Getting The Whiskey’s ‘Backstory’
Review of the Ramot Naftaly Duet 2010 and a revisit to High West whiskies.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week August 27, 2014
We are often asked why we do not assign a numerical score to the wines and spirits we review. After all, it is a process employed by many of the most popular reviewers including the eminent Robert Parker, the glossy Wine Spectator and the high-end British publication Decanter, which bills itself as the “World’s Best Wine Magazine.” It is easy to understand the appeal since we all grow up in an educational system that rates our performance via numeric scores and grades.
Numeric scores invariably call to mind logical precision and objective truth, that as sure as 2+2=4, a score of 98=a great wine…but does it really? Is it possible to objectively distinguish between, say, a wine rated 91 points versus one rated 93, or maybe an 87 versus a 92? Neither of us would care to build too large a claim upon so thin a footing. To be sure, we are not intending this as a swipe against our fellow wine reviewers. We’ve no doubt that a great many of them, especially the ones bringing in the big bucks for their opinions, have the experience and palate to discern such subtleties—and the brazenness to assert as such. Rather, we approach this from the vantage point—affirmed by numerous studies—that subjective appreciation is influenced by context.
This is why we are more comfortable discussing our personal impressions rather than assigning a seemingly objective score. This is also why we often care more for what the marketing folks like to call the “back-story,” the who, what, where, why and when of how the beverage we are appreciating in the moment came to be.
Of course, the marketing folks usually prefer to air-brush these details, if not make them up completely. For our purposes here, so long as truth can be discerned from fiction, and the “back-story” is actually the legit back-story, such details strike us as genuine knowledge rather than merely subjective judgment. Further, at a minimum some basic knowledge of the potential of any given confluence of grape varietal, growing season, winemaker and terroir is the foundation of any credible reviewer’s recommendations. Finding wine critics whose tastes align with your own is potentially the most effective use of wine reviews; calibrate what you read by what you enjoy drinking should help provide a rough guide for future purchases, and hopefully also entice a bit of adventurism.
Consider the kosher Ramot Naftaly Duet 2010 ($40), a blend of Cabernet and Merlot (with a touch of Petit Verdot) from the Kedesh Valley of the Upper Galilee that one of us enjoyed during a family holiday celebration last winter. It was a full-bodied, food-friendly, softly textured wine that opened with red cherry and raspberry aromas and maintained these red fruit flavors along with layers of currants, plum, cedar, spice and herbs all the way through the finish.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d take the opportunity to revisit the whiskies of the High West Distillery.
The High West Distillery & Saloon, “Utah’s first distillery since the 1870s” offers “a truly unique experience as the world’s only ski-in distillery and gastro-saloon,” according to its marketers. The company started “with one man’s passion to make a great Rocky Mountain Whiskey. Proprietor and distiller David Perkins married his background as a biochemist, his love of bourbon and cooking, and his passion for the American West to bring the craft of small-batch distilling back to Utah.” When we first wrote about the High West Distillery a few years back, we were skeptical. Early on it seemed like there was an attempt to put one over the consumer.
At issue was, and is, the simple truth that while Perkins produces great whiskey, he does not actually distill any of the High West Distillery-aged whiskies currently available. Indeed, all the whiskies currently available from High West were sourced from distilleries far from his operation in Park City, Utah. To call this authentic Rocky Mountain whiskey that revives some old Utah tradition rubbed us a tad raw – but the hooch was good, so we told ourselves that it didn’t matter too much. And it shouldn’t, yet it did – a little. Since then, however, Perkins seems to have switched gears a bit, making his operation more open and honest. Maybe all of this was in our head, and we misunderstood what was going on, and that nothing has changed in how Perkins presents what High West is doing – but we don’t think so.
One of us has since had an opportunity to meet Mr. Perkins, taste his whiskey with him, and generally chat with him about High West and about whiskey more generally (all courtesy of the Jewish Whisky Company’s annual Whisky Jewbilee tasting in New York, which this year included a special seminar blending session with Mr. Perkins). Perkins is smart, knowledgeable, eminently likeable and funny – so it seemed churlish to pin him down too hard on sanctimonious whiskey geek trivia.
Besides, as we continually point out, the whiskey is good. In any event, in our encounter Perkins was talking straight. “When we started out,” he explained, “it quickly became clear that to … make whiskey, put it in a barrel and wait for it to mature, and also make payroll was … well, a difficult proposition at best.”
On the advice of the legendary Jim Rutledge of the Four Roses Distillery in Kentucky, Perkins began to buy sourced whiskey to blend into a new product that he could market and sell to generate revenue. The distillery’s restaurant was similarly a cash-flow-related decision. Presently, of the 100 employees the restaurant accounts for about 80 percent of them. The rest are tied up with the booze. As for the distillery itself: “We have a 250-gallon still in the saloon. It runs constantly: eight days a week, 25 hours a day. Maxed out. From this we get maybe three-quarters of a barrel each run. We have maybe 400 barrels or so that we’ve put down to mature since cranking things up, the rest is sold as unaged spirit. So now we sell two whiskey products – white and silver whiskey – that are our own.”
Not content to leave it there, however, Perkins has been busy developing a new facility, a “dude ranch distillery,” in partnership with Blue Sky Ranch in Wanship, Utah.
Once established, “we’ll have four larger pot stills of 1,600 gallons each” with which to ramp up production with authentic High West Distillery-crafted distilled spirits – especially fruit-based spirits, like local apples, peaches and pears.
Given the success of the initial stop-gap decision to buy whiskies to blend and package as product, however, High West’s now famed whiskies will still be in the offing.
So long as the product is good, we’ve no problems with whiskey blenders or whiskey traders who simply slap some label on some product. This is all the independent bottlers are doing anyway – but the honest guys don’t pretend otherwise. We are bothered, even if only mildly, by folks trying to smudge the margins between fact and fiction, especially when there is no need.
As David Perkins has recently demonstrated, truth makes for some pretty compelling backstory anyway. Here is one to run out and sample: High West Rendezvous Rye (46 percent ABV; $45) is an enticing blend of 6-year-old and 16-year-old rye whiskies, giving both depth and vibrancy to this spicy, complex whiskey with aromas and flavors of cinnamon, fennel, licorice, something like mint, caramel, molasses, vanilla, cocoa and preserved fruits, all with a warming, piquant finish. L’Chaim!