rye, Straight Bourbon, & Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
92 Proof
Approx. $54 Retail

Verdict? Excellent. Inspiring and unique stuff, enough so to inspire fan fiction. You’ll find here an intriguing story of bourbon sweetness, rye spice, and Scotch smoke happily playing tug of war.


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

Full Disclosure: Bottle received as a tasting sample from High West.

Winner, Winner, Whiskey Dinner

I have a confession. Until last night, I had never been to a “whiskey dinner.” Heck, I’ve rarely ever had whiskey with my dinner. Cocktails? Sure. Wine or beer? Most definitely. But whiskey? Neat? At my house, the whiskey typically comes either before or after dinner, not during dinner. (However, “whiskey breakfast” is an altogether different story… )

Well, I must now confess that whiskey can work wonderfully well with dinner. The right whiskey. With the right food. Ideally, in the right restaurant so I don’t have to do all the thinking about what dish goes well with what whiskey myself. And it does require thinking. Whiskey pairing across multiple courses is not as easy as wine or beer pairing, so a thoughtful chef can make a big difference.

I don’t often drink whiskey with my dinner, but when I do, I prefer to be at Empire State South drinking High West whiskey. Yeah, that’s how I roll.

So what about this particular whiskey dinner made it work? First, High West happens to distill (and bottle) some simply wonderful whiskies. Second, the range of their whiskies, from the clarity and slightly yeasty tropical fruit of the Silver Western Oat, to the deep caramel spice of the 21 year old rye, really allows for some intriguing pairings across multiple courses – from light seafood to hearty wabbit (yes, wabbit) to rich dessert. There really aren’t many American distilleries that could provide that type of range at such a high level. Third, we were in the very capable hands of a kitchen and (sous) chef who really dig whiskey and food as happy partners. The real mark of a successful pairing dinner is in how well the dishes and the drinks complement each other and reach a sum greater than their individual parts, and course after course in this meal hit that mark.

I won’t bore you with the details (but, really, the braised rabbit shoulder and ricotta cavatelli with the Double Rye was brilliant, as was the 21 year old rye with the muscovado flan, and…), but this meal showed me that whiskey dinners can be every bit as good as great wine or beer pairing dinners. And if you happen to see another pairing of High West and Empire State South? Winner, winner, whiskey dinner.

Random scenes from the dinner follow, including a few entertaining moments from High West head honcho David Perkins, who presented “10 Things You Really Should Know About Whiskey.”

Thing #10… on the origin of whiskey, or something about men in frocks huddling together closely on a boat…

Thing #7…. I have no idea what this was about, but seeing a squirrel drinking beer will always get the crowd hyped.

Thing #6… this had something to do with High West’s new OMG Pure Rye, but all I could think about was how that guy on the pole could really use a few rounds of rye himself.

Image at top: “The Vicious Circle” – a lovely riff by bartender Kelly Thorn on an Algonquin, with a bit of rye in the background behind some Dolin blanc vermouth, blanc de blancs sparkling wine, pineapple juice, and a touch of caraway.

Full Disclosure: I was at this event as a guest of the distillery.

Rye Battle: Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye vs. High West Rendezvous

Following up on a battle of two exemplary wheated bourbons, we now bring you… BATTLE RYE! My “catch” of the year in 2011 was securing a prized bottle of the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. One bottle. It’s not easy to come by. I’ve been able to try this rye on a few occasions in the past, each time walking away swearing it was the best I ever had. The Van Winkle Family Reserve is labeled “13 years old,” but rumors abound (actually, confirmed by Julian Van Winkle III) that the actual time in the barrel was quite a bit longer. Word is that the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye was actually put into tank (to stop the aging process) at 18 or 19 years of age back in 2005 or so, and was sourced from a combination of long gone Medley rye and Cream of Kentucky rye. The art is in the blending, the selecting, the determination on when to stop aging. Whatever it is, my various tastings of it have confirmed that it is a tremendous spirit and among the best ryes available anywhere.

As for a worthy competitor… Sazerac 18 is the obvious choice (and may be of common provenance), but I also think that a few of the ryes out of High West are up to the task. High West’s 21 year old rye is monumental, akin to Pappy 23 in what those last few years of aging do to transform the whiskey into something altogether magical, but, alas, I don’t have any more of that around (and it is quite a bit more expensive).  I do have a bottle of High West Rendezvous Rye, though, which is a blend of 6 year old and 16 year old ryes – putting the average somewhere near Van Winkle’s labeled (though not true) age of 13 years old – and priced not too far off the Van Winkle price. Fortuitously for comparison sake, the High West Rendezvous and the Van Winkle Family Reserve also have similar proofs – 92 and 95.6 proof, respectively.

High West sourced their 16 year old rye component from Barton stock, with an 80% rye mashbill, and their 6 year old rye from LDI, with a 95% rye mashbill. I’m just about sick of seeing LDI rye pop up under various guises lately, but they do turn out a pretty good product, and have somehow managed to maintain inventory levels at a healthy enough rate to supply all these various bottlings.

Here are my notes on an epic battle rye:

High West Whiskey Rendezvous, A Blend of Straight Rye Whiskies
Batch No. 41, Bottle No. 446
92 Proof
Approx. $42 Retail

Golden honey color. Powerful but elegant nose, honeysuckle and mint/menthol and Bit-O-Honey, with mellow green wood underneath and just a hint of smokiness – not peaty, but reminiscent of an elegant single malt Scotch. A bit of butter rum, touches of honeyed Sauternes. Intoxicating stuff, manages to be highly feminine and seductive yet still with some muscle, like a dancer leaping into the air.

Tasted neat, the Rendezvous kicks in with a nice burn, tingling on the tongue, layers of that menthol and lightly burnt caramel and anise. The texture is pleasantly lightly syrupy, permeating the taste buds. The green wood appears on the midpalate, and the rye spice and that hint of smoke come on more strongly in the finish. A few drops of water does lighten it up a bit,  but to my tastes does not do it any favors – I prefer this one on its own, dancing at full strength.

Excellent stuff – worth the tariff, not to be encumbered in cocktails.

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, 13 Years Old
No. B0198
95.6 Proof
Approx. $50 Retail

The additional age on this is apparent – much deeper copper color than the Rendezvous. Thicker texture, too, clings to the glass like a thin maple syrup.  The nose is deeper as well, more wood, more spice, more brown sugar, all in check. Cinnamon emerges in subtle bursts on top of toasted pecans, is that a dark chocolate covered cherry passing by? Maybe a juicy purple grape? It’s hard to pin down what makes this exceptional, other than the fact that it is just so harmonious and builds and builds and builds, then segues into something slightly different but just as wonderful.

On the tongue, the Van Winkle definitely has more presence, more chewiness. Again, neat is the way to go. The spice comes in quickly here, not quite cinnamon, not quite allspice or nutmeg, not quite mint, not quite pepper, but somewhere in between all that. Dark brown sugar, vanilla and figs and toasty wood follow, and a sweet rye spice burn carries on through to a long deep finish. The long time in the barrel does seem to impart a more bourbon-y profile than the High West, but this is still definitively rye. I do get toasted pecans again at the tail end of this (not sure why I’m picking up that note on both of these – maybe because I was cooking with toasted pecans a few nights ago). Where the Rendezvous is a lovely dance partner, the Van Winkle is a warm leather coach that embraces you.

Maybe I’m a sucker for the Van Winkle mystique, but this shouts WOW to me as much as the Pappy 15. Amazing stuff. If you see it, grab it before it’s gone.


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

Coming Soon: OMG Rye and More…

Industry events are a great way to get a feel for what’s “hot” (at least from a marketer’s perspective), and, if yesterday’s Quality Wine & Spirits “Holiday Show” is any indication, gin and rye are super hot. The “Holiday Show” is a showcase of the wines, spirits, and more that this great Georgia distributor carries (they are a distributor, so sell to liquor stores / bars / restaurants, not the public directly). The room was filled with wine from all over the world, and some of the very best artisan spirits available anywhere. It would be impossible to give a full account of all that was there, so I’ll try to share some of the highlights (and regrets of missing potential highlights) of what I tasted.

I walked in and was immediately greeted by two of my favorites – Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, who has been instrumental in bringing some incredible vermouths and other rare spirits to the US (Dolin, Cocchi, Zucca, etc.); and David Perkins of High West Distillery in Utah, who has been doing some great things with rye and interesting whiskey blends.

I was really impressed with High West’s new (coming soon!) “Silver Whiskey OMG Pure Rye.” The OMG is actually a play on “Old MononGahela” – a river in western Pennsylvania which ran through the heart of America’s original whiskey country – and this unaged 100% rye (20 % malted, 80 % regular) is meant as a tribute to the old ways. What really hit me was the yeastiness on the nose, and I mean that in a very good way, that balanced out the spicy rye. Perkins made a point of sharing that there are three yeast strains that go into this, and also offered a taste of a test single yeast version as well that didn’t have the same complexity of the finished product. There’s a lot that goes into figuring out a whiskey like this, and the attention to the yeast blend is really interesting (to me at least!), especially given that an unaged whiskey doesn’t have the flavor of the barrel to fall back on. This is a Wow. Highly recommended. I also got another chance to taste their 21 year old rye which has been out for a while, and it is simply spectacular.

Back to Haus Alpenz, I love their Cocchi Vermouth, Barolo Chinato, and Americano, but passed on those to try something new – the Rothman & Winter Peach Liqueur from Austria. This joins Rothman & Winter’s Creme de Violette as a knockout cocktail ingredient for those seeking something unusual, and the Peach will be much more crowd friendly (the Creme de Violette is extremely SUPER floral). Great intensity of flavor.

Sticking to the row of spirits producers, I got to try a LOT and also passed up the chance to try a lot more that I would have loved to sample. There was simply too much. Some of the things I tried that were very impressive:

Pur Likor Blossom
, Elderberry Liqueur, Germany: for all you St. Germain fans, finally a worthy alternative, very expressive

Neisson Rhum Agricole Vieux Reserve Speciale, Martinique: crazy good aged rhum, a treat to try this

St. George Terroir Gin and Dry Rye Gin, California: two stellar and unique gins, the former is like a hike in Northern California, gaining its “terroir” from using local botanicals, and the latter is an intriguing bridge between gin and rye, aggressively spiced with juniper and the rye’s peppery notes

Small’s American Dry Gin: a new entry from the folks behind the wonderful Ransom Old Tom Gin, this one has a great, crisp spice profile made with a bit of raspberry!

I regret not having tried the Bas Armagnacs from Marie Duffau and Dartigalongue (how often does one get to try those risk free??) as well as the Chaffe Coeur Calvados (ditto).

On the wine side, I missed out on a lot, but just about all the wines from Jon David Headrick Selections were excellent, especially the Dosnon & Lepage Recolte Rose Champagne and the Claude Riffault Sancerre “Boucauds.” I somehow missed out on the Hirsch Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir; so it goes at a massive event like this.

I was happy to walk away after much swirling and spitting with at least a few things to seek out in the future, as well as an appreciation for all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes for these producers trying to get their products out into the hands and mouths of the people.

Photos of some of my favorites follow, including some great oysters and ridiculous TRUFFLE MAYO there to accompany the drinks. Thanks to Quality for the opportunity to taste:

High West Breaks Out Barreled Manhattans

As noted a few weeks back, the “barrel aged cocktail” craze is in high gear in bars across the country. Here in Atlanta, we recently tried the barrel aged Negroni at Double Zero (delicious, if not quite as bracingly vibrant as its unaged counterpart). And, now, lucky shoppers can find a limited edition, barrel aged Manhattan on the shelves of fine spirits purveyors across the country. High West Distillery of Utah is known for pushing boundaries (note their unique blended rye, bourbon/rye blend, “silver oat whiskey,” and the fact that their proprietor, David Perkins – raised in Georgia by the way, was awarded the 2011 Malt Advocate Pioneer of the Year Award). It’s no surprise that they’ve been a trailblazer for barrel aged cocktails by the bottle, starting last year with a special 100-day-aged “U.S. Grant Centennial Celebration Barreled Manhattan” and progressing to the the version now on store shelves with the moniker “The 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan.” “The 36th Vote” commemorates Utah’s decisive vote in the repeal of Prohibition, and the notion of a Manhattan as the appropriate drink to celebrate Prohibition’s repeal is entirely appropriate given its place in the classic, pre-Prohibition cocktail pantheon.

High West was kind enough to provide two samples of their Manhattan – the barreled version which can be found on store shelves, and an “unaged” version for comparison sake. “The 36th Vote” is a mix of 2 parts High West 95% rye whiskey, 1 part sweet vermouth, and a couple dashes of Angostura bitters per serving, which then spends somewhere between 90 and 120 days of aging time in a 2 year old, American oak, rye whiskey barrel. Perkins admitted that the vermouth used was not necessarily their first choice (Carpano Antica Formula anyone?), but due to federal regulations, had to be one that they could source wholesale in bulk.

The result is a 37 percent alcohol (74 proof), high quality Manhattan in a bottle. To test out the difference of the barrel aging, we tasted these samples first without any ice (I typically like mine shaken with ice and strained into a chilled glass, but many folks prefer stirred). The impact of the barrel aging is not unexpected – it mellows and mingles the flavors to produce a rounder, fuller cocktail (even vs. a version like the one that High West provided that has been pre-mixed and sitting in a bottle, rather than freshly made). With the unaged version, the sharp notes of the vermouth and bitters jump out on the nose, then linger prominently on the finish. With the aged version, there is a softer, more integrated nose, where the rye and the vermouth seem to snuggle up together, rather than posture against each other. It simply comes across as more integrated, more lush, more happily-wed. There are no obvious notes of the wood itself; rather, it’s that little bit of breathing time that the wood barrel provides that brings the drink into a slightly greater harmony. And “The 36th Vote” is exactly that – a beautifully harmonious take on the Manhattan.

Is the barrel aged cocktail in a bottle going to be the next big thing? I don’t think so. It’s just too darn easy to make a great Manhattan at home, not to mention the fact that experimenting with various ryes and various vermouths is a great way to learn what you like best. But “The 36th Vote” is worth experiencing, worth seeking out, to get a taste of time in the barrel, and to experience a uniquely different form of wedded bliss.

High West Distillery, The 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan
74 proof
Approx. $45 retail for a 750ml bottle
Tasting Date: June 7, 2011
Good Stuff – a great way to experience the impact of barrel aging on a classic cocktail