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Video: High West Distillery – interview with Justin Lew

By @Pierre27th Jun 2017
4 3

We caught up with Justin Lew to learn more about High West, the challenges of distilling whiskey in Utah, and to find out what the future holds for this unique distillery.

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Video transcript:

On a recent visit to Utah I spent an enjoyable day at the High West Distillery in Wanship, East of Salt Lake City. Where I spoke to High West's Justin Lew about the history and future of the company.

So, High West is Utah's first legal distillery since 1870. It was started by David and Jane Perkins in 2006. David and Jane Perkins realised they love the mountains and they wanted to come and basically build a the distillery out in Utah.

One of the obvious questions is, given its reputation as a dry or at least semi-dry state, why would anyone want to build a distillery in Utah?

If you don't know much about Utah, Utah was populated originally by pioneers, and the pioneers were Mormons. So what the Mormons did is they came out in 1850s and set up stills in Utah.

The modern Mormons frown on drinking but that wasn't always the case. In fact the early Mormon pioneers who settled Utah distilled something very similar to whiskey.

The legend American author, Mark Twain, wrote about it in his book, Rouging It, in which he states:

"The exclusive Mormon refresher...Valley Tan... is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah. Tradition says it is made of fire and brimstone. If I remember rightly, no public drinking saloons were allowed in the kingdom by Brigham Young, and no private drinking permitted among the faithful, except they confined themselves to Valley Tan."

By 1870 the Mormon population said 'we don't want folks drinking alcohol' and they decided to ban it, so in 1870 distilleries ceased to exist.

How do you get permission to build a distillery in modern day Utah?

The Mormons and those in Utah are very pro-business, so it wasn't very challenging to open up a distillery. Jane Perkins went down to City Hall and applied for a license, and they had to go back and look through the books and they realised, yes, you can have a distillery in Utah.

We have Master Distiller, Brendan Coyle, born and raised in Minnesota. He moved out to Utah to go to school and he started bring beer. After that he met up with Dave and began his career as a distiller. He went and he got his degree in Edinburgh, his Masters in distillation, and then he use that to help build the stills here.

It's widely known that when High West started life they bottled whiskey sourced from elsewhere. I was interested to know what the effects of distilling their own spirits would be on their product range.

We started life as basically a blender. We would source whiskeys from different distilleries and blend them together to make her own creations.

Double Rye is a blend of a two-year-old/3-year-old rye and a 16-year-old rye. Making it the spiciest rye we can make.

Now that we are starting to distil here, we are starting to make our own rye, which will eventually go into our current blends, as kind of like different blending ingredients.

Whether we buy it or distil our own whiskey, it's really making sure that the quality matches in the high-level that we are looking for, so Brendan and team can create these blends that are great year after year.

Current location we can produce 50,000 nine litre cases, if we produce 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are looking at growing that to 200,000 over time. That's only a blending component of our overall product, so we're basically creating one piece of the puzzle so to speak for our different blends. And that's here, the other whiskeys are sourced.

The distillery has a most unusual still.

So our stills, we have a we have room in our distiller for four stills, currently we have one up, it's made by full-size in Scotlandm, it's a copper still with a column connected to it. So it's almost a hybrid still.

So, the hybrid still allows Brendan and the distillers to maintain control of the distillation process better than you would have with just two pot stills. So we can go through one distillation and get to the ABV all the proof that we are looking for, it is a more precise tool.

And it's not just the still that is unusual, the distillery itself was conceived to be more than just a production facility.

So the distiller in the place you visited and you see today was basically built for, not only production, but delighting and educating the consumer so that when a consumer comes up here they can learn about whiskey and they can learn about how we make whiskey and the whole process. We have a great tasting room where people can try whiskey and then try amazing cuisine that James Dumas has put together. All of that is really to please the consumer and also make it fit so we can create and produce great whiskey.

The inspiration for the architecture is based on the mining buildings in Park City. Park City originally was a mining town, they were pulling silver out of the mountain.

I was interested to know what the future holds for High West.

Overtime what Brendan is working on is a single malt, it goes back to be him being in Scotland and learning how to produce malt. So, they are putting that down and eventually we hope to release our own single malt.

With regards to innovation, we have our Barrel Select Program. We take Double Rye or our American Prairie Bourbon, and re-age it in select barrels, say a Scotch barrel, and see what kind of influence finishing in a Scotch barrel could do. Those are bottled in small batches, customers can buy them by the barrel and we sell certain customers a barrel of their own speciality barrel-finished product.

For High West our mission is to make delicious whiskey, to share our love of whiskey with the customer, and celebrate our home in the west.


paddockjudge commented

That is one fine piece of film! Great interview. Can't wait for the next one.

6 years ago 1Who liked this?

jeanluc commented

Thanks @paddockJudge, look out for the #ConnosrAsks video tomorrow

6 years ago 2Who liked this?

Pierre commented

thanks @paddockjudge we're looking forward to making them too!

6 years ago 1Who liked this?

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