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We’re not talking to each other face to face, but I bet I can read your mind. Tell me the first whiskey type that comes to mind when I give you a producer’s name. Heaven Hill? Bourbon. Maker’s Mark? Wheated Bourbon. Stranahan’s? Malt Whiskey. Hudson NY Whiskey? Undrinkable Whiskey. High West?
That would be Rye Whiskey.
That’s right, ever since their inception, High West’s focus has been on Rye Whiskey. It’s in virtually every major product they’ve released from Rocky Mountain Rye to Midwinter Nights Dram. Yes, they’ve dabbled in bourbon starting in 2012, but enthusiasts could clearly see this was not a product that they put much effort into. This was evident by the fact there has really only been 1 product in their entire portfolio that’s labeled a bourbon.
High West’s Bourbon throughout the years
Let me lead you through a quick history and changes of the bourbon that High West has put out. True to form, the bourbon that they source has always been blended with another bourbon from another distillery. This is how their standard rye whiskies are made too.
2012-2014 American Prairie Reserve Bourbon
The key word in this one is “Reserve.” That’s what separates it from later iterations that just used the words “American Prairie.” It also has a picture of a bird on the front instead of an antelope. This bourbon was made of a blend of 6 year old bourbon from MGP (Seagram’s) and 10 year old bourbon from Four Roses. You heard that last one right – their website specifically said “Four Roses.” I’ll bring this up again in future Bulleit reviews.
2015-2018 American Prairie Bourbon
American Prairie Bourbon sees their oldest bourbon in the blend increase to 13 years old… at the expense of their youngest barrels in the blend falling to 2 years old (the low rye version of MGP’s bourbon recipe). What is interesting is that from 2015 to 2016, High West’s website indicates that the 2 year old bourbon from MGP has a mash bill of 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% barley malt. Only in 2017 do they fix the recipe to say it’s 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley malt from MGP. This brings up an issue that I’ll draw attention to later about the accuracy of High West’s website.
High West also indicates that a 6 year old bourbon from an undisclosed Kentucky distillery have been used. I’m not sure what distillery that would be, but my brain tells me probably Barton. The 13 year old bourbon could also be Barton, but I’m inclined to believe that it was leftover 10 year old barrels of Four Roses that were purchased in 2012. Whatever leftovers they had were probably vatted in 2015. What’s odd is that the wording on their website says that they cannot disclose the source of that bourbon either.
2019-2022 American Prairie Bourbon
High West’s website indicates a shift away from using bourbon from “undisclosed distilleries in Kentucky” to using a bourbon that has a recipe of 84% corn, 8% rye, 8% malted barley from undisclosed source. This is obviously the recipe of Tennessee’s George Dickel (Cascade Hollow) distillery. They also list that 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley malt from MGP was also used along with whiskey components that are undisclosed due to contractual reasons. Enthusiasts consider this as a low point for High West’s bourbon.
2023 High West Bourbon
For 2023, High West completely changed everything about their bourbon. No longer does it go by the name “American Prairie Bourbon.” Instead, they just call it “Bourbon” now. The website no longer lists any information about the blend. But if you know me, I’m always going to try and find these things out. It turns out that a rep from Constellation has told me that the new bourbon blend uses bourbon sourced from Indiana and Kentucky that is aged 4 to 9 years old. And while distillery’s names could not be given due to NDA’s – they could tell me that the Kentucky component is a mash bill that uses 78% corn, 10% rye and 12% malt. That obviously sounds like it’s from Heaven Hill to me.
But there is one thing in the back of my mind that I can’t shake. It’s the fact that High West has been having Bardstown Bourbon Company contract distill for them for a number of years now. I’m not exactly sure what they have been distilling for them, but I haven’t heard of any young rye whiskey from Kentucky being used in their products yet. Could this be a copycat recipe of Heaven Hill designed to throw off enthusiasts? Hopefully my tasting notes will give me a clue.
High West introduces Cask Strength Single Barrels
One of the bigger headlines for 2023 is that High West has begun to bottle their bourbon in cask strength form. This has never been done before and was only done once in their rye whiskey program. So this is big news for the brand. They even went one step further and allowed for select retailers to pick their own single barrels.
I’m sure a question many will ask is how does a producer make a single barrel of whiskey when the batched product is a blend of different whiskies? The answer probably looks a lot like Woodford Reserve’s single barrel program. Woodford blends their triple pot still distillate with column still distillate made at the Brown-Forman distillery in Shively into the same barrel. The ratios aren’t as important as the overall taste profile.
An easy way to tell if you have a single barrel version of the cask strength bourbon is to look for the white strip under the main label that says who picked it. This sticker looks cheap – kind of like it was created on a $50 label-maker machine. It’s a far cry from the days where single barrels used to wear a bronze medal with leather string around the neck. Those picks also had a special informational sticker on the side and the bottle seemed to be made with different glass that produced a mutli-colored “oil slick” look when the sun hit it just right. But I guess this how High West will cut costs now. Let’s just hope they invested it back into the bourbon they source.
The bottle in this review is a single barrel selected by the Big Red Liquors team for their “Bourbon World” series of special picks. It comes in at 117.4 proof and was $70 before tax – which isn’t a terrible price by any means. Let’s see how it tastes. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: After a puzzling few sniffs, I’ve determined that this one strange note that I can’t seem to get around resembled a tangy wine. It reminds me of a Marsala-cask finished Scotch I’ve had recently. Strange! The nose has a lot of citrus fruit notes but is also slightly spicy – think of something similar to a chili oil mixed with ground pepper. The oak notes are moderate and the sweetness seems somewhat underdeveloped.
Palate: The tangy note I found on the nose doesn’t seem to translate directly onto the palate. I do get some citrus and cherry fruit notes (some of the fruit comes off as unripe) and those combine with underdeveloped sweet flavors that resemble confectioners sugar or Sweet Tarts. So I guess that’s where some of it may be coming from. Otherwise, there are flavors similar to children’s cough syrup and black pepper that aren’t unheard of in bourbon, but don’t seem particularly interesting. Tannic notes are a mixture of leather and oak revealing some age but not enough to have the whole palate come off like it’s a blend of 4 year old barrels rather than 9.
Finish: The whole finish is pleasant albeit kind of generic. Lingering notes of oak and vanilla pair with citrus and stone fruit. I find some minerality near the end which kind of resembles Dickel bourbon. That’s weird, I thought there wasn’t supposed to be any in this blend? There’s a sort of perpetual heat on the finish that never seems to go away. It’s not an unpleasant experience, just something I observed. It could be the fault of a cinnamon and pepper combo that sort of hang around.
High West’s new bourbon blend isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, I rather enjoyed the finish and found most of the flavors to be well-integrated. The tangy fruit character was interesting and if the blend only uses MGP and Heaven Hill bourbon, then I have no idea where it’s coming from. This makes me wonder if the 78/10/12 bourbon that I was led to believe was Heaven Hill isn’t actually something made by Bardstown Bourbon Company with a different kind of yeast. That would explain why I’m not picking up on most of the Heaven Hill traits I normally do.
The one descriptor I kept circling in my notes as I drank through this bottle was the word “Generic.” That’s because there was no one trait that stood out as leaning towards one distillery or another. Yes, there was a decent amount of fruit, but it was the same kind I’d find in almost any bourbon. If anything, the whole profile leaned more towards Barton, but that’s about all I can say about it.
High West has finally given the enthusiasts what they wanted – a cask strength offering of their whiskey. One has to wonder if this is just a sneak peak at a larger offering of their products at this proof. I certainly hope so. If this is what the future holds, I wonder why they chose their bourbon to kick it off with. Either way, I won’t be complaining. I just can’t help but think that they wasted the last 5 years putting lipstick on a pig with their other products all the while bleeding customers who only wanted higher-proofed bourbon. I know that coming into 2023, I’ve never been less interested in modern-day High West offerings. Most of my friends felt the same way too. These Cask Strength offerings will go a long way in repairing that relationship.
So while I’m not saying you need to rush out and buy these cask strength single barrel offerings, I am saying that if you’ve written off High West, maybe you should reevaluate that. It seems like somebody in the organization is trying to right the ship that has been close to tipping over for years now. Is it finally time we start paying attention to High West again? The answer seems to be “Yes.”
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