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No stop lights yet but Haines, Alaska gets a vodka distillery

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published November 2, 2013

HAINES -- Mountain Spirits in Haines received its first shipment of Port Chilkoot Distillery's Icy Strait Vodka this week. Port Chilkoot co-owner, Heather Shade, drove the cases from the first micro-distillery here across the no-stop-light town herself.

"I'm pretty stoked," Mountain Spirits manager Mike Borcik said as he received them. Though the majority of his store's sales are Pabst Blue Ribbon and red wine, Borcik is prepared to educate local drinkers on the finer points of the new craft spirit.

"I really, really like it," Borcik said. "It's got nice complexity, a slightly creamy smooth feel in your mouth, and no strong alcohol burn, which is impressive, since it's 90 proof." He also said that it's nice to be able to sell a Haines product. Haines Brewery beer is so popular that brewer Paul Wheeler sells all he makes straight from the brewery in refillable growlers, as well as kegs for Haines, Skagway, and Juneau bars and restaurants.

Red octopus on the label

Mike Borcik thinks customers anywhere who buy mid to higher-end spirits should appreciate the newest Alaska-made vodka. "The price should be in the mid-30s, and for a vodka of this quality, it'll be a good seller." Icy Strait Vodka will be in stores and bars across the state in the next few weeks and should be easy to find. The dramatic nautical-themed label, featuring a writhing red octopus, was designed by Haines artist Laura Rogers and would fit right in on a shelf next to "Moby Dick."

The Port Chilkoot Distillery is the latest addition to Alaska's budding micro-distillery industry, joining tiny Ursa Major in Fairbanks; Bare Distillery, the makers of Truuli Vodka in Anchorage; High Mark in Sterling, and the largest and oldest, Alaska Distillery (formerly Glacier Creek) in Wasilla, which uses melted glacial ice in their vodka.

The distillery's name comes from the historic Fort Seward neighborhood where it's located, which once was the town of Port Chilkoot. It is a labor of love begun by (then) newlyweds Sean Copeland and Heather Shade 16 months ago. The Haines couple had been pondering opening a small business together that combined their talents and interests. He is a builder and carpenter specializing in custom woodwork and joinery; she is a biologist who worked for the National Park Service in nearby Skagway's Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Both enjoy making home-brewed beer. After visiting a friend of a friend in Colorado who had "a quirky craft distillery," Shade said they were smitten.

"It interested us because it involves so many aspects of a craft, science and math, history and art, and dealing with interesting people. I saw the potential of a small-scale manufacturing business that translated very well to Haines. It's the type of product that has the potential to represent this area very well," she said. She noted that Haines is historic, artsy, beautiful, as well as home to a thriving microbrewery and several small organic farms.

Old Army bakery houses distillery

More than a few artisans make their wares here, but sell them mostly outside of the community of about 2,500. The cruise ship dock is visible out the distillery windows, making it an easy destination for visitors.

The old Army bakery that now houses the distillery was built in 1904. It was near ruin when Copeland and Shade purchased it and has been restored from foundation to roof. "We couldn't have done it if Sean hadn't done the work himself," Shade said. In addition to the label, the Port Chilkoot Distillery logo and T-shirts are also locally designed and produced by Haines brothers Kevin and Eric Forster. Rafe and Sally McGuire's Klehini Valley farm supplied the drying wormwood hanging from Copeland's timber-framed beams and destined for absinthe.

It is illegal to make liquor at home, even for personal use, the way you can wine or beer. So Copeland and Shade learned the trade by "reading everything we could," Shade said, taking classes and visiting distilleries large and small. Shade said the distilling world is close and generous. And while they were encouraged, "everyone said not to quit our day jobs." As head distiller and marketer she jokes that she now has a day job and a night job. Her husband is still pounding nails some days. "Sean is off putting on a roof for someone before the snow flies," she said while checking on warm mash for whiskey and fresh vodka spouting from the still.

Shade and Copeland are also making an un-aged moonshine-style whiskey and plan to use local herbs in flavored spirits such as gin, which, like the vodka, also won't need as much time to mature as whiskey.

The mash, which is a mixture of organic grains like corn, barley or wheat, and water, is first heated in the grain cooker -- the old bakery smells a bit like it once must have when Shade lifts the lid and stirs the vat. Then it's transferred to a fermentation tank, and finally run through the big copper still. Whiskey is distilled twice and ages about two years in charred oak barrels. Vodka is distilled multiple times but neither vodka nor gin require aging, so they will support the distillery while Port Chilkoot's whiskey matures.

Nosing each batch

To ensure quality, Shade, who is more like a Girl Scout camp counselor than a stereotypical moonshiner, checks her cooker, fermentation tank, and still with all manner of gauges and dials -- but mostly she relies on her nose to determine when it's ready and how to blend the different batches. "There are lots of clues to tell you what to keep -- temperature, alcohol content -- but it really comes down to smell," she says, picking up a small glass, one of several on the top of a barrel, and inhaling."You don't taste it, you smell it. It's called nosing. Almost all the flavors of whiskey come out through smell."

The whiskey she tests is clear as gin. That distinctive amber color happens later, as a result of the barrel the fresh spirits age in. "It's pretty complicated. I did my homework. I learned as much as I could," Shade said.

Even so, it's a big leap of faith. "Every step of the way there's a risk. To apply for the permit you have to have a still, and to have a still you need a building," Shade said. Stills range in price from the cost of a new car to a nice home. Theirs is the vintage Cadillac of stills, and requires state-of-the art steam boilers to run. The sparkling 125-gallon copper still was custom built in Kentucky by the same manufacturer who makes them for Jack Daniels. "The equipment is fun," Shade said with a smile.

Like most people in this small Southeast Alaska town, Shade and Copeland prefer beer, usually from the Haines Brewery, to quench their thirst, but they hope there's room in everyone's cupboard for their products. "Spirits are meant to be enjoyed in small amounts," she said. "In a cocktail before dinner or as the finish after a meal."

Craft of making spirits

She's happy and relieved that the first bottles of Icy Strait Vodka are finally making their way across town and around the state. She and her husband are proud of their work, both inside and outside the old bakery. They have transformed the building to its original character with plans to add a tasting room and sales area in the future.

"When we talk about alcohol we tend to talk about all the bad things that can happen. The abuse. But we don't talk about the history, the culture and the craft of distilling. Our hope is to provide a truly unique experience here, allowing visitors to see, smell and taste the craft of making whiskey and other artisan spirits," Shade said. "It's an aesthetic process that even those who do not drink alcohol can appreciate."

Lifelong Haines resident Anna Jurgeleit is currently joining about 40 other people in the annual Fall Flush cleanse, which eliminates alcohol from her diet for two weeks. She's not breaking the rules, though she is buying a debut bottle of Icy Strait Vodka from Mike Borcik.

"It's great," she said. "The label is just beautiful and not something you'd expect to see on vodka."

Haines writer Heather Lende is finishing her third book of essays, "Finding the Good."

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