whiskey tastings in utah

whiskey tastings in utah

We've just returned from Park City, Utah, where one of us learned to ski for the first time (more on that in a later post), but we also had a great time tasting and learning about whiskey. Whiskey? In Utah?  Yeah. Unexpected. But also awesome!

Park City is home to the High West Distillery--the first legal distillery in Utah in over 160 years! If you're a historian, you might know that Utah proudly cast the deciding vote to amend the US Constitution to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol. You might not know that up until the 1860's, Mormons in Utah had a tradition of distilling wheat whiskey, known as "Valley Tan," which Mark Twain said was "made of fire and brimstone."

How do I know that? Well, I learned it by spending a portion of my weekend sampling whiskey, having a fabulous tasting menu dinner with select whiskey pairings, drinking in a saloon, and touring a distillery!

The original High West Distillery in Park City still has a mash room, but more than that, it's a happening saloon, with a couple of bars, and a terrific restaurant.  They don't take reservations, and apres ski, it can be a bit of a wait for a table at dinner.  But if you're looking for a place to grab a quick drink, you can squeeze into the bar and maybe order a snack.  Our first visit was just for a drink (High West Double Rye on the Rocks), but we noticed lot of things on the food menu that looked really, really good.  We also noticed that many people were devouring the soft pretzel with beer cheese.  Since the wait for a table at dinner was quite long, we decided to try our luck at lunch the next day.

Lunch was still a bit of a wait, but only a half-hour to forty-five minutes (compared to 2+ hours at dinner). Also, keep in mind that we were there on a holiday weekend at the height of ski season and the weekend before the Sundance Film Festival was taking place, so your wait times may vary, I'm sure.

The food was terrific. Really great. The pretzel with beer cheese was great, and there was also this mustardy dip that seemed to have some pickle brine added--it was super delicious.  In fact, we needed more pretzel to sop it all up! We each got French onion soup, which had whole cloves of garlic in it, and lots of gooey cheese. Also, we had chicken pot pie, and shishito peppers, two ways (blistered and batter fried).  The peppers were awesome, and for a "small plate", well, it was an enormous portion.

But let's not forget about the whiskey. Normally, we're "brown liquor on the rocks" types.  We're not fancy people (maybe schmancy, but definitely not fancy). But for lunch, we decided to sample their two "sour" cocktails.  Each was delicious. I can't tell you exactly what made them so fantastic, because I was unfamiliar with some ingredients in each of them.  But if the other cocktails on that menu are as good as their two sours--whoo-boy! They've got an awesome mixologist on staff.

We lucked out when we made a last-minute-ish reservation at The Nelson Cottage for dinner. I think I booked it on Open Table using my phone at the airport in New York, as we were departing. I didn't quite know what the deal was, but the restaurant was identified as affiliated with High West, and the pictures of the place were charming, but when we arrived, we quickly realized that we'd stumbled onto something awesome.

I got a call on my mobile that afternoon, letting me know that for the 8:30 seating, I shouldn't arrive earlier than 8:15, because there was an earlier seating, and they wouldn't open the doors for us until they were ready.  We showed up promptly at 8:15, and were greeted by the staff (standing outdoors, without coats--brr!), who welcomed us, warmly, and ushered us inside. We chatted with Terry, who, we learned, would be the sort-of whiskey sommelier for the evening. Terry explained that we had assigned seats at the long communal table, and that we'd be experiencing a chef's tasting menu with an optional whiskey pairing.  We asked whether the table was sold out for the seating, and it was. In fact, Terry told us that there were very few reservations left for the remainder of the season.  I'm sure glad we got in!

We started off with cocktails--one of us had a toddy, and the other an old-fashioned.  They were superb.  The food was really great, as well, and it was served family style.  Since we were a party-of-two, surrounded by two other parties-of-two, we pretty quickly struck up a friendly conversation with our neighbors about the dining experience, the skiing, where we were from, and a host of other things.  The family style service, and the communal table really created a relaxed vibe.  And everything was delicious, right down to the dessert (butterscotch ice cream made with actual scotch?)  It was a terrific meal, perfect for a special occasion, like a birthday or anniversary.  It really felt special. 

After the meal, Terry led a group down the block to the High West Saloon, so that they could see the mash room there.  We skipped that part, because the next day, we went to the actual real big distillery.

While High West started distilling whiskey in Park City, as they grew, they found a spot in Wanship, Utah, about twenty minutes' drive from Park City, up in the Wasatch Mountains.  The drive up was beautiful, it was cold and snowy, but the mountains were gorgeous.  The distillery is on the grounds of a private ranch, so we had to check in at the gatehouse, before driving up into the mountains to find the distillery.  We were cautioned that we shouldn't go too quickly, because of the wildlife.

We got to the distillery just in time for our tour. (Pro tip: Make a reservation).  The tour was really informative. We started learning about the history of whiskey in Utah, then moved on to the big room full of vats and tubes and stairs and catwalks.  For someone who drinks a fair amount of brown liquor, I was somewhat surprised to realize how little I knew about the process of making it. It's definitely an art as well as a science, and the tour went into a lot of detail about the chemistry, as well as the technique.  

We finished our tour at their tasting room, where we each got a flight of whiskey, which included one of their special blends that's nearly gone--apparently, the only remaining bottles of the last whiskey in our flight are served at the distillery, and nowhere else.  The service was friendly, and the bartenders had a lot of really great insight into the palate of each whiskey we tried.

Since we were on the last tour of the day, by the time we were done with our flight, and had perused the gift shop, the shadows were already starting to get a bit long, so we headed back to Park City.

On the way, back down the mountain, though, we were treated to a wildlife sighting--several deer rooting through the snow, looking for something to eat.  We stopped to take a few pictures, and the deer were completely unphased.  But it just seemed to make a really fun and special day seem even more fun and special.

Obviously, if you're going to Park City (at least in the winter), you're probably going to be skiing or snowboarding.  But if you're looking to mix it up a bit, and if you enjoy a nip of "business juice" now and then, there are some fantastic ways to sample and learn about whiskey...

...in Utah, fer cryin' upstairs!


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