Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a bar located in an early-20th Century horse livery that often has a two-hour wait to get inside.
NAME: High West Saloon
LOCATION: Park City, Utah
ON THE JUKEBOX: Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): High West 101 Flight: Tastings of American Prairie bourbon, Double Rye! whiskey, Rendezvous Rye whiskey and Campfire whiskey
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Dead Man’s Boots cocktail: Rendezvous Rye, El Jimador Reposado tequila, lime juice, simple syrup, Fever-Tree ginger beer
WHY WE LOVE IT: There are very few topics that you aren’t allowed to discuss in bars. But at High West Saloon in Park City, Utah, the things you can’t say get very technical. “We can’t call a drink split-base,” co-bar manager Steve Walton says, referring to the terminology used when a cocktail includes two spirits. “We are splitting the bases of the liquor in some cocktails, and you would call it that at any other bar, but technically we can’t call it that in Utah.”
Utah, for those who have never ordered a drink within its borders, has very strict liquor laws that put serious constraints on its cocktail bars. For one, a cocktail can only include 1½ ounces of a single base spirit. Want a shot? You get a 1½-ounce pour. Want a whiskey and Coke? That’ll be a 1½-ounce pour. You can order a beer and a shot together, but you cannot have two liquored drinks in front of you at a time. And don’t even think about ordering a double.
“The principle of the law is honorable, to slow down consumption,” Walton says. “But the funny thing is it actually speeds it up. People drink their drinks twice as fast as they would have if they had just gotten the double. Because when you tell someone they can’t have that second drink until the first one’s gone, they’ll pound the rest of that first drink to get the second one.”
This very noticeable regulation often gives visitors the impression that they can’t get a good drink—a strong drink—in the ski resort town of Park City. “It’s a terrible misconception,” Walton says. “It really just depends on the establishment that you go to. Every night we have to go through the whole process with people. It gets the whole bar talking and it’s part of the charm now.”
And this is where High West Saloon, the Western-themed craft cocktail bar connected to High West whiskey and vodka distillery, differs from other bars. Not only is it the only ski-in gastro-distillery in the world, but also its bartenders are highly adept at finessing cocktail recipes to serve delicious—and surprisingly alcohol-forward—drinks that are hard to find elsewhere in the state. Here’s where Walton, who co-manages the bar with Holly Booth, gets creative: If you are making a mixed drink or cocktail, yes, you are only legally allowed to use 1½ ounces of the base spirit. But you are permitted to add up to another whole ounce of alcohol, referred to as “flavorings,” of liqueurs or even other spirits entirely, for a total alcohol content of 2½ ounces. (You cannot use the same kind of spirit in the base as in the flavoring; like you can’t use two different brands of vodka in one martini.)
Take High West’s Dead Man’s Boots cocktail, for example. It contains 1½ ounces of rye for its base, and is then flavored with 1 ounce of tequila. Or the saloon’s Old Fashioned, which is made with 1½ ounces of High West’s Double Rye (which is classified as a rye whiskey) and is then flavored with 1 ounce of High West’s American Prairie (which is classified as a bourbon). “In order to make what is considered a normal drink outside of Utah, you have to add that 1 ounce of flavoring,” Walton says. “Ninety-five percent of the drinks we serve at High West go to the full 2½ ounces. Not too many other cocktail bars want to even deal with the problems that occur with the flavorings.”
Another challenge that many other cocktail bars in Utah don’t even want to deal with is specialty products. All alcohol bars sell must first go through the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and many items, such as amaro, have to be specialty ordered. High West specialty orders a lot of things, but the team never really knows when they’re going to arrive. It often takes three months.
“Having specialty products makes our bar different than others, but the downside is you can’t just order a bottle at a time; you have to get a case,” Walton says. “So when you’re creating a cocktail menu for a specific season, you’ve got so many different things that you have to consider. Is this going to be a popular cocktail? How much do I have to order to be able to last three months? You don’t want to get halfway through a busy winter season and you have all of these cool products that you can’t buy in the state of Utah, and then they all run out and you’ve lost half of your menu.”
This law is also why the saloon cannot sample new products made at the distillery downstairs; every product it sells has to already have a label on it and have passed through the liquor control department. “We are our own biggest customer,” Walton says, laughing. Nevertheless, you can take a free tour of the distillery and taste a few samples ($3 for a ½-ounce pour).
“For us it’s not just about craft cocktails, but also educating people about whiskey,” Walton says. “We want to give them an experience. Our goal is to create High West missionaries.” After a night at this resourceful saloon, you’ll probably go home preaching the gospel of High West, too.
Alyson Sheppard writes about bars and restaurants for Playboy.com. She warms a barstool at High West every winter. Find her on Twitter: @amshep