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Gavin's Underground

High West Distillery

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2009-12-27 -

While the business of a brew pub in Utah remains both a solid and profitable business, very few have explored the idea of taking that notion to the next step and making straight alcohol. But a trip into the hills shows one local saloon doing quite well.

Up yonder in Park City, nestled in a section of Old Town, sits the states first officially distillery in over a century: High West Distillery. Serving as both a bar and a quality restaurant, the place houses its own on-site distillery pouring out finely aged whiskey as well as traditional oat vodka. Along with its own ski-in entrance and old western feel, to call the place unique is an understatement. I got the opportunity to chat with owners Dave & Jane Perkins, as well a guided tour of two buildings (as they've now started serving lunch) plus the kitchen and distillery from Jane and head chef James Dumas. All of which you can check out in the photo album over here.

Jane Perkins (pictured) & Dave Perkins

http://www.highwestdistillery.com/

Gavin: Hey guys, first off, tell us a bit about yourselves, how did you first take an interest in making liquor?

Dave: It's hard to pin one definitive moment. I think most of my life was leading me in this direction. I have a biochemistry degree from the University of Virginia, located well within Bourbon country. The state of Virginia even had its own Bourbon called Virginia Gentleman, which everyone drank. Or at least I did. I really like Bourbon, and this was a good Bourbon. My first job out of school was in a lab doing lots of things that you actually need to know in order to make good whiskey. Then I worked for two leading biotechnology companies. Its amazing how similar the whiskey industry and biopharmaceuticals are. Both make a drug in essentially the same way. One is just more fun to consume! The light bulb went off on a chance visit to the Maker's Mark distillery. My wife and I were visiting for a wedding and thought we'd visit a distillery. Since we lived in the Bay area at the time, we were big fans of visiting Napa. So the idea of a distillery was a natural. Turns out, they aren't easy to get to! Most distilleries are in the middle-of-nowhere Kentucky and not really near each other. Moreover, they weren't as tourist friendly as the wineries. They did have a tour, but it could have been better. When we went through the fermentation area I thought to myself: "I know how to do that." We saw a lab that looked just like what I was familiar with. When we got to the part of the tour in the barrel warehouse... bam! That's where the idea hit me. It was just so amazing that there were 20,000 barrels or more of whiskey quietly aging. It smelled so good and I thought, "Now why couldn't there be a distillery in an easier to get to place, to share this wonderful stuff with more people and with a little more educational tour like you might get in Napa?" So I started moonlighting and got a lucky break (that I worked hard for). I met one of the eight master distillers in Kentucky, Jim Rutledge of Four Roses. He really liked the idea of a "Western Whiskey" and invited me to learn how to make whiskey the Kentucky way. This was stuff you couldn't look up in a book. I would not be where I am today if I had not met Jim.

Gavin: What was your prior experience like making alcoholic beverages?

Dave: Well, aside from drinking lots of premium spirits, no experience making alcohol. However, my career in science (both making pharma drugs and marketing them) contributed significantly to my experience in making premium alcohol products. I worked in the Bay area for Genentech, a biotech company. Talk about a great job in a great part of the world. I would say it prepared me well for High West. Genentech was a great, well-run company with a culture of "intra"-preneurism. But I had always wanted to do my own thing. And unbelievably the process of making a biotech drug is nearly the same as making alcohol! There is a fermentation step, a protein isolation step and a bottling step. My intense chemistry background simply prepared me to make a much greater quality product with alcohol!!

Gavin: Considering the state's history toward alcohol, why did you choose Park City for the eventual location?

Dave: I've always thought Utah was one of the most beautiful and under-rated places in the country. Having been born in Denver, I've always been partial to the Rockies and dreamed of moving back one day. To me it wasn't whether, it was when. I think I was destined to end up here. I popped the question to my wife under the Delicate Arch in Moab. We named our golden retriever Moab. And, of course, on vacations we'd often visit. When the distillery idea came up, we knew we wanted to do it in the mountains, and Utah was the natural place for us to pick. Little did we know how hard the laws would be! Except for sheer persistence, the idea probably should have died a year after we got here. When we moved to Park City, we found an incredibly supportive community. The residents of Park City are a little different than the rest of Utah (which is primarily Mormon) and they like to be different and alcohol is one of those symbols of being different. Needless to say, the idea of a whiskey distillery in the part of Utah that was always the watering hole for a non-drinking state was quite a natural!

Gavin: What was your reaction like to the state granting you the permits to create and distribute?

Jane: Hallelujah!!

Gavin: How did you eventually decide on the old Beggs House and National Garage buildings as the main setup for everything?

Dave: Well, that really was all Greg Schirff's idea combined with some luck and a little timing!

Gavin: What was it like starting the company up and purchasing the equipment?

Jane: It was very difficult! The hardest part was writing the big checks!

Gavin: Did you experiment at first or had you already come up with flavors you wanted to perfect?

Jane: Yes. We did lots of experiments, but always knew we wanted to create premium whiskey spirits!

Gavin: Without giving away grand secrets, what's the process like for you in creating a specific flavor?

Dave: Actually, my secret involves the incredibly talented advisory board with well informed trial and error from talented folks who've been in the business for many years. Jim Rutledge, for example, is one of my greatest mentors.

Gavin: As of right now, what are the drinks you currently stock and sell?

Jane: Currently, we have four Whiskey products and two Vodkas. Rendezvous Rye, Rocky Mountain Rye - both 16 & 21 Year Old, Bourye, Vodka 7000' and Utah Peach Vodka.

Gavin: Since being introduced, how have the products done and what's been the general response from the public?

Jane: We are very proud and excited to have received the awards and positive press thus far... especially from a distillery in Utah! Its the last place you'd expect one of the best whiskies in the world to be from! The very first product, Rendezvous Rye, made it to the “Top 10 Whiskies In The World” 2008 list! It's kind of like a guy from Texas winning the Tour de France! Basically, everyone that tries the products can't believe how amazing they are. We are very proud and encouraged to do our best!

Gavin: Where did the idea come from to do a ski-in entry?

Jane: Its entirely due to the property's location. Located at the base of Town Lift and the bottom of "Quittin' Time Run." Quite appropriate.

Gavin: A little state-wide, what's your take on the liquor law changes, both good and bad?

Jane: Its been great. Utah's #1 industry is tourism, and #1 complaint is "confusing liquor laws"... I view the changes positively and see the opportunity to welcome our guests!

Gavin: How do those new changes affect you both as a business and as patrons?

Jane: As a business the new laws allow visitors to feel more welcome to visit our facility. They allow visitors to take a tour of our process, have dinner, and purchase their favorite HW product to remember their visit. As patrons, we'll be visiting more clubs we were not previously members of.

Gavin: What's your relationship like with bars, brewpubs, and other distilleries in the state?

Dave: We consider them all personal friends and brothers!

Gavin: What can we expect from all of you and the distillery going into next year?

Jane: We'd like to focus on making our facility the best it can be and the most enjoyable customer experience. We hope visitors share our passion for the whiskey education and its part in history.

Gavin: Aside the obvious, anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Jane: Did I mention we have one of the "Top 10 Whiskies In The World”?! We'd really like to encourage all readers to explore the wonderful world of craft-distilling and artisanal products. We believe education in appreciation.

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