Wednesday, January 30, 2008

High West Checks In

I heard from David Perkins of Utah's High West Distillery about Sunday's post. The High West web site has the full text of the Rendezvous Rye back label, where it clearly says, "In this tradition of importing whiskey from back East (while we age our own whiskey), we crafted Rendezvous from two exotic straight rye whiskies."

I apologize for implying that High West claimed it distilled the rye it's selling. They do disclose on the label that they did not make it. However, they're not discouraging publications like the Park Record from giving the impression that they did.

He also complained that I should have contacted him first. I tried to find him but failed, though perhaps I didn't try hard enough. However, just now I Googled "High West Distillery" and got a lot of references, including this blog, but not the one-page High West web site.

Perkins correctly pointed out that I forgot one of the "usual suspects." Barton Brands at its distillery in Bardstown also makes straight rye whiskey, which they sell only in northern Wisconsin under the name Fleishmann's Rye. I often forget them because the Fleishmann's is in such extremely limited distribution and not very good. Nothing wrong with the basic distillate--Barton is a good distiller--it's just very young whiskey.

Perkins says he is contractually bound not to disclose the whiskey's maker. That still leaves a lot of questions he should be able and, I assume, willing to answer about the whiskey. The big one is to clarify if he is really saying someone 18-years-ago made a batch of rye whiskey from a mash that was 80 percent rye grain, and further saying that six years ago that distiller, or another one, made a batch of rye whiskey from a mash that was 95 percent rye? If so, why would they do that, since that's not typical of American straight rye whiskey? Or of any American straight whiskey, for that matter. The only thing an American producer would normally make with that high a proportion of a single grain would be corn whiskey.

The label talks about "a higher proportion of rye" and he mentions that in his email too, but a 60 percent rye mash bill would be a higher proportion than the norm, why 80, or 95? It's so far outside the norm as to be suspicious, but I'm still not sure that's even what he is claiming when he says "95% rye" and "80% rye."

I hope he can also clarify his reference to "unmalted rye." Is he saying the mash bill was, in one case, 95% unmalted rye and 5% malted rye, and likewise in the 80/20 case? If not, then why mention "unmalted" rye? All rye in American straight rye whiskey is unmalted except for the whiskey Fritz Maytag makes, which is 100% malted rye. So I hope he will shed some light on how this very unusual whiskey (his use of "exotic" is apt) came to be made, since it is so outside the norm.

Maybe he can't tell us who made it but how did he find out about it? There's a lot he can tell us about the whiskey itself without naming the distiller.

Perkins says "'Straight Rye Whiskey' isn't necessarily a better classification" than "a blend of straight rye whiskies." I suppose we can just disagree about that. To most American whiskey drinkers, "blend" is a dirty word in any context. It's also an unfamiliar classification. On the other hand, I suppose he wanted it called a blend because he wanted to talk about the two constituent whiskeys. However, my reading of the standards for "a blend of straight rye whiskies" is that that classification is only to be used when the constituents are straight rye but non-conforming as to the standards for "straight rye whisky," which would point to them having been made in different states. He can confirm or deny that without disclosing the maker(s).

If both were made in the same state, then why are they non-conforming? If they conform, then did TTB give him the option of using either classification? That is contrary to my reading of the rules, but he went through the label approval process and I didn't, so maybe he will enlighten me.

As I wrote Sunday, I like the idea of mixing an old straight rye with a young one, ideally to capture the best of both. I applaud that. I never denied this might be a good, even exceptional whiskey.

I said all of these things and more to him in a reply to his email and will let you know if he answers back. He is also, of course, welcome to post a comment here and say it in his own words.

The final and, perhaps most important question? Has High West distilled anything? Have they laid down any rye whiskey that they made? The web site makes it clear that the answer to that question is no. They bought an old stable in Park City, which they are restoring as a "distillery and saloon."

Far be it from me to strangle a baby in its bed, and I get the idea about getting some products out to get some cash coming in and some publicity going out, but the buzz you're creating is about people wanting to try that 18-year-old rye made in Utah, when it's nothing of the kind. I still have a problem with somebody calling himself a distiller and his company a distillery putting out a product he merely bought and bottled. It's not good for him in the long run. It's a bad way to start.

Maybe his publicity just got ahead of him, or maybe my post did exactly what I wanted it to do.

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