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Through the end of the year, we are examining life’s marquee moments through the unique experiences of baby boomers, Gen X and millennials in a series called the Generation Project. As part of the series, we’re bringing back some of our favourite articles that tell these stories.

Why would anyone leave a successful career in biotechnology for something entirely uncertain?  For chemist David Perkins, it was the seduction of caramel and vanilla.

Those scents led Perkins away from Silicon Valley, to distilling small batches of whiskey in Utah at the age of 40.

“I love whiskey: tasting it, smelling it, making it, getting it fresh out of the barrel, tasting it off the still, changing recipes, trying different yeasts, studying what makes one grain better than another,” said Perkins, who has brought his deep understanding of chemistry to his whiskey-making.

Science meets art. (Credit: High West Distillery & Saloon)

The 51-year-old former director of Genentech’s BioOncology strategy group spends 50-plus hours per week planning, tasting and travelling for sales events. He brings a scientist’s questioning nature to “understanding why they do something different in Scotland from Kentucky, blending different types of whiskey to create a taste no one has ever had, learning about the history of whiskey… [and] turning others on to whiskey [who] never drank it in their life.”

The spark

In 2004, Perkins and his wife, Jane, were in Lexington, Kentucky, in the US for a wedding. On a whim, the couple decided to visit a distillery. Three hours later, they found themselves surrounded by fields of corn and wheat in Loretto, Kentucky, population 721— and home to Maker’s Mark, the iconic bourbon brand.

The most exciting thing was the smell. 

It was there that Perkins, a lifelong beer drinker, fell in love with what Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once coined “liquid sunshine”. Perkins immediately knew that he wanted to be a part of it.

“It was very still and quiet,” he said. “The most exciting thing was the smell. I can still remember it. The whiskey evaporating though the wood smells like two of just about everyone’s favourite things: caramel and vanilla. That was very powerful for me.”

High West Distillery nestled in the mountains of Blue Sky Ranch. (Credit: High West Distillery & Saloon)

Global thirst for whiskey made in the US is huge. Annual exports now top $1bn, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Kentucky produces the majority of it.

Perkins told his wife that day that he wanted to make whiskey. Still, the radical career shift didn’t happen right away. He continued to work in biotech for Genentech by day, then began moonlighting in whiskey research by night. “It took about a year to write a business plan and convince ourselves to make the leap,” he said.

When Perkins broke the news of his plans to his boss, he received a surprising response. “He said that I’d be less likely to do it in 10 years, so he recommended that I go for it and if it didn’t work out, I could have my old job back,” Perkins recalled.

Retired High West whiskey barrels sit outside of their still house windows. (Credit: High West Distillery & Saloon)

Perkins’ boss at the time, Ian Clark, now CEO of Genentech, said it isn't that rare for Genentech employees — who tend to be an entrepreneurial lot — to announce that they are leaving to start their own companies. What is rare, though, was leaving to start a business outside of biotech. “It would be surprising if I wasn’t surprised,” said Clark.

Clark was again taken aback when Perkins said that he was going to launch in Utah, a state not usually associated with imbibing due to its large Mormon population. Perkins had a simple reason for choosing Utah: he had always wanted to live there.

The transition

Within a couple of months of giving notice, the Perkins had packed up their Northern California house and moved to Park City, Utah, to open High West Distillery, the first legal distillery in the state since 1870.

Utah is “just about the best-kept secret in the world,” according to Perkins. “Park City is just so easy. It’s beautiful. It’s historic. It’s close to an airport. It’s five minutes from skiing. It’s pro-business.”  Perkins raised roughly $5m from private investors to get the company started; a large chunk of that was used to fund refurbishing its historic building in Park City’s Old Town area.

The science connection

The move from biochemistry to whiskey making isn’t as much of a stretch as one might think, according to Perkins. He realised this early on while walking through the distillery area at Maker’s Mark. “[It] looked like a big lab and also had the same equipment as the company I was working at the time,” he said. “Basically, ethanol and the drugs at Genentech are both made in the same way, and are both biotechnology.”

High West Distillery's still house. (Credit: High West Distillery & Saloon)

But getting the chemistry right wasn’t easy. The inaugural batch of whiskey that Perkins distilled back in 2005 tasted “just awful”. Rendezvous Rye, which took about a year to develop, was the first whiskey that Perkin’s company, High West, sold: a blend of two rye whiskeys with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, caramel and vanilla. “I think it tastes like Christmas,” he said.

The results

Perkins declined to reveal sales figures for Rendezvous Rye, but says it is a “big seller”. It, along with the other current High West offerings, is a blend of whiskeys aged elsewhere, since none of High West’s own whiskeys have distilled long enough to be ready to sell. It can take anywhere from one day to 30 years (depending on how much you want it to age) for a whiskey to be ready for sale.

When Perkins was ready to start selling, his connections in Silicon Valley paid off. “I have many friends still at Genentech and Amgen that have been very supportive in helping us sell into bars and restaurants they eat at,” he said.

I didn’t make a salary for the first three years at High West, but worked harder than I ever have in my life.

Since High West’s beginnings, Perkins has expanded the company from a distillery to include a James Beard Award-nominated 100-seat restaurant with an executive chef.

David Perkins (Credit: High West Distillery & Saloon)

And in August, a much larger High West location opened at the 3,500-acre Blue Sky Ranch in Wanship, Utah. The new manufacturing plant includes a visitors’ centre, which offers tours, tastings, and events. Perkins recently had a 1,500-gallon still installed there (the still at the original location maxes out at 250 gallons), which will eventually allow for production of 3,000 barrels a year, yielding 600,000 750-ml bottles. There is room at the plant for three more stills of the same size.

“I didn’t make a salary for the first three years at High West, but worked harder than I ever have in my life,” Perkins said. Today, his salary is equivalent to what he was making when he left Genentech, and he plans to give the company’s 80 private investors a nice return on their investments someday.

“But it’s not all about the money,” he said. “I get out of bed every morning for one reason, because whiskey matters. And I love sharing that with anyone that will listen to me.”

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