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Whiskey maker raises cash

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

With $3 million, David Perkins could buy bottle after bottle of whiskey.

Instead, he plans to make the stuff.

Perkins is the entrepreneur in talks with City Hall to purchase the landmark Watts property on Park Avenue, near the Town Lift, and then turn it into a whiskey distillery.

The local government owns the property and intends to sell it to Perkins for the distillery. The deal was struck months ago but the sides have not closed yet.

Perkins, though, reports that he has raised $3 million for the purchase and the start of the distillery, which he renamed High West Distillery. It was previously called Quaking Aspen Distilleries.

He wants to find another $2 million from investors but says he can start High West with the capital he secured since starting to raise money in September. Perkins says the $3 million enables him to close the purchase.

He expects to close on the property within a couple months and, depending on the necessary City Hall development approvals, plans to start construction at the site at about the same time.

"It’s upscale. It will be like a brew pub but it’s a distillery," he says. "This isn’t for shots. This is for people to enjoy and have a nice time."

The city and Perkins agreed on a $1,435,000 price tag for the property, 703 Park Ave. The deal includes the Park Avenue-facing National Garage and a house next door. The garage is among the most famous historic buildings in Park City.

The local government bought them in 1997 from Burnis Watts for $920,000. The Park City Council chose the distillery idea over others, including one that would have turned the property into a glass-blowing studio.

Perkins won another key vote from City Hall in 2006, when the Planning Commission approved the development proposal to turn the property into a distillery. It was approved unanimously and it did not face organized opposition. The Planning Department expects that Perkins’ blueprints to ensure the buildings retain their historic feel will be approved by mid-February.

Perkins wants to dig basements under the garage and the house and then put the buildings back, roughly 10,000 square feet combined. He says the distillery equipment would be put in the basement. In the garage would be space for events like concerts and weddings and in the house Perkins is considering opening a private club.

He plans to serve the house whiskey, wine, beer and others’ liquor, perhaps whiskeys from abroad. He wants to offer tours and provide imbibers a tasting room and tapas.

He says High West will make a type of bourbon, a scotch, a type of vodka and a rye whiskey. The vodka, which has not been widely publicized, can be made more quickly than the whiskies and will allow Perkins to sell the liquor earlier.

"We’ve got to run a business. We have to make money," he says, adding that focus groups in Park City requested High West make a vodka.

He traveled to whiskey country to learn how brands are made in Tennessee and Kentucky and Perkins holds state and federal permits that allow him to test recipes but he must obtain further permits to run the permanent operation.

He expects that the products will compete with what he describes as "ultra-premium spirits," with bottles selling for more than $30. He wants to launch the whiskey in Park City and expand to places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Perkins is entering a burgeoning business, creating what is known in the industry as craft whiskeys. The distillers are following the national boom in microbreweries and small wineries.

"Everybody else has been through the renaissance, now the craft distilling is going through it," says Bill Owens, the president of the American Distillery Institute in Haywood, Calif., an industry group.

Owens says, nationally, there are 88 craft distilleries making spirits, mainly rum, gin and whiskey. They are mostly on the coasts, where he says wineries and breweries have been most successful. He says there are two or three creating craft whiskey, like Perkins plans to do.

"It’s interesting. It’s hand-crafted," Owens says. "Otherwise, you walk into the supermarket and go home."

The High West idea was widely praised when the City Council picked Perkins over the others. It is seen as a means to make the Main Street area, already a hopping place much of the year, even more exciting. The distillery also could, the supporters hope, help dismiss concerns by tourists that getting drinks in Utah, with its notoriously strict liquor laws, is cumbersome.

"It was a passion. I like the product," Perkins says. "It started when I went to a distillery in Kentucky."


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