A taste of Alaska’s craft distilleries.
Get a local taste of Alaska’s craft distilleries.
GLACIERS, WILDLIFE, AND ADVENTURE experiences of a lifetime aside, there’s a new way to get a taste of Alaska. Craft distilleries are all the rage, especially in Skagway, Haines, and Juneau, three port cities of the state’s popular Inside Passage itinerary in the Southeast.
Nine distilleries across the state are members of the Alaska Distillers Guild, including several operations in the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas. Heather Shade, a founder of the guild and co-owner of Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines, says each region is developing its own style.
“Alaska has always been the land of opportunity for new things,” Shade says. “And this is seen as something new, something you can innovate with.”
The distilleries sell bottles in various sizes, for easy packing as souvenirs and often with labels reflecting the region where they are produced. Tasting rooms at the distilleries provide the opportunity to sample products straight out of the bottle or mixed in cocktails. ( Pours are restricted by law to 1 oz., three drinks maximum.)
“Rather than just the smoky bar shots and beer culture that seemed to dominate Alaska for a long time, the distilleries are educational and have also raised the bar for how we drink here,” Shade says. In fact, Alaskan-grown ingredients are used in the distilling process, for a taste of Alaska in every sip.
“People may not know this, but we have a pretty large agricultural industry and the things that grow really well here are grains like barley and rye,” Shade explains. “We have the raw materials here. We have the clean water, we have the grains and the starch. And there’s a lot of interest in unique Alaska goods people can bring home.” Raised in the California desert and a biologist with the National Parks Service, Shade had no experience in distilling — or even home brewing — when she decided that Haines was where she wanted to live and open a business. So she did some studying of distilleries in the Lower 48 and, along with her carpenter husband, Sean Copeland, opened Port Chilkoot Distillery about five years ago. The distillery is in a 1902 building that once housed the bakery for historic Fort Seward.
“I thought this would be something unique for Southeast Alaska, something fun, something good for the community that would create jobs and products that would represent the town,” Shade says. “I had to go out and learn how to distill and we developed our recipes over the course of a year while we were renovating our historical building.”
Alaskan- grown ingredients are used in the distilling process, for a taste of Alaska in every sip.
Port Chilkoot garnered acclaim on the international distillery scene when its London Dry– style 50 Fathoms Gin, made with locally harvested spruce tips, was a double gold medal winner at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition, while their Green Siren Absinthe, made with local herbs such as wormwood and anise hyssop, was named the best in its category at last year’s American Craft Spirit Awards. The distillery also produces Icy Strait Vodka, Boatwright Bourbon, and Wrack Line Rye.
The labels on the products were designed by Haines artist Laura Rogers to honor the local fishing community. On 50 Fathoms Gin, for instance, there is a halibut — 50 fathoms (1 fathom = 6 feet) is the optimal depth to catch the fish.
On the porch at the Haines distillery, you can sip the gin paired with a homemade tonic while you admire your ship in the harbor.
“Where we start is Skagway water,” says Gary Heger, a long-time resident of the historic gold rush town. With his wife, Janilyn, and son, Lucas, Heger opened Skagway Spirits Distillery last year, producing vodka and gin. “It’s all about the water. This is the first town the glacial water hits, no filtration required.”
In Skagway, the Heger family operation is located a few blocks from the historic downtown in a converted garage where Gary, a general contractor, previously housed his pride and joy, a Model A car. Janilyn, who once worked as a tour guide, said it was easy to decide what their distillery should produce: “Gin and vodka, because these are two things that I typically drink,” she laughs.
The vodka is redistilled from neutral grain spirit with water from a glacially fed aquifer. The Bone Dry Gin gets its name from the Bone Dry Law in Alaska, which made the territory a dry place in 1918, two years before Prohibition, Gary explains.
Skagway Spirits’ small tasting room is done up with relics from the town’s past. There’s a chalkboard from an old school, and the bar is decorated with old metal from the famous White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (now a popular shore excursion).
Lucas is the distiller and came up with the label designs: the gin has an iconic picture of gold rush stampeders going up the treacherous Chilkoot Trail, while the vodka showcases Skagway’s harbor.
In addition, Janilyn created cocktails inspired by the Alaska wild including a Fireweed Cosmo, which replaces cranberry juice with pink fireweed hibiscus tea. The family has adopted the tagline for their fledgling business: “Distilling with pioneer spirit.”
Juneau’s Juneauper Gin
Opened last year in Juneau, Amalga Distillery is the brainchild of 30-somethings, Brandon Howard, a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( NOAA), and his wife, Maura Selenak, a kindergarten teacher.
The bright, contemporary tasting room in Juneau’s historic downtown opened last year and was an immediate hit with locals as well as visitors. The distillery is a few blocks from the cruise pier.
Amalga’s Juneauper Gin features an array of botanicals with a base from distilled Alaska grain. The Foraged Vodka comes in flavors such as spruce tip, rhubarb, blueberry, and a slightly salty bull kelp (seaweed). The couple has enlisted friends and relatives to help with the foraging of local ingredients.
Amalga’s most ambitious product is its Single Malt Whiskey made in the Scottish tradition. The first batch, 150 bottles aged for two years, sold out pre-sale, with the release next year.
Cocktails developed by the pair to showcase their products include a G&T with homemade tonic water, a Macha Libre made with green tea, and a dirty martini featuring sea kelp brine. AMALGADISTILLERY.COM