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High West Rocky Mountain Rye

I had just finished this another Hampden review when a forgotten thought inspired me to write this one. After going down memory lane and mentioning some of the anime I grew up watching, I realized I had forgotten to mention Cowboy Bebop. With that realization, I remembered, I have a cowboy-ish High West to review. An unusually extra hectic couple of weeks had just ended. I overlooked my incoming Tokyo trip. I suppose, this sudden crave for anything Japanese related, was a way for my subconscious to remind me of the impending travel.

You might be wondering how I made this wild connection. Ride with me now… What’s a brand that oozes with a cowboy image? High West! What’s Utah known for? The Jazz NBA team, Mormons, High West and Rocky Mountains. The anime is the first thing I saw that’s a mix of sci- fi with classic Western and Eastern influences. Then add Bebop, which is a type of revolutionary jazz that was started in the 1940s. To me, High West and Cowboy Bebop are both revolutionary and melting pots.

Revolutionary? Melting pots? Let’s go back to more than a decade ago when the American whiskey scene was still ramping up. Again. Nobody wanted rye. The big boys weren’t making much rye. Only a few outfits like Dave Perkins bought rye. People seem to have forgotten, or don’t know, High West had a big hand in making rye prominent again. By the time rye became more in demand around 5 years ago the big boys didn’t have enough stocks. Brands like Templeton, were just sourcing whisky from one place. The big Scotch companies who are very into the American whiskey game now, were not really into American whisky yet. Bulleit Rye was still being made by Four Roses. Bulleit Bourbon was still sourced from MGP. Bulleit distillery my ass. Beam Suntory was still just Beam.

High West is credited to be a pioneer for the craft American whisky scene. I am guessing they influenced how brands like Smooth Ambler, Michters and KBD operate. Different distilleries to me are like different cultures. Much like companies having their own company cultures. Dave Perkins sourced different whisky mashbills from different distilleries like MGP, Four Roses and Barton and blended them. Wait, doesn’t this sound just like the Scotch industry? Yes, but was there any American whiskey outfit doing this prior to High West? I can’t think of any. Willet, maybe, but they mostly released the sourced whisky as single barrels. High West started in 2004. From what I know, the KBD blends like Noah’s Mill and Rowan’s Creek started coming out in the 2010s. Let’s not forget, High West was transparent in their blending and sourcing. They were transparent before it was a mainstream thing. Lastly, they invested in making their own whiskey while sourcing.

Let’s not forget their openness to break away from the labeling norms. Back then companies like Heaven Hill and Sazerac were advocating the beauty of Straight Bourbon. What did High West do? “Oh let’s release a 21 year rye mashbill whisky aged in used casks.” “Oh let’s finish straight rye whisky in ex-port casks”. “Why don’t we come out with American whisky blended with peated Scotch?” These releases probably inspired releases like Smooth Ambler’s Contradiction.

Now for Cowboy Bebop. I already mentioned above that I see it as a mix of sci-fi, old Western and Eastern influences. The sci-fi influences mostly coming from, I think, Star Wars. There’s the humanity living all over the universe theme. You can’t forget the spaceship battles. Yet, despite the futuristic theme to it, there’s still an old-school feel to it. Their guns don’t shoot lasers. The cars aren’t hovering. There aren’t any floating cities. The architecture is very 90s.

The Western influence is obvious in the title. There are characters in cowboy uniforms. The strong Jazz music was instrumental in making this funky and unfamiliar style of anime appealing so memorable and unique. Lawlessness is a strong theme. There’s a Bonnie and Clyde reference. Bounty hunting being a catalyst for some of the missions in the episodes. The one on one showdown between Spike and Vicious. There are Native Indians portrayed as wise men in some episodes. Lastly, the famous Western troupes of one-man armies.

Finally, there’s the Eastern influences. Of course, being an anime, it was produced by a Japanese company. Japan very much loves American culture. From Ronin themed movies being their version of cowboy movies to their love of American whiskey and love of American music like rock and jazz. Japan after all, kept the American whiskey industry alive when Americans were ignoring their own whiskey. Spike is obviously a Bruce Lee reference. There’s Vicious’ use of a Katana. Some dishes and characters have Asian names. The currency in their universe is called Woolong for example.

Since I’m high on Japan, I’m going to boldly say that Bebop and Japan has this timelessness aspect. The show might be 2 decades old, but still stands up very well when compared to today’s anime. It is regarded as one of the best animes ever. This is similar to a lot of people worshipping the enduring traditional Japanese culture. Samurai, ninjas and geishas are still strong and famous symbolisms for Japan.

For me, everything above can be an argument for Bebop’s effect on anime and maybe entertainment itself. It has influenced the creation of shows such as Samurai Champloo and Kill Bill. Bebop’s most revolutionary aspect for me is how it presented a person’s uniqueness by being broken. Everyone on the Bebop crew had their own demons. Despite being broken, they still kicked ass. They functioned as a dysfunctional family. I realized that it’s the first anime I’ve seen that is fun yet still shows depth. It’s also the first anime I ever saw that made a woman strong. Yes, Faye was very sexualized, yet she was always a step ahead of the men. These are things I realized later on, of course, as I grew older.

However, glorious High West and Bebop might have been, this all still ends bittersweet. The anime only has 26 episodes and 1 movie. High West’s success also led to its problems. More outfits started sourcing whiskey until the distilleries stopped selling. Goodbye old whisky stocks. Gone are the days of seeing American whiskey well into their teens, much less their 20s. Of course, I can’t forget that Dave Perkins sold High West to Constellation brands.

This High West 21 Rocky Mountain Rye has an abv of 46%. It’s a mashbill of 53% rye, 37% corn and 10% barley. The whiskey is said to be sourced from MGP or Barton. This is from batch #10, bottle number 1284 and initially released in 2009. It’s a 375ml bottle, but I used to have 2 of these. I think I bought a bottle for around $150. It’s not a straight rye whiskey like most rye-based whiskey, but this is still a rye whiskey to me due to the mashbill.

High West Rocky Mountain Rye – review

Color: caramel.

On the nose: a strong and almost annoying backbone of burnt orange peel oil with cinnamon and vanilla. Subtly supported by hints of orgeat, burnt plastic, coconut oil, honey, incomprehensible floral notes.

In the mouth: a big unorganized rush of almond jelly, orange jam, strawberry & cherry jam, honey. Followed by more pleasant yet still lingering flavors of rye, orange marmalade, cinnamon and vanilla. More subtle notes of honey and coconut follow after.

Conclusions

Yes, the nose got too orange-y and cinnamon-y for me but it was still pleasant. In the mouth, it flipped itself 180 degrees. The flavors were softer but more wild. Whatever dominant notes I got on the nose, took a backseat. The more subtle notes took control.

Yipee kay yay. This is the oldest and quite possibly the best rye-based whiskey I’ve tried yet. It drinks like it’s more than 46%. It’s very surprising that this whisky that spent 21 years in used casks did not end up being too oaky. The rye is still very expressive. There’s a lot of balance in this. There’s not much complexity but the flavors really last. It’s something I always expect of American whiskey. Much like the bittersweetness I felt when Bebop ended, it’s also bittersweet that High West will most likely not make whisky like these again.

When will the big American distillers start being “innovative” and make whiskey like these? This essentially tastes like a small batch American whiskey aged in 2nd fill casks. Yes, it’s not a marketable straight whisky. But who cares if this is damn good?!

Score: 9/10

CategoriesAmerican
  1. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    I was on a business trip to Orlando last year, when one evening I simply stopped over at a wine store next to my hotel. I noticed the 375ml version of this sitting by its lonesome in the bottom shelf. Picked it up immediately.

    So what I don’t understand is that now we’re very much in a rye loving time, but the oldest one out there is an 18yr old ( Lock Stock and Barrel, and Whistlepig). Both probably Canadian. Doesn’t Buffalo Trace or Barton or MGP make any older ryes ? ( is the BTAC rye 18 yr old? Not sure)

    1. John
      John says:

      Hi PB,

      The old and big American whisky companies only just started distilling more rye again 5 to 6 years ago. So I think most of the aged and aging stock are just going to the straight rye releases. We will have to wait for another 10 years to see more double digit aged rye.

      The oldest rye whisky I can think of that’s out in the market is the BTAC Sazerac 18. Maybe Michter’s 10 year rye also. But that’s it.

  2. Avatar
    Jon says:

    Hi John I’m somewhat new to the site but I really enjoy your articles and insights. For example Hampden rum will be my next rum purchase.

    One minor correction Bulleit bourbon is actually sourced from Four Roses and the rye from MGP. Actually almost all sourced rye if not Canadian comes from MGP. Four Roses while they make a high rye content bourbon I don’t believe produce a rye whiskey. Both the Canadian and MGP have very high rye content compared to most Kentucky straight rye and both I believe come from barrels originally destined to be part of Canadian style blended whisky.

    When I think of Utah I think of beautiful national parks some of the best in the United States.

    I see bottles of this pictured online and always envy the owners. Wish I was able to pick this up along with some of the other older rye expressions that came about 5+ years ago.

    1. John
      John says:

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for the comment. I must have mixed up those Bulleit facts.
      Any idea what that mashbills of the Canadian whisky are? I’m just remembering now that it’s MGP who has the 95% rye and 5% barley mashbill.

      Cheers

      1. Avatar
        Jon says:

        Hopefully someone more knowledgeable than me can confirm these statements but my understanding is that Canadian rye barrels have a similar very high rye content similar to MGP 95% rye. I believe the MGP rye barrels where intended to be blended into products like Seagrams 7 and both the Canadians and the old Seagrams now MGP distillery in Lawerenceburg follow a similar blending process. That is until MGP realized they could sell these rye barrels to bottlers for a tidy sum.

  3. Tony
    Tony says:

    Hi John,

    Willett actually started sourcing and blending from various distilleries in the 1980s when Even and Martha Kulsveen took over. Their existing labels of Johnny Drum and Old Bardstown switched over to sourced product somewhere after that point. In the 1990s they came out with Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, Kentucky Vintage and Pure Kentucky which were also sourced.

    1. John
      John says:

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for the comment. Any idea when Willet started distilling? If memory is correct, I think High West distilled first which may have influenced KBD to start distilling also. I’m not trying to say your comment is wrong but the “from only sourcing to distilling” part is one of the bigger influences of High West.

      Cheers

      1. Tony
        Tony says:

        Willett originally started distilling in 1937 and stopped in 1980s when Even and Martha bought the distillery from Martha’s father, but it was complicated and apparently the distillery was already sold and they had to start fresh and started sourcing. Their off spring, Drew and Britt, entered the family business in the 2000s and a few years later they started renovating the property and began distilling their own product in 2012. Basically Even wanted to source old whiskey and Willett / KBD and was able to survive the bourbon downturn by becoming popular in the Japanese market and when Drew and Britt got involved they wanted to distill again.

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