Like bourbon? Like rye? Like Scotch? How about all three? At the same time!? Maybe!
High West is the Compass Box of rye whiskey. They’re a niche blending outfit based in Utah that sources other people’s good whiskey to make their own great whiskey. But where Compass Box focuses on hipster “bespoke craft” marketing, High West is a little more laid back, with an easy Southern charm and a heightened sense of zero-shits-given. Imagine John Glaser had a lazy drawl, a cowboy hat, about a hundred extra kilos around his belly and a boisterous Santa laugh.
They make highly regarded blends chiefly using combinations of straight rye, with lots of experimentation with casks, ages, bourbons and even more exotic ingredients. Campfire is one of those award winning blends. Combining 5-8 year-old straight rye, straight bourbon and peated Scotch whisky (woah) in secret proportions, bottled naturally and at a decent 46% ABV. This already ticks so many boxes from the outset it’s crazy. Hit it!
Golden amber, like a crackling fire on the prairie. Or an imprisoned dinosaur-DNA-carrying mosquito.
As you might expect, Campfire is both smoky and woody. That mystery malt is doing great work here, in and amongst the spicy paprika and cloves of the rye. But without a doubt the dominant smell is fruity – rich red fruits, pineapple, pears. Vanilla, toffee and pepper. Sweet bourbon, caramel and something a little minty. Wow.
Truly bloody brilliant blending. Nom nom nom! It feels like none of the three components are fighting for attention, and every time you focus on one flavour the others pull you back into the mix. This makes it very tough to unpack, but there are some clear highlights:
The softest, most laid-back peat. Presumably due to quantity – I doubt there’s much of that blended malt in here, but like Highland Park they know how to use it cautiously and carefully. A strong, but not overpowering rye spice which tingles the tongue, together with something that I can only describe as “sherried” – raisins, citrus, a little raspberry. Chewy. And less sweet than the smell or the bourbon might have you believe. If you find bourbon too sweet, Campfire might be right up your alley – think less “golden syrup” and more “maple syrup” – you get some bitterness in there to keep the sugar at arm’s length.
A lingering, salty Talisker-esque finish makes it a slow drink… but forget about campfires. This one deserves to be cracked open in front of a braai fire, while you wait 4 hours for the potjie to finish (but it’s cool, you filled up on potato salad and Lays anyway). The sun should ideally be setting or have set, and everyone should be three or four drinks in and conversationed-out, sitting in companionable silence and/or shared animosity. Fantastic.
Oh yeah! Talk about versatility – you get a lot of options here. Neat, it’s a darkly brooding drink. But it also swims with style, so throw in some ice to dial down the ABV to make it an easy-sipping sundowner.
Campfire is truly an exceptional drink. It does a lot of things very well, and is a great example of how careful blending can take wildly different flavours and just make them work. Delicious, rich and rewarding.
In terms of price it’s a no brainer, particularly if you live in the States and can get this stuff whenever the fancy takes you. The rest of us will have to take what we can get, and deal with the import duties and exchange rates as part of the package. Even so, it’s worth every cent. Get some!