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Review: High West Campfire

One late April evening I was in a peated scotch whiskey mood. That’s somewhat rare. I’m not overly fond of peaty whiskies. I tend to feel the phenols overpower the subtle sweetness and fruitiness of the malt. There are a few that I do enjoy however. On this particular evening I was sipping the last of my Compass Box Flaming Heart, and moving my way into a pour of Compass Box Peat Monster. What I enjoy about these two whiskies is the peat presence is absolutely felt, but not at the expense of the malt, the fruit, and the toffee. In short they are balanced.

As I continued sipping, pondering Compass Box’s ways with the art of blending whiskey, I thought, “Geez, why doesn’t a distiller or independent bottler in the U.S. get a hold of some peated malt whiskey to add to a bourbon blend?” To me it just made sense – the rich, sweet, and sometimes spicy qualities of the bourbon seems like a perfect compliment to the smoky quality of a well made peated malt. I quickly dismissed the thought, “that would be way too costly.”

About a week later I received an email from David Perkins, proprietor of High West Saloon and Distillery. After a relatively tame 2011 (by High West standards) Perkins and co. were working on a new whiskey release called Campfire Whiskey. David explained that High West had finished the blending of 3 different batches of Campfire Whiskey and wondered if I would be interested in trying them along with some fellow enthusiasts.

A sample tasting ensued and I was able to try each of the blends. My favorite, oddly enough, happened to be the one (Sample C) with the highest percentage of peated whiskey in the blend. High West however was going after a much more subtle peat influence, and selected Sample A for public release. In hindsight – probably the smarter move, but more on that later.

Here’s the gist of Campfire Whiskey. Its a blend of a six year old bourbon distilled and aged at Midwest Grain Products (Formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana or LDI), a 5.5 year old rye whiskey also distilled at the former LDI and aged in the upper floors of the famed Stitzel Weller Warehouses in Kentucky, and finally an 8 year old peated Scotch whiskey from the Scottish mainland. Global blending anyone???

David Perkins is not at liberty to divulge the origins of the peated whiskey based on agreements (understandings rather) with the source distillery. And honestly, I’m sure some will complain about that, but I can live with not knowing. What I do know is High West is the first American Distillery (that I can recall) to produce a blended whiskey of this type.

It’s a wildly unconventional blend, and has a name that pays homage to the peat contained within. How does it taste?

High West Campfire Whiskey, 46% abv (92 Proof), $49.99/bottle

Color: Deep Golden/Amber

Nose: Bright and fruity up front with a tang of honey, golden dried fruits (apricot, apple, peach), hints of cinnamon, toffee, and only a lingering peat smoke note. The peat is faint as a whisper on the nose, but very much threaded throughout.

Palate: The bourbon and rye influence is felt first, balancing honey, dried golden fruits, and vanilla with a spark of the rye spices. There’s a bit more “zip” in the spice quotient on the palate. As these flavors fade, the smoke and peat adds a great deal of interest and needed complexity.

Finish: Quite fruity with lingering peat and a smoky quality.

Overall: Leave it to a bunch of whiskey outlaws in Utah to spit in the eye of conventional whiskey blending. The result is without question one of the most groundbreaking whiskeys of recent years. Overly dramatic? I don’t think so. High West has managed to “mingle” (Jim Rutledge term) global whiskeys into something that stands on it’s own. It’s not overly complex, but it works well together. I know what you may be thinking. This is a gimmick right? No, it’s not. Rather than be heavy handed with the peat, High West has shown a great deal of restraint with Campfire. The result is a whiskey that is livened up and made far more interesting with a kiss of peat. Unlike the name implies – there’s no fire here, just great whiskey.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

25 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Sounds like something I will be on the look out for. How large will the release be? I am wondering if I’ll see it here in PA.

  2. DBMaster says:

    This post inspired me to try something different as well. I have been enjoying a new “triple malt” blend recently introduced in Texas called Monkey Shoulder. It is a blend of three malts; Kininvie, Balvenie, and Glenfiddich. At $26.99 a 750 it is an excellent deal. I had a bit of Dickel No. 12 around and tried my own blend. Not bad at all. Of course, Speyside malts are not peaty, but the sweetness went well with Dickel.

    Moral: Don’t be afraid to experiment and there is nothing sacred in whisk(e)y.

  3. Ford says:

    I got wind of Campfire through K & L last week and just this very night picked up a bottle. Will be trying it in less than an hour.

  4. Jeffitaph says:

    Jason, your timing is impeccable. Just yesterday, I ordered a bottle through K&L, and should receive it next week (they had to ship it down to LA from San Francisco). Now, I am even more excited than I was yesterday!

  5. Lazer says:

    This definitely looks like its worth a try. The only problem is that my regular local stores usually don’t have high west products so its going to take some searching on my part to get my hands on it.

  6. sam k says:

    I too was privileged to have tasted the Campfire samples prior to the selection. i chose the same blend David & Co. did, and I thought it was outstanding.

    I’m making a trip to Park City in August and am looking forward to it immensely. The creativity flying around at High West has to be palpable!

    Chris, I’m betting that the PLCB will have this available online or by SLO (Special Liquor Order) through your local. They have a good selection of other High West whiskeys available that way.

  7. Ford says:

    I tried it and liked it, but if blindfolded, never would have picked out the peat. Mind you, I am a newbie, but I have experimented quite a bit in my short “career” including heavy on the smoke scotches like Ardbeg and Laphroig. Maybe that’s why I missed the subtle “kiss” of peat as Jason called it. I will give it another try. Mind you, I am not being critical, it’s just an observation. Overall, I found Campfire to be very enjoyable.

  8. DramMan says:

    I’ve been doing a similar type of “mingling” by adding a mildly-peated whisky (called Smokehead) with strongly-spiced Mount Gay Extra Old rum. The strong spices of the rum mix beautifully with the milder peat to form a delicious combination (a “rumsky”). The opposite type of mingling works well, too, i.e., a strongly-peated whisky mixed with a mildly spiced or sweet bourbon. But mingling two strong beverages, e.g., a strongly-peated whisky with an ultra-sweet bourbon or spicy rum, doesn’t work very well. The two strong flavors battle each other for your attention and don’t produce an enjoyable and balanced combination. Strong/mild (or dominate/submissive) combinations seem to work the best.

  9. JSJ says:

    I’m only one pour into my bottle and it wasn’t love at first drink but it may just grow on me. I really dislike the green/grassy notes in rye whiskeys with such high rye content as was used here but the bourbon and scotch take just enough edge off.

  10. Franco C. says:

    Jason, this is so exciting! I love bucking convention and that’s what this is!
    I’m purchasing this ASAP.

  11. Ford and JSJ – thanks for the feedback guys.

  12. Vinny says:

    Can’t wait to try this. But it raises an obvious question, has anyone made
    a smoked bourbon or rye? The corn might not take to smoking well but certainly the rye and obviously the barley will.

  13. Jon says:

    Well, lets see. I like scotch. I like Bourbon. Mixing them… Sounds like a good idea. unfortunately I think I will never see this in our ABC stores in Alabama :(

  14. Vinny, MB Rowland distillery has a smoked corn white dog. It’s very unique and quite good. Not something I’d like to sip a lot of but cool stuff.

  15. Jason, your notes were so good, I had to resort to fiction to describe this frankenwhiskey (actually, there’s an idea…). It’s intriguing for sure, a must try for whiskey geeks everywhere.
    http://www.thirstysouth.com/2012/07/11/high-west-campfire-whiskey-review/

    As for comments above – Corsair Artisan has done some really interesting things – Triple Smoke most prominently. Here’s their note on it: “We take three fractions of malted barley, each smoked by a different fuel – cherry wood, peat, and beechwood – to craft this deeply complex whiskey. Pot distilled then barreled in new charred oak, Triple Smoke has the sweetness and barrel notes of an American Whiskey and a single malt’s rich smoke, broadened by tones of cherry and beech. Excellent mixed or neat.”

  16. Brad, great point on Corsair. I honestly need to spend some more time with their stuff and get more acquainted. Darek has asked me to come on over there a time or three. It’s right up the road.

    And great post by the way. Good stuff!

  17. GQuiz says:

    Thought I could grab a bottle in Boise… Only 340 miles from Salt Lake… Thought wrong. Idaho state stores have a very weak selection.

  18. GQuiz says:

    I even drove into Oregon… No luck. I’ll keep trying.

  19. Inglefinger says:

    Just cracked my bottle on Friday. I was very pleased with the outcome, though for my palate the rye was a bit hot. Wish I could have tried the ‘B’ and ‘C’ blends. Overall it hits all the right notes of sweet and smokey that I’ve been looking for in a whiskey. Thanks for the suggestions on the other distilleries.

  20. Larry Foote says:

    I picked up a bottle of Campfire on a ski trip to Dillon, CO last week. Always like to look for something new and I’ve been a fan of High West since I tried their Rendezvous Rye a few years ago.

    At first, I thought it might be a little bit of a gimmick blend with the rye, bourbon, and scotch. Is it whiskey or whisky or both at the same time?

    The nose gives just a hint of the character, with a rye spice and a bit of smoke. The rye hits first, followed quickly by the sweet apricot and vanilla of bourbon, and then the light peaty smoke lingers bringing out the subtle characteristics of the blend in the ultra-smooth finish.

    It’s a very good blend – a ménage à trois that works so well.

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  22. Really enjoy your reviews. Best on the internet. High West is superb. Love what those folks in Park City are doing to show the world American whiskey!

  23. Love your comments. Best on the internet. High West great American whiskey! If you haven’t try some. No try them all.

  24. JW says:

    Was in Park City to ski, stumbled upon High West Distilery just sight-seeing, and tried a sampler. Campfire blew me away! Bought a bottle immediately and packed it in suitcase. Have already bought three more bottles (while in CA on biz) while still savoring bottle #1 at home (NC). A “must try” if you have not yet…

  25. EMShea says:

    Good review. I am a bourbon man so the scotch influence really jumped out at me. But! I think the Campfire may serve finally as my gateway to scotch, which has eluded me thus far in life.

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