Travel: Skiing in Utah

The arrival of "the world's first ski-in, ski-out distillery" was greeted with some cynicism by my Edinburgh friend.

Like, the world really needed one, he snorted. Point taken. But maybe he should have looked beyond the eye-catching publicity. The fact that any kind of distillery had opened in Mormon-dominated Utah was remarkable enough.

Here's a story to illustrate why. Some years ago I asked for a glass of water in a bar at Snowbird, a superb ski area in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Did I just want a glass of water, asked the waiter, or a "set up"? A set up, it emerged, would cost $1.50 as the accompaniment to, say, a shot of Wild Turkey. But you don't sell spirits, I objected. The waiter pointed to a little window, outside across the corridor, where you could pick up a miniature in a brown paper bag, as you might collect cakes from a sequestered nun.

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Things have eased up since then, but one bizarre alcohol law remained. Visitors desperate for hard liquor were required to take temporary membership of a club where, if my experience was typical, the average measure was so generous you could have sailed a cruise ship across it. In the summer of 2009, however, this last outlandish restriction was lifted.

The way was clear for David Perkins to convert a former garage and adjacent house in the resort of Park City into the High West Distillery. He has a background in biochemistry and whiskey, he argues, is really just good chemistry. At first he bought whiskies from Kentucky, ageing and blending them to his taste. But when I looked in, a mash was on the go in the basement.

The day I skied to his door was sunny but frustrating. Frustrating because the Utah Rockies were suffering an early season drought and new snow, which had been forecast, repeatedly failed to materialise. However, we had been assured a good morning by a combination of careful piste preparation - or grooming as the Americans call it - and snow making. The same was true at neighbouring resorts Deer Valley and The Canyons, though water difficulties have left the latter a little short of man-made cover.

Deer Valley is posh. It limits the number of lift passes available so there are no long queues at lunchtime in its sumptuously comfortable day lodges. Snowboarders are banned, which is a blessing in marginal conditions. Its groomed runs are bowling-green smooth. But after a few days such pampering became less important. A foot of new snow fell. Skiing in all three resorts was bliss.

I moved on to Ogden, a town which sprang up close to where the golden spike was hammered home, linking railway tracks built from the east and west coasts. From this base, once a centre of gambling, prostitution and other transient entertainment for travellers breaking journeys, I skied Powder Mountain and Snowbasin. Both are areas unfamiliar to most Britons. The former is of another age. Its one eaterie was built almost 40 years ago. Only one of its lifts is a modern, high-speed chair, but no matter. Slow they may have been but there was no waiting. It was midweek and for long periods it seemed that I and my fellow skiers were alone in the powder, so scattered were the others across the resort's vast acreage. Snowbasin, where the snowstorm abated temporarily, could hardly be more different. It is as smart as Deer Valley, with thick carpets and Venetian glass chandeliers in its restaurants and - though you could hardly complain about queues there either - there are state of the art gondolas and chairlifts to whisk you to the top.

On then to Snowbird, and the unphotogenic but undeniably convenient Cliff Lodge, where everything you are likely to need is under one roof and you can ski straight from, and back to, the locker room door. It snowed 3ft in two days. The skiing was the most sublime I could remember. Anywhere. The powder was light as goose down. It was the weekend, and the whole of Salt Lake City seemed to have turned out to make tracks. With avalanche risk acute, some lifts, including the long Peruvian Chair, were closed. Consequently the morning queues for those which opened were, by Rocky Mountain standards, uncomfortably long. But one run in this stuff, I consoled myself, was worth a half dozen on icy hard pack.

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Back at the Park City we had dined at the new distillery. At most US restaurants the portions are so gargantuan that the most I can manage is one entre (main course) and maybe a salad. Here they offered "small plates". So I got through three excellent courses - of onion soup, pulled pork flavoured with whiskey, and chocolate mousse.

As to the excellence of the whiskey, I am no judge. So I trusted the verdict to Paul Graham a fellow guest at the excellent Park City Peaks Hotel.

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By curious coincidence he and his wife run a hotel on the Isle of Islay, a few steps from the Bruichladdich distillery which David Perkins visited to absorb some expertise. "I tasted a 14-year-old rye", he said. "It was quite complex in flavour, thought softer than the average Scotch of course, with burnt charcoal as the overriding after taste - and hints of vanilla from the barrel - but a very smooth after-taste despite that. It was very drinkable."

When it comes to such delights, of course, Utah hasn't taken off all the legal brakes. In order to retail his whiskey by the bottle Perkins had to become, in effect, a state liquor store proprietor. And whilst I am by no means as cynical as my Edinburgh friend I do have a small quibble about the distillery's promotional description. While it might be possible to ski in I wonder how many customers, having sampled the product liberally, ever ski out.

ROGER Bray stayed at the very comfortable Park City Peaks Hotel. Crystal Ski ( 0871 231 2256) where a week's B&B, including flights from Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen via Manchester or London are from 914 (5 per cent off online). Car rental is included but insurance is extra, from 12 a day. A six-day lift pass covering Park City,The Canyons and Deer Valley is 296 - but it's better to buy day passes on the spot.

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 14 November, 2010