James Dumas, High West's food and beverage director, told the board that on weekdays, the distillery conducts three to four public tours of its operation. It starts in the basement where the grain is turned to mash and then moves upstairs for a discussion on distillation in front of High West's massive copper still.
Because distilleries and breweries in Utah are not allowed to have tastings even though they are acceptable at Utah wineries consumers who want to sample the whiskey must move into the bar or saloon area.
Tour guides often have a difficult time talking about the whiskey in the bar, with the noise and the regular customers looking on, said Dumas.
He said High West wants permission to finish the tour in a private room above the bar. "It would be similar to a wine tasting room in Napa."
Dumas said the alcohol would be stored in a locked cabinet inside the tasting room, a requirement of the educational liquor license. If patrons wanted to buy whiskey, they would still need to do so in the distillery's licensed package shop.
While the board seemed supportive of the High West idea, they weren't sure it was legal.
"I'm uncomfortable allowing this in a club premise," said board chairman David Gladwell. "It may be going beyond statute."
Board member Dennis Nordfelt said he was concerned the tastings were just a way to sell more product rather than educate the public.
"There's a fine line between advertising and education," he said.
Commissioners asked Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control staff to look into the legal issues and give the board a recommendation on how to proceed. If approved, it would be High West's fourth state liquor license: it already holds one for distilling, one for selling and a club license for its saloon.
Gladwell said he was willing to call a special meeting in early January so that High West can offer the flights during the 10-day Sundance Film Festival, which starts Jan. 16. The board's regular January meeting is the 28th, after the festival ends.
Dumas said one of the questions staff needs to investigate is the number of glasses in a whiskey flight.
State law currently allows a customer to have only two mixed drinks with a total of 2.5 ounces of alcohol in front of them at any one time.
High West said for its whiskey flights it would serve guests no more than 2.5 ounces of alcohol, but the alcohol would be spread across five glasses, with 1/4 to 1/2 ounce of whiskey in each.
"We don't want them to get intoxicated," Dumas said, "we want them to get through the flight."