High West may be one of the best examples of a smaller player verging on household name status (if they aren’t already). They’ve quite arguably been instrumental in opening people’s eyes to American whiskey producers outside of Tennessee and Kentucky. Many have probably noticed their bottles on shelves but never paid mind to the actual distillery, just the names of the individual expressions. Whether it’s their popular Rendezvous Rye, picks of American Prairie and Double Rye with interesting finishes, the highly divisive Campfire, or sought-after Midwinter Night’s Dram, High West have proven that they can get around, even as they pull back the availability of certain expressions.
Speaking of lower availability, their American Single Malt dubbed High Country is among their many Utah-exclusive products. This particular expression is a blend of three 100% single malt whiskeys aged between 2 to 9 years: base malt, tri-malt, and peated malt. Perhaps the most curious aspect is the middle example, which seems to derive from scotch terminology where “triple malt” (aka “triple wood”) indicates using three types of casks for aging which, in this case, are new and used white American oak, along with a “portion finished in French oak port barrels.” Probably goes without saying that this won’t be your daddy’s single malt scotch. Let’s take a gander:
Nose: Light caramel and brown sugar offset by smoke, yeast, and grain-like notes. Some pepper and eucalyptus. Mulch-like essence throughout. Slightly toasted bread (no sugar) with a sliver of butter. Post-sip brings out a sassafras-like note. Pretty fascinating overall.
Palate: Light mouthfeel given some vibrance with pepper. Initial hit of honey quickly taken over by herbal notes—lychee and lemongrass come to mind. A breeze of smoke and vague fruit. Refreshing like club soda but may also come across as metallic.
Finish: Short-lived and clean. Floral whispers, mild pepper, and lemon rind. I don’t mind the brevity since it’s in-line with the dominant notes, so it doesn’t feel abrupt or out of line.
As you can tell from the specs and my tasting notes, this is very much an acquired taste. I imagine most of the whiskey in this batch leans on the younger side, with the port barrel influence honestly being negligible. That said, this is still an intriguing pour, one that exemplifies how different American single malt is compared to those overseas. The malt is very much on full display with mostly nuanced influence from the casks, which is only even more so thanks to the inclusion of used casks. What made this pour for me was the nose since it seemed to transform and develop after each sip. Sometimes it was more sweet, other times it was more savory. But above all, it was interesting.
Unfortunately, this style of interesting comes at a fairly steep cost, compounded by its location-specific availability. I consider myself a curious drinker, which means I’m all about trying something different so that I can expand my horizons. Yet I also consider myself a pragmatist in the realm of exploration. That’s why the $80 price tag for High West High Country makes it a steep ask for all but the more loaded and adventurous of drinkers. And I imagine they comprise a particularly marginal section of the whiskey community.