I sampled these four Utah whiskeys during a virtual tasting recently. Pam LeBlanc photo
Since the pandemic, I’ve been holed up in my house, writing most days and sneaking out to swim in the lake, and, well, sampling a lot of booze.
I’m not just tossing the strong drink back to numb the pain of the pandemic, though. I’m trying to educating myself about what I’m sipping.
A few weeks ago, I focused on whiskey. Jim Santangelo, a sommelier and instructor at the Wine Academy of Utah, also knows a lot about liquor, so I signed up for his online “Whiskey and History” session. The kind folks from Utah shipped me four bottles to try, and Santangelo led a Zoom session during which we tasted them and discussed the history of alcohol in Utah. (To sign up for your own tasting, go to www.wineacademyofutah.com.)
Like some of the other folks in our class, I had assumed that Salt Lake City, with its strong Mormon roots, didn’t have a long romance with alcohol. As it turns out, it does.
At first, the city was mainly a pass-through town on the way to Cheyenne and Reno. It grew quickly in the 1850s and ‘60s, though, as the railroad and mining industries in the area boomed. All those workers needed a little booze to keep them going, and many Mormons consumed alcohol “for medicinal purposes.” Dozens of distilleries, wineries and breweries – 80 percent of them owned by Mormons, according to Santangelo – popped up in the area. Even Brigham Young began making and bottling his own version of liquor, called Valley Tan Whiskey.
But in the early 1900s, Utah saw a wave of temperance. Prohibition started in 1919 and lasted until 1933. After that, Utah never really jumped back into the booze business. Mine work slowed, the golden spike connected railroads from the east and west, and the mass of workers needing a drink faded.
“Utah and Salt Lake City kind of lost their taste for alcohol,” Santangelo said. “It wasn’t until 2007 that they got their first distillery, and that was High West.”
I love High West, for the record. I’ve visited the distillery, in Park City, twice – once on snow skis and once on a bicycle.
Today, 18 distilleries operate around the state. “What I love is they’re using regionally local grains and ground water from the Wasatch snowmelt,” Santangelo says.
We tasted four of them.
1. First on our list? Hugh Moon, a clear (yes, like water) whiskey made by Dented Brick Distillery and named for the first distiller of record in Utah, the one and only Hugh Moon. Dented Brick Distillery operates at the exact site of that old distillery, and the Hugh Moon is made with the original recipe for rye whiskey made there a century ago. It’s made with 100 percent rye grain and distilled in steel containers. Since by definition whiskey must spend time in a wooden cask – and the rules don’t say for how long – it’s poured into one and rolled across the distillery floor. It’s unaged. “The taste of history,” Santangelo says, noting the slight biscuit cookie aromatic. “No darkening from the wood.” To me, it tastes a tad chemically and harsh, but I like it better when I splash a little water in it.
2. Next up? Robbers Roost, a light whiskey by Water Pocket Distillery, named after a geologic formation at Capitol Reef National Park where Butch Cassidy reportedly once hung out. The color looks more whiskey-like, a light caramel tint from spending two years in aged barrels purchased by the distillery from Seagrams. “Just a kiss of that wood” imparts a warmth to this whiskey, and I detect a hint of vanilla and even coconut. It smells luscious, like toffee – much sweeter on the palate than the clear stuff. I like it. A lot.
3. Now comes Sugar House bourbon, made with locally grown corn and aged in charred barrels made of new American oak. It’s darker than the last one, and tastes a tad like crème brulee, with a touch of cinnamon and spice. It’s even better – and quite butterscotchy – when I stir in some water. It surprises me how much just a splash changes the taste of whiskey. This one’s really good, but I still prefer the Robbers Roost.
4. We wrap up with my old friend High West, but I’ve never sampled their double rye (“twice the rye, twice the flavor”), which is aged in oak barrels and tastes like someone swirled a cinnamon stick in it. “It makes a heck of a cocktail,” Santangelo says. It makes a heck of an everything, actually. I like it poured over a giant cube of ice, at the end of a rough day.