Alaska Distillery has made quite a name for itself in the five years since it first started selling spirits created at its Wasilla-based headquarters. With unusual vodkas infused with flavors like smoked salmon, rhubarb and fireweed, the company has carved out a niche market inside of a niche market, using Alaska-centric ingredients. The company even hauls icebergs out of Prince William Sound to use in their vodkas.
But one of their vodkas -- and perhaps the one that received the most attention upon its release -- has proven a bit too unorthodox for one of the country's largest institutions: the U.S. Army.
Alaska Distillery's "Purgatory" vodka is distilled using hemp seed, a type of cannabis plant often associated with marijuana. Despite the fact that the seeds used by Alaska Distillery in making the vodka contain no THC -- the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant that "gets you high" -- it's still a no-no thanks to the Army's regulations on substance abuse.
There's no getting around it. Hemp is mentioned only twice in one sentence of the 154-page regulation, but it's pretty black and white -- and, interestingly enough, the same section addresses the legal use of alcohol:
"(T)his regulation prohibits Soldiers from using Hemp or products containing Hemp oil," it reads, before going on to say, "This provision is not intended to prohibit the otherwise lawful use of alcoholic beverages."
The Army takes the regulation seriously, too; Fort Bliss, a military post located in Texas and New Mexico, recently shared a photo of Alaska Distillery's Purgatory vodka, noting that it had recently been sold at a Post Exchange (PX) in Texas, and noting its prohibition for soldiers. The photo was met with varying degrees of confusion over how the bottle came to be stocked at a military store and indignation at the regulation.
"This is ridiculous," one commenter said. "This drink might get you drunk, but the Army needs to reevaluate their policy on hemp seeds and hemp oil. Consuming hemp seeds/oil is much different than using marijuana. Ugh. But regardless, this NEVER should have been sold in the PX if it were illegal."
"Did anyone know the ingredients before it was sold at the PX?" another asked.
"Well it says hemp seed on the bottle," came the reply.
Bad for business?
Regardless of the origins of the regulation and the confusion over how it came to be on the PX shelves -- calls to the social media line for Fort Bliss went unanswered Monday -- the owners of Alaska Distillery aren't sweating it too much.
"We're pretty amused by it," said Winston Chulf, one of the cofounders of the distillery. "It's not ideal, but it's not the end of the world for us, either." He said that Alaska Distillery is not part of the national military supply chain, so any military installations where it gets stocked is done by a distributor in that region.
"We're in 11 states now," he said. "Really, there's five markets for us: Washington D.C., upstate New York, southern California, the Seattle-Vancouver area, and of course, Alaska. We have been in Texas, but it's a pretty far reach for our distribution."
It's a bit unfortunate, though, since Purgatory vodka is often one of the best-selling Alaska Distillery products in each of those markets. In Washington, D.C., Chulf said, it's the No. 1 seller. He credits it to a movement advocating the use of hemp products, which can include everything from fabrics to food. According to a study conducted by the Congressional Research Service, U.S. importation of hemp seeds has grown significantly since 2005, when 92 metric tons of seeds were imported into the country. By 2011, the U.S. was importing 623 metric tons of hemp seeds, with a cash value of more than $6 million.
"There's a growing crowd of people who are trying to say, look, hemp is a great and useful product," Chulf said. "They like the distinction of hemp-based products."
Chulf added that the founders of Alaska Distillery had all been pilots and had previous experience with the Federal Aviation Administration, which dulled their interest in dealing too much with government bureaucracies.
"In the end, we like being a small craft distillery located in Alaska and being mostly removed from the large bureaucracies!" the company said on its Facebook page, sharing the Fort Bliss photo.
The vodka couldn't be sold in the U.S. if it contained THC, and Chulf said that each batch of seeds is verified to be THC-free by the Drug Enforcement Agency upon its arrival at the distillery. The seeds have to be imported from Canada since the U.S. doesn't allow the manufacture of hemp. Then, the seeds go through the distillery process itself. Chulf said it was a two-year process gaining approval to manufacture the vodka.
Chulf said that the hemp seed aspect was not harmful to soldiers, and added that the distillery's other products could still be sold on bases.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com