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Entrepreneur planning Park City whiskey still

Businessman has bought 2 buildings to renovate

David Perkins has been following two master distillers to get ideas for his facility.
David Perkins has been following two master distillers to get ideas for his facility.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

With a brewery at the top of Main Street and a whiskey still planned a few blocks away, Park City is chipping away the stereotypical complaint that it's impossible to get a drink in Utah.

The city offered a Park City resident the option to purchase property in a historic neighborhood of Park Avenue, and David Perkins of Quaking Aspen Distillers wants to put in a whiskey still and offer tours of the process.

Perkins has always been a whiskey drinker. It was his libation of choice during college in Virginia and enjoys a strong tradition in Georgia, where he grew up. At a wedding in Kentucky recently, Perkins toured a still and found himself unsated. He wanted more information than the tour offered.

After kicking around the Internet and a few history books, Perkins decided that it was time to take up what the October issue of Men's Journal called one of the top 50 jobs. He trailed two master distillers for two weeks, watching them every step of the process from mashing the grain to the final distilling. Their batches of roughly 5,000 gallons dwarf Perkins' 1,500 capacity, but he hopes to use many of the tricks he picked up from them when he opens for business in Park City.

Park City reviewed 13 offers for the three pieces of the Watts property, an old garage and two houses on Park Avenue in the historic part of town. Perkins had the best offer for the garage and one house, which included plans for rehabilitating the property from the ground up and putting in a business. The city appraised the three buildings at $1.9 million in September, and Perkins said he is buying two for $1.4 million.

At a combined 4,000 square feet, the purchase is no deal by Salt Lake standards, but it is evidence of how much property is worth in Park City, said Myles Rademan, the city's spokesman. Perkins estimated that renovating the two buildings will cost about $200 per square foot, or about $800,000.

"You'd have to rebuild it, really. It will be a major renovation to make it what he wants to make it," Rademan said. "What appealed (to us) more than anything else was the fact that he actually had the money to buy the property and rehabilitate it."

Perkins still must get public approval for the sale and then a conditional use permit for the still; his first hearing is scheduled for Dec. 22 at the Park City Council meeting. He already has a permit from the Tax and Trade Bureau (formerly part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and a Utah permit from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

One feature missing from his plans is a tasting room. Utah law prohibits distillers from having tastings on location. As of about eight years ago, wineries can offer sips after tours, but Perkins won't be able to, said Ken Wynn, director of the DABC. It would require new legislation to change the rules, which Perkins said he has thought about pursuing.

Perkins also would not be able to sell his product at the still because all alcohol has to go through state liquor stores.

"They would have to manufacture the stuff and then convince us to buy it, and then we would distribute it through our state store system," Wynn said. "I'm looking forward to seeing this operation get going to see what they come up with."

Perkins' favorite whiskey variety is Bourbon. The federal government set parts of the recipe in 1964, and it requires distillers to use at least 51 percent corn mash in the process. Perkins is now experimenting with several batches and could settle on using a new combination for his drink.

He's counting on Park City's most famous demographic to boost business. Skiers are ideal consumers for whiskey, Perkins said, because they typically have higher incomes and more money to spend on luxuries.

"I've already got them coming here, so I don't have to spend the money to reach out and get them," Perkins said. "The irony of a distillery here where they think you can't get a drink — that's the hook that gets you in the game."

The whiskey distillery in Park City would mark the first time since Prohibition that Utah has had a legal still. Perkins' practice spot in Salt Lake City is the only operating, legal still now. He uses the Salt Lake still to try out recipes and experiment with local grains that he may one day incorporate into his Park City batches.

The West used to be known for its homemade whiskey. Pioneers and miners established stills as they trekked westward during the 1800s. Salt Lake City had a whiskey row during the 1850s, and Utah was the deciding vote to repeal prohibition in 1933. With its mining history, Park City is ideal for a still, Perkins said.

"Everybody knows what saloons were and what cowboys ordered when they went there and what miners drink," he said. "It's the lubrication of the West."