Thanks to High West Distillery & Saloon, I have coined a new term: Potemkin Craft Distillery. It’s a play on the term ‘Potemkin Village,” which is defined as "something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance."
The original term refers to Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who allegedly had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of the Ukraine and Crimea, in an effort to show his colonization efforts there were successful. It came into common usage during the Cold War, to refer to similar Soviet efforts to portray living conditions in the USSR as better than they actually were.
I call High West a Potemkin Craft Distillery because the company’s most highly touted products, its Rendezvous and Rocky Mountain Ryes, are whiskeys High West did not make but, rather, merely bought and bottled. In the fine print, High West explains that they “sourced the whiskey from back east while we are waiting for our own whiskey to age."
I am skeptical in part because no one who has taken this approach has subsequently replaced their third-party product with a house-made one.
In High West’s case, the High West Distillery & Saloon in Park City, Utah, just opened in December of 2009, but High West has had a still and a distilling license for four years. They could have a four-year-old whiskey of their own creation on the market right now, but they don’t.
The splash page of High West’s web site talks about "award winning small batch mountain crafted spirits." Another page talks about how "High West Distillery & Saloon started with one man’s passion to make a great Rocky Mountain Whiskey." It doesn't mention that his dream is, so far, unrealized.
Finally, on the product page, after the words, "High West Distillery crafts products for people who want great taste and appreciate quality ingredients, small batches, and the distiller's personal touch," comes the admission that the whiskeys were made somewhere else by someone else. It is hard not to conclude that High West’s intention is to fuzz the distinction.
Why do I keep harping on this? Because I have repeatedly had the experience of someone raving to me about this terrific whiskey made by this little distillery in Utah. When I explain that the whiskey was most likely made in Indiana, not Utah, they express disbelief and disappointment. Until High West calls its business "High West Distillery, Saloon & Rectifier," I will continue to call them a Potemkin Craft Distillery.
There are micro-distilleries such as Finger Lakes, Dry Fly, Garrison Brothers and others who have eschewed the course of buying spirits for resale and have, instead, found a business model that allows them to only present products of their own manufacture. I tend to regard those companies more highly than I do companies that take the other approach. That's my prerogative as a consumer.
So while I commend High West for making some exceptional orphaned whiskeys available to the marketplace, I continue to find the company's Potemkin Craft Distillery pose disingenuous.