It has been gratifying to watch the true emergence of American single malt whiskeys in the last few years, from something of a novelty to a more widely recognized and codified example of a new style finding its footing in the U.S. market. As recently as a few years ago, American-made malt whiskey was primarily the domain of a few older companies that had long been functioning as evangelists, producing a unique product unlike scotch whisky in the sense that it was often distilled and aged with techniques that were quite different from those used in Scotland. The last couple years, on the other hand, have seen an explosion of younger distilleries trying their hand at American single malt, bringing techniques to play that are both traditional and innovative. It’s become a widespread enough segment, in fact, that we even have collaborative projects such as the Vermont-based Lost Lantern, a melding of six different American single malts into one blend.
Some of these emerging producers, such as Virginia Distillery Co., focus entirely on American single malt whiskey, while others like Utah’s High West have also produced single malt for years, but are much better known for other whiskey styles such as bourbon and rye. For a producer like High West, a single malt brand is rarely the whiskey that pays the bills, but it does provide a welcome diversion from the bourbon-based norm.
High West has produced its blended malt whiskey brand, High Country, for a number of years, but it’s refocusing on the brand in 2022 with a new version that omits the peated portion that has previously been part of the blend. With the peated portion removed, the current version instead features a portion of the final blend aged in Oloroso sherry barrels. As in previous versions of High Country, it is distilled “on-the-grain” in copper pot stills, before aging for at least 2 years (the previous blend was 2-9 years old) in both newly charred and reused oak—the use of newly charred oak being one of the things that often sets American single malt whiskeys apart from scotch whiskies. High Country is then bottled at a moderate 44% ABV (88 proof), with an MSRP of $80. Judging from the decision to forgo the peated portion of the distillate in this new version, and the addition of the sherry-aged portion, we would surmise that High West intends to take the brand in a somewhat less smoky and earthy, and more sweet and rich direction.
With all that said, let’s get to tasting this latest version of High Country.
On the nose, this one is fairly fresh and grainy, with generous amounts of sweet malt, honey, a little anise and a little cocoa, along with fruit impressions of peach or apricot. It’s not really all that expressive in terms of the sherried/oloroso element—there are notes here that are often contribute by sherry casks, such as nuts and chocolate, but less of the dark fruit component that often makes a taster immediately think “this has been sherried.” Rather, the sherry element itself is on the more subtle side on the nose, rather than being the most notable aspect of the profile.
On the palate, this dram is sweet and nutty, with notes of granola, sweet barley tea/beer wort, and lingering hazelnut chocolate. There’s some lighter, fresher elements of grassiness, and a recurrence of the peach note from the nose, but the most prominent elements are of pure maltiness, nuttiness and moderate residual sweetness. Once again, it doesn’t really feel like the Oloroso influence has become the star of the show by means; it’s more of a tertiary player. The resulting dram features a quite mild ethanol presence, making it very easy to drink along with its approachable sweetness.
All in all, this is a very effortless sipper with a decent amount of character, but perhaps one where I might have enjoyed a bolder approach even more.
Distillery: High West
City: Park City, Utah
Style: American single malt whiskey
ABV: 44% (88 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $80 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.