I probably don’t need to tell you who David Perkins is, but here goes. A true craft whiskey pioneer, he founded High West Distillery in Park City, Utah way back in 2006, practically an eternity ago in the craft distilling world. Over the course of ten years, he built High West into one of the most recognized and well-regarded craft brands in the country and was rewarded for his efforts when the distillery was acquired in 2016 by Constellation Brands. But even before that sale, as I found out during our interview, David was keeping an eye out for his next whiskey project.
After a few years of retirement, presumably spent skiing and doing crosswords, David started to dip his toe back into the distilling world. If you’ve ever met him or heard him speak, you can probably understand why someone with so much energy and enthusiasm for the industry couldn’t stay retired for long. In 2021, he made his biggest comeback move yet, taking up the somewhat obscure title of Liquid Collaborator and Advisor at O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company. The Minneapolis-based distillery is helmed by another whiskey legend, Brian Nation, who previously oversaw production for iconic Irish whiskey brands like Jameson and Redbreast. With David’s arrival their production team became doubly impressive, especially for such an upstart distillery. O’Shaughnessy’s Keeper’s Heart brand, a purposeful blend of Irish and American whiskey-making traditions, reflects both of their respective backgrounds and estimable talents. We caught up with David last fall to talk about his return to craft distilling and this new, unique brand.
This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: Before we dive into Keeper’s Heart, let’s talk about your early “retirement” after the Constellation purchase. Did you do any advising for High West or other brands?
David: No. No. They bought it lock, stock, and barrel, so it was time to move on. When you’ve been the boss, it’s one thing. When you’re not the boss, no way. But I’ve been working with several other spirits firms. Keeper’s Heart is probably my favorite. I’m doing a rum, an agricole on the Big Island. I’m doing an American malt whiskey out of San Jose. Actually, I did a beer with Constellation’s Ballast Point a while back before it was sold, a barrel-aged lager. Didn’t really go anywhere because Corona was really their thing.
Drinkhacker: So, it clearly hasn’t all been Mai Tais and ski trips for you in retirement. How did you come to team up with O’Shaughnessy?
David: What drew me to the distillery was Brian [Nation] and the people behind the brand. Brian and I met a long time ago. When I was with High West, I was visiting all the distillers and met Brian at Midleton. I had a man crush immediately. We kept in touch over the years. The guys that started O’Shaughnessy called me when they were thinking of this, and they asked who I would recommend. I told them my two cents and promptly forgot about them until a few years later when they called me to say they’d hired Brian and asked if I would like to join. Brian and I got together then and talked about “Irish-izing” American whiskey and “American-izing” Irish whiskey, and that was the start of Keeper’s Heart.
Drinkhacker: What was your experience with Irish whiskey before joining O’Shaughnessy?
David: Little to no experience with Irish whiskey and absolutely zero expertise on it except for, you know, I drank it. Under Brian’s umbrella [at Midleton] there were 20 different whiskeys. It’s all pretty confusing. It’s still hard today for me to really understand. He explains it to me, and I get it, but it sure would be nice if they explained it better. There’s the Redbreast, the Powers, the Green Spot, the Yellow Spot. And you’re like what the heck is the difference between all of these? And you know single pot is not really single pot, it’s triple pot, but we won’t get into that conversation. And then Irish pot whiskey, if they made it in America, would actually be classified as light whiskey because they distill it to over 80%. It’s a lower congener whiskey and very smooth for that reason.
Drinkhacker: Irish whiskey is definitely more complex than most drinkers realize. Currently, Keeper’s Heart is a sourced blend, correct?
David: Yeah. When they got started, they didn’t really plan to do an outsourced blend. I’m not sure where the idea for Keeper’s Heart came from, but it came very early in the process. When I talked to them, maybe 10 years ago, they asked me how I would do it. I said I didn’t want to get into business unless I was making our own thing, but I discovered pretty quickly it’s hard to make payroll unless you’re selling something. When High West started, sourced was a dirty word.
Drinkhacker: Consumers have come a long way since then. Tell us about the current lineup.
David: We’ve got the Irish + American and Irish + Bourbon, each of them have three components: Irish pot, Irish grain, and either bourbon or rye, both sourced from MGP. The pot [whiskey] really impressed me. There’s nothing like blending something to learn what you’re really tasting. The pot is from Great Northern Distillery in Ireland, and it has this amazing, lovely oily finish, that really gives both of these whiskeys a lot of body. The bourbon is packed with flavor and so is the rye, but the pot gives it this long, long finish and to be honest with you, I can’t tell you how often I grab for one of these bottles just for that. These aren’t fancy $150 whiskeys. It’s a nice-priced house whiskey, and I really enjoy them.
Drinkhacker: Any particular reason you chose MGP as the source for the American whiskey in Keeper’s Heart?
David: We tasted through other products. Part of it is what you can get short term, what you can get long term, and then what tastes good. We didn’t like any of the other bourbon blends early on with a non-MGP bourbon. The rye was the one that stood out for Brian and me, so that’s the one we launched first. It was really an experiment that I honestly didn’t think would work, but it turned out well. We probably went through 60 blends, so that took a lot of work.
Drinkhacker: At High West, you released a few unique finished whiskeys. Are you doing anything like that with Keeper’s Heart?
David: We’ve launched a few things. One is a ten-year-old single pot from Great Northern Distillery aged in Malaga wine barrels. Absolutely delicious, and I don’t think there’s any left. We’ve also been doing both the Irish + American and Irish + Bourbon in single barrels with different wine finishes. We’re doing a lot of different experiments. The one I couldn’t believe how good it was, and I’d never had the Jameson version of it, was the stout finish. We used barrels from Surly right next door with our Irish + American. Oh my gosh that was good.
Drinkhacker: An entirely house-made line is in the works for Keeper’s Heart. How do you plan to “Irish-ize” American whiskey and “American-ize” Irish whiskey with those products?
David: We’ve been making triple pot bourbon and triple pot rye aged in used barrels. We’re also planning an Irish pot whiskey made as a straight spirit aged in new wood. We’re probably looking at minimum of four years on those, but before you know it four years will be here. We’re planning to keep the original blends, too. Depending on how the customer votes, who knows what the main products will be ten years from now.
Drinkhacker: Your official job title is Liquid Collaborator and Advisor. What does that entail?
David: I’m obviously not there day-to-day because they’re in Minneapolis, and I’m still in Park City. I go out once a quarter and travel with Brian when he goes to market and key customers. I get samples every other week or so and we taste them in teams over Zoom. There’s a lot of interaction in the blending process. It’s really enjoyable. Liquid Collaborator and Advisor essentially speaks to that. I’m not a boss or anything. Everything we’ve done has been a joint effort. It’s been a real pleasure.
Drinkhacker: There are thousands of craft distilleries in America today. What motivated you to come out of retirement and join Keeper’s Heart?
David: Who’d of thunk? High West was number 50 in the country and now there’s 2,000 [craft distilleries] ten years later. When we sold, the aisles in the liquor store were very different that when we started. It’s overwhelming how many whiskeys are on the shelves. How do you capture the attention of the consumer? You need some scale. That’s what I like about O’Shaughnessy; they started with the right people, enough money, and good product. They managed to put all the right pieces together, so that’s certainly why I’m a believer.