How a 19th century law is guiding High West Whiskey's new direction
High West is putting the focus on its own distilled whiskey with a limited release bottle prepared under strict guidelines of a 127-year-old law.
The intrigue: The Summit County-based distillery rose to national prominence by elevating the craft of blending whiskey that was actually distilled elsewhere.
- By contrast, its new "Bottled in Bond" rye whiskey follows a process that rigidly emphasizes provenance, giving High West a chance to take its own barrels out for a spin and see what they can do.
Catch up fast: Bottled-in-bond (BIB) spirits follow detailed federal regulations drafted in 1897 after Kentucky distillers complained they were being priced out by wholesalers passing off rudimentary jungle juice as bourbon.
- Wholesalers used coloring and additives like formaldehyde, iodine and glycerine to give cheap, vodka-like alcohol hints of whiskey flavor.
- The Bottled-in-Bond Act was "the nation's first consumer protection law," writes whiskey historian Brian Haara.
Details: The law has loosened over the years, but it originally granted a certification to 100-proof whiskey in its "original condition or character," distilled in a single season by one distiller and aged at least four years in an approved warehouse.
- The rules are more exacting than those for Scotch and, in some ways, even meticulously-regulated cognac, the magazine Wine Enthusiast argues.
Between the lines: The process "provides such an intimate picture of what was going on in the distiller at that moment in time," said Isaac Winter, High West's director of distilling.
- "With this release we're given a tight box to work within – there's no hiding from weird production issues we were dealing with," Winter told Axios. "For instance, you can't blend in older whiskey for a bit more depth and maturation character."
Why it matters: That's a big departure from the approach that made High West famous.
- Unlike many craft whiskies in the 2010s, the brand was deliberately transparent that it did not distill all of its own ingredients.
- As consumers balked at what they saw as dishonest advertising akin to the practices of the 1890s, High West wore its blending acumen as a badge of honor.
- That was "a gamble at the time," Whisky Advocate noted, but it redefined the market. Blending, already a big part of Scotland's whiskey heritage, became a respectable skill unto itself — as long as you were truthful and didn't use formaldehyde.
Meanwhile, blending provided immediate revenue that gave startup producers the time they needed to perfect their own distilling, which takes years.
Zoom in: That gave High West a robust inventory to choose from in crafting Bottled in Bond.
- "I think what our team really enjoyed was finding the little hidden gems that provided some of the impactful accent marks on this blend. There were some really interesting lots to consider, all with big personalities. Whether that was a big aromatic spice profile, or deep vanilla notes from barrel impact, we really had the luxury of picking our absolute favorite lots to drive complexity in this blend."
Flashback: High West's Bottled in Bond was distilled in 2018, "right before we shut down to totally change, and improve, our whiskey making process from grain to glass," Winter said.
- With the upgrades, High West previously released a few iterations of its Single Malt — its first bottle entirely sourced from its own distillery.
How it works: BIB whiskeys tend to have a savory profile, and the high alcohol content helps their flavor hold up in cocktails — a feature that has driven their popularity in recent years.
- My family scored a bottle the day after it was released last weekend ($79.99, sold only in Park City and Wanship). I found it peppery, with a lovely Christmas-spice finish.
The bottom line: It's my favorite High West product since the early bottles of Midwinter Night's Dram.
- And it tells a good story.
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