Backroading It in a 2013 Volvo S60

We drive through Utah's national parks in search of the Valley Tan

By Jason Davis | Photos By Jason Davis | November 14, 2012

Park City

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that my first stop was to the High West Distillery and Saloon in Park City, about an hour's drive east of Salt Lake City, to sample the "Valley Tan," a Mormon whiskey made famous by Mark Twain's 1872 travelogue, Roughing It. I had read Roughing It in college and adored Twain's many imaginative characterizations and descriptions of the alien-to-him landscape of the pre-Civil War west, but it was his account of the drink that most captured my attention.
In 1861, during his first night in Salt Lake, Twain wrote of an encounter with fellow overland stagecoach passenger, Bemis:
Valley Tan (or, at least, one form of valley tan) is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah. Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone. If I remember rightly no public drinking saloons were allowed in the kingdom of Brigham Young, and no private drinking permitted among the faithful, except that they confined themselves to "valley tan."
I thought it would make for great story -- to quench my historical curiosity, of course -- to sample this magical drink and count it among a handful of experiences from my exploration of America's last great frontier. But where was it? Aside from Twain's account, I found only one example that outlasted Prohibition, and it came from an unlikely source: the High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, a relative newcomer to the whiskey scene. Unfortunately, I learned upon my visit that the 2011 small-batch release sold out in just three days. After an early lunch in the saloon, Terry Ginsberg, a High West Tour Ambassador, led me on a personal tour of the distillery. There, I learned that Park City was once a booming mining town, but when the silver economy tanked at the outset of the Great War, early residents and city officials successfully transformed the town into a skiing and tourist resort (Park City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, and is home to the Sundance Film Festival). Of course, this only adds to High West's charm -- it doesn't look like it belongs in Park City. It's nestled at exactly 7,000 feet altitude a short distance from State Route 224, and is uniquely situated in refurbished old town. From the street, it's easy to miss. If not for the small horseshoe sign hanging from one of the front doors, it could easily be mistaken for a cozy bed and breakfast. After becoming Utah's first legal distillery since the 1870s, High West now boasts being the world's only ski-in saloon where, after a day on the slopes, thirsty skiers need only cross the street to fire into the livery stable for a "squar" of Rye. This was puzzling to me as it contradicted every one of my simpleton and paradoxical perceptions of Mormon Utah and its liquor laws. But Utah's liquor history is hardly different than any other western settlement. From the 1820s to 1840s, Utah and Wyoming settlers convened every year for the summer "rendezvous" to exchange pelts and supplies, including alcohol. By 1850, the first two breweries opened in Salt Lake, and by 1860, a year before Twain left Missouri, the British adventurer, Captain Richard F. Burton, is said to have been introduced to Brigham Young, and traded valley tan shots with Brigham's bodyguard, the US Marshall, Mormon "Destroying Angel," and hotelier and distilling entrepreneur, Orin Porter Rockwell. Although Joseph Smith, patriarch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, abstained from alcohol, and first claimed in 1833 that Mormons should also, the first generation Mormon settlers to Utah (Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847) made no such secret for their love of "strong drink." And curiously, Brigham Young -- Smith's de facto heir apparent to the theocratic, Mormon throne -- owned and operated his own distillery (of which he claimed never to have tasted) to increase church profits, despite being on the record saying, "If I had the power, I would blow out the brains of every thief in the territory, and I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves." By 1917, Utah was dry, but Terry, my Tour Ambassador, had reminded me that Mormon-heavy Utah cast the thirty-sixth and deciding vote in 1933 to ratify the 21st Amendment, officially repealing Prohibition. High West didn't have Twain's fantastical whiskey, and its other spirits were no less appealing. But I still wanted a Valley Tan.
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