For whiskey fans Malt Advocate magazine is a trusted source for news and reviews for everything in the Whiskey world. Every year John Hansell the man behind Malt Advocate unveils the prestigious Malt Advocate whiskey awards. Much like the oscars, the winners are often expected, celebrated and of course, controversial.
No award this year caused more controversy than the Pioneer Of The Year award which went to David Perkins from High West. High West made quite a splash in the whiskey world with their High West Rendezvous rye whiskey in 2008. At the time it was a bold new offering on the market, it was a blend of a 6 year old rye with a mashbill that was 95% rye and a 16 year rye with a mashbill of 80% rye. In 2011 you’ll see more rye whiskey with a high rye mashbill but at the time there were few players who attempted it. Traditionally, a rye whiskey mashbill is 60% rye, 25% corn and 15% malted barley (that’s a loose approximation to illustrate my point which can vary largely by distiller). David’s Rendezvous rye not only looked good on paper but it also took double gold at the San Francisco spirits competition and Malt Advocate rated it a 95, an unusually high mark for a new whiskey that’s under $50.
One might wonder what’s so controversial about that? You’ve got a whiskey that’s trying new things and is scoring high marks with seasoned tasters. Pundits were quick to point out that High West didn’t actually distill the whiskey that’s in their Rendezvous rye. Both the 6 year and 16 year ryes were sourced from other distilleries, David simply blended them together. Blending is a time honored skill that is well celebrated amongst other spirits, but has never been popular with American spirits. The original sticking point was this, there’s nothing wrong with blending unless your marketing made it seem as though you distilled it. High West definitely bills themselves as a distillery, not because they are liars, they do distill their own products just not the Rendezvous or their other aged whiskies.
The criticism on the surface is not without merit. There have been a fair share of so-called craft distillers who are just repackaging bulk bought whiskey and making it seem like they made it themselves. David Perkins has been a stand up guy within the industry, he has openly acknowledged that he purchased the whiskey and blended it. He is doing this to get the brand off the ground while his own whiskey ages (obviously this takes many years). He is also taking the time to carefully craft unique blends, something not many (if anyone) is currently doing with American whiskey, especially rye whiskey. Not only is he doing this, but he is also doing it well.
His next blend, Bourye was a bourbon blended with two ryes, Malt Advocate again gave it high praise with a rating of 90. His most recent and most affordable product to date is called Double Rye, a marriage of a very young 2 year rye blended with a 16 year rye to round out the flavors. Double Rye has already been a hit with Malt Advocate who has awarded it a score of 93. It seems that when David Perkins is blending he just can’t miss.
The critics point out that David is not doing anything new, blending spirits from other sources is certainly not new. Surely a pioneer must be breaking ground and doing something completely original. I would say that those critics are missing the point of what it means to be a pioneer. In this day and age nothing is completely new, it’s how you draw inspiration from other sources to bring a creative new twist to something. To use a winter analogy, (since High West is high up in the rockies of Utah), look at snowboarding. Snowboarding completely revolutionized the snow sports industry, the inventors were true pioneers of something groundbreaking. But the idea was not new, people have been skateboarding on a single deck decades before, and the Hawaiians surfed waves on a board hundreds of years before. But to combine that concept with alpine landscapes covered in snow was indeed pioneering. This is why I argue David Perkins deserves the pioneer of the year award. He broke the mold and challenged what it means to be an American whiskey maker; that the craft of making a fine whiskey continues after the still and the barrel. Even in whiskey, the sum can be greater than its parts.
Congratulations to David Perkins from High West, as an American whiskey enthusiast I look forward to your future blends and whiskies that you distill.
*It should be noted that the High West Rendezvous is only High West product I have purchased and tasted, but I hope to change that soon.