High West Campfire

The Utah-based distillery High West has rapidly made a name for themselves among American whisky enthusiasts. They offer a range of innovative products, many of which are largely based on blends of sourced products, while they wait for their own distilled whisky to mature.  I’ve tried a couple of different bottlings over the years, and have generally been impressed with the quality for the price.

The latest (first?) High West product to reach the LCBO here in Ontario is Campfire – a blend of peated Scotch malt, straight bourbon and straight rye whiskies. That’s certainly an unusual mix – I don’t think I’ve seen American bourbon or rye blended with peated malt whisky before (e.g., Westland Peated is an actual peated malt whisky made in the USA).

The main source for most of High West’s American whiskies is MGP – specifically, the Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana plant, which was formerly Seagrams. In this Campfire blend, the mash bill for the MGP bourbon is 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley. The rye was originally all from MGP, 95% rye and 5% malted barley. But High West recently adjusted the recipe to include some of their own-make rye, which is reported as 80% rye and 20% malted rye (relative proportion of the different component whiskies is unknown). And the blended malt Scotch whisky is 100% peated malted barley (undisclosed origin, but High West claims it is not Islay malt). All whiskeys were reported as at least 5 years old originally, but High West now claims “ranging in age from 4-8 years old” (the reduced minimum age likely reflects addition of their own juice). It is all aged in a mix of charred virgin white American oak barrels, as well as refill bourbon barrels

I picked up a bottle recently for $70 CAD. Bottled at 45.95% ABV. My batch is 19H16 (so, bottled August 16, 2019), and is thus presumed to have some of the actual High West rye juice in the bottle.

As an aside, although the LCBO doesn’t have the widest selection of American whiskies, what they do get is available at very good prices typically. Indeed, the LCBO is one of the cheapest places in Canada to buy American whisky. This is as low as I’ve seen Campfire in my travels, adjusting for currency fluctuations.

Here is how the various High West products stack up in my Meta-Critic Database:

High West American Prairie: 8.35 ± 0.59 on 11 reviews ($$$)
High West Bourye: 8.72 ± 0.35 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
High West Campfire: 8.73 ± 0.30 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
High West Double Rye (all bottlings): 8.70 ± 0.32 on 21 reviews ($$)
High West Double Rye (new recipe, post-2018): 8.85 ± 0.33 on 4 reviews ($$)
High West Double Rye (pre-2018): 8.69 ± 0.32 on 19 reviews ($$)
High West Double Rye Campfire Barrel: 8.47 ± 0.36 on 6 reviews ($$$)
High West Double Rye Manhattan Barrel: 8.75 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$)
High West Midwinter Night’s Dram Rye: 9.06 ± 0.17 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
High West Rendezvous Rye (all bottlings): 8.91 ± 0.28 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
High West Rendezvous Rye (pre-2018): 8.91 ± 0.28 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
High West Rocky Mountain Rye 16yo: 9.09 ± 0.35 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21yo: 9.13 ± 0.26 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
High West Son of Bourye: 8.42 ± 0.43 on 12 reviews ($$$)
High West Yippee Ki-Yay: 8.61 ± 0.65 on 13 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Yep, that’s peated alright. Nice medium level of smoke (campfire indeed) and some earthy peat upfront. Honey and caramel sweetness right behind. Smoked ham. Barrel char (but could be from the peated malt). Not really getting a lot of rye spices, they seem to be subdued by the peat and bourbon. Not much fruit either, maybe caramel apple and peaches. Reminds me of a young peated malt aged in ex-bourbon barrels, like Paul John Bold. It’s nice, but I was hoping for a little more spice, or aged bourbon “oomph”.

Palate: Honey and apple juice. Vanilla and light caramel. Golden raisins. Citrus. Cinnamon shows up now, fairly prominent. Light mouthfeel, almost watery, despite the extra ABV. Dusty rye on the swallow, with dry, wafting smoke. Kind of the reverse of the nose – the bourbon influence seems very light here, with more rye and lightly peated malted barley.

Finish: Medium. Classic light lingering smoke, somewhat Bruichladdich-like. Honeycomb cereal. Slight artificial sweetener note at the end, slightly saccharine. Pretty basic.

I see a lot of comments in online reviews about how well integrated or “balanced” this whisky is. Personally, I find it a bit disjointed and inconsistent, with different flavours competing with one another at different times. Decent enough nose, but less satisfying in the mouth, being lighter than I expected. The flavours dissipate fairly rapidly too. That said, it is nice and easy to drink overall, and extinguished campfire is a good way to describe the smoke level. Think Bruichladdich Classic Laddie with extra honey and cinnamon.

The highest score I’ve seen comes from Josh the Whiskey Jug, followed by Jim Murray, Margarett of Whiskey Wash, Adam/Susannah of Whisky Advocate and John of the Whiskey Reviewer. More moderately positive is Jason of In Search of Elegance. Slightly below average scores come from John of Whisky Advocate, Andre/Patrick of Quebec Whisky and Ralfy (and I find myself in this company). On Reddit, MajorHop and xile_ are fans, whereas TOModera and Ethanized both give it lower scores (most reviewers there tend to be mildly positive overall). An interesting blend to be sure, but I think the consensus score is a little on the high side.

3 comments

  • My preference. It’s not a sipping whisky. Be a cowboy and sling it back shooter style. That’ll put a giddy-up in ya!

  • Thanks for the review. I recently purchased a 2020 bottling of Campfire and it was so bad that I returned it. The liquor store actually let me exchange for a new bottle but I fear that it will taste the same. The new bottle is 20A14 so January 14, 2020??? If you have tried any 2020 bottles of Campfire can you comment? I hope I just got one bad bottle and the rest is as good as previous bottles have been.

    • What did you not like about it? Odds are you wouldn’t care of the replacement batch either – unless something went specifically wrong with your first bottle (i.e., bad seal, exposed to heat/sunlight). I imagine they try to keep reasonably good consistency between batches, but I have not tried multiple versions.

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