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High West Distillery, which became Utah's first modern-day whiskey maker in 2008, is once again breaking new ground when it comes to state liquor laws.
On Tuesday, the Park City whiskey maker requested an educational liquor permit that would allow adult customers to sample whiskeys as part of distillery tours at its new facility in Wanship.
While not opposed, members of the state liquor commission said they were wary of the request since state law does not allow tastings at distilleries or breweries even though it is acceptable at wineries.
"Are we moving in a direction that is in violation of current policies?" commission chairman David Gladwell wondered aloud.
Commission members decided to delay their decision one month, giving them time to check with lawmakers about possible conflicts with state law. Commission members also are hoping a legislative interim committee will take up the issue before its next meeting July 28.
Gladwell said by allowing tastings at the new High West facility, the commission would set a precedent and other Utah distilleries and breweries would likely follow suit, seeking the educational permits for tasting purposes. "We could be entertaining dozens of requests," he said.
For several years, culinary schools, restaurants and even grocery stores in Utah have been able to offer alcohol classes and tastings, thanks to an educational liquor permit offered through the state. But as more non-food-industry businesses such as painting studios requested the educational liquor permits, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) called a time-out to come up with better guidelines. Since then, only a handful have been granted. And no distillery has ever asked for one.
While distillery tastings may be a concern in Utah, they are common across the country and around the globe. Most distilleries offer tours to consumers, showing them the spirit-making process from grain milling and mashing to distilling and aging. Tours usually end with customers being able to sample the products.
Sampling allows the customers to smell and taste the subtle differences of the distilled products, said James Dumas, High West's food and beverage director.
He said the those who take the High West tours would likely be offered small samples of up to four whiskeys to compare. "To us, education means appreciation," he said. "Having an educational permit would allow customers to compare our different products."
Dumas said he hopes the commission doesn't wait more than a month to issue the educational permit, as High West's new Wanship distillery, restaurant and visitor center is set to open to the public in early August.
High West is not seeking an educational permit for its original Park City location. Those who want to try the whiskey products after taking tours at that location must still order a drink in the bar or restaurant.
Locals and tourists will be lured to the new distillery, in part, because of its location on the sprawling 3,500-acre Blue Sky Ranch. The working ranch, with 45 horses and more than 100 head of cattle, offers more than a dozen outdoor adventures for families, from fly-fishing and horseback riding in the summer to dog-sledding and overnight stays in a yurt in winter.
Because of the family nature of Blue Sky Ranch, High West also was requesting permission to allow minors on the "non-consumption" part of its tours.
Dumas said the majority of participants who take tours at the High West's original distillery in Park City are families. And they expect the same to be true in Wanship.
"Not allowing minors on tours will discourage parents from attending," he said.