The Impulsive Traveler: Swooshing and sipping in Park City, Utah

By Kelly DiNardo
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 26, 2010; 10:19 AM

Several years ago, at a West Virginia ski resort, I stared dumbfounded at a glass of red wine that the waitress had just poured. The liquid skimmed the edge, forcing me to bring my mouth to the glass rather than the glass to my mouth. Obscenely full glasses were forever after dubbed the "West Virginia pour."

So last winter, when I found myself staring at a Thumbelina-size martini while perched at a bar in Park City, I looked up at my boyfriend and said, "This must be the Utah pour."

I assumed that the predominantly Mormon state was attempting to thwart my apres-ski adventures. But as I studied the cocktail menu at the St. Regis Deer Valley bar, I noticed that many of the drinks, including the signature bloody mary, were mixed with liquor from High West, a distillery in downtown Park City.

I ordered the bloody mary, a St. Regis specialty: The cocktail supposedly was created at the New York hotel, and each property today offers its own take. The Park City version was spicy, with a wasabi foam and a tiny baster-like vial filled with more wasabi-infused liquid so that drinkers could take up the heat level if they wanted to. As I learned over the next few days, when it comes to cocktail culture, the entire state of Utah is kicking it up a notch, with Park City in the lead.

For decades, Utah had some of the strictest and most unusual liquor laws in the country. One mandated that would-be drinkers order food with a cocktail. Another necessitated buying a private club membership when ordering a drink at a bar. And yet another required bartenders to remain separated from customers by a glass partition while mixing drinks.

Former governor Jon Huntsman realized that the state's tourism industry would get quite a boost if the liquor laws were relaxed. Under his lead, Utah abolished several of its more puritanical regulations in the summer of 2009. Since then, the state has been shaking up its teetotaling image.

Needing no further encouragement, I set out to explore Park City cocktail culture. First stop: the aforementioned High West, the first legal distillery in the state since the 1870s, which claims to be the only ski-in, ski-out distillery in the world. Tucked into an old livery stable at the bottom of a ski hill, High West is both a distillery and a saloon. From the bar made of trestle wood reclaimed from the Great Salt Lake railroad to the repurposed barn wood facade that was used for the hostess stand, the space incorporates pieces of Utah history in charming ways.

Scientist-turned-distiller David Perkins studied with master distillers in Kentucky before creating his own handcrafted, small-batch whiskey, gin and vodka. His Rendezvous Rye Whiskey has already won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and was named one of the top 10 new whiskies by the Malt Advocate, a prestigious spirits magazine.

After a tour, I pulled up a stool at the bar and sampled several High West spirits, first each on its own and then shaken into specialty cocktails such as the High West Cider, a mix of Rendezvous Rye, amaretto and hot cider. The spirits find their way even into the food on the bar menu: A salad is dressed with a white-whiskey-and-chive vinaigrette, short ribs are braised in whiskey cider, and the burger is topped with caramelized whiskey onions.

After a full day on the slopes at Deer Crest, I swooshed right up to the St. Regis, let the ski valet help me off with my gear and made my way to J&G Grill. Beyond the hotel's own cozy bar and lounge, the resort houses a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant. Just before guests make their way into the high-ceilinged dining room with walnut beams, a gray-stoned fireplace and large windows looking out onto the slopes, they pass a dark, cozy room with curved red booths and walls upholstered in black leather.

This intimate wine vault, which stores more than 6,000 bottles and houses more than 60 private wine lockers, was the second stop on my boozy cruise through Park City. The resorts' developers began working with Utah legislators to change the liquor laws when construction on the property began, and after a few glasses of wine, I am even more grateful that they did.

There are two brew pubs in Park City: Squatters and Wasatch. The latter was my final stop. Owner Greg Schirf, a ski bum who started by brewing his own beer at home, opened Wasatch in 1986, making it the state's first brewery since Prohibition. He wanted to expand, but the laws at the time made brew pubs illegal. Shirf worked with a sympathetic lawmaker, helped change the laws and opened the brew pub in 1989 at the top of Main Street.

The pub dishes up yummy bar food such as fish and chips, a buffalo burger and various pizzas. All of which are best washed down with one of the pub's winkingly-named beers, such as the spicy Evolution Amber Ale or the dark Polygamy Porter.

The tagline for the Polygamy Porter - "Why have just one?" - turned out to be an accurate assessment of my Park City adventures. After four days of skiing and sipping, I had raised my glass repeatedly and could happily say cheers to the city's apres attitude.

DiNardo is a freelance writer.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company