September 20, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 38

Distillery in works at Fort Seward

Irish monks called it the “water of life.” For Heather Shade and Sean Copeland whiskey is a way to make a living in Haines that will allow them to meld the things they most enjoy.

“We love old buildings; we love trying new food and drink and we love things that are well-crafted,” Shade said.

The newly married couple intends to open the Port Chilkoot Distillery in the building that formerly housed the bakery for Fort Seward. The Blacksmith Street building, located near the Fireweed Restaurant, has been empty for 20 years and is now being renovated by Copeland.

It’s her husband’s carpentry skills, his good eye for design and his ability to maintain the distillery equipment that makes it all possible, Shade said.

“Whiskey appeals to me because of how it’s made, its complexity of taste, its history and even its bottle designs,” she said.

In addition to making whiskey, gin and vodka, the couple wants the distillery to be a “destination” for locals and visitors. “We want to make it nice and classy inside,” she said.

Small distilleries, also known as craft, artisan and micro distilleries, are a relatively new phenomenon in the last decade. The Port Chilkoot Distillery hopes to begin distilling in the spring and be open for business by next summer.

When it does, it will join two others in the state – the Alaska Distillery in Wasilla and the Bare Distillery in Anchorage.

Even now, as concrete is curing and major renovation is under way, locals and cruise ship visitors stop in to talk and encourage the couple in their efforts.

Most visitors want to know if they’ll be able to sample the product once it’s made, but as it stands now, they won’t. The state distillery license that the couple has applied for and the borough has approved will allow them to sell only in quantities of more than five gallons at a time and only to licensed retailers such as bars, restaurants and hotels.

Shade hopes to change that. The increase in micro distilleries has resulted in other states revising the laws that were originally intended for large distilleries, she said.

She wants people to not only be able to come in and watch the process, but also to be able to taste and buy the results of the distillation.

In addition to state licensing, the distillery will also need a license from the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – a process that typically takes longer than the state’s license.

Unlike beer and wine, it’s illegal to make whiskey in your own home.

The couple has to rely on a shelf of books on distilling and contacts with other distillers in the Yukon and Outside for information. Because whiskey and beer share some of the same processes, Paul Wheeler, owner of the Haines Brewery, has also been a “wealth of knowledge.”

Though the distillery will initially market to Southeast Alaska tourist destinations, Shade said in the future the plan is for a wider distribution around Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and maybe even further once they have a better idea of what their maximum production capacity will be.

“For now, we are starting small with the resources we have and will bootstrap the business up as we go along,” she said.

The couple will initially distill with grains from Washington. Eventually they hope to infuse their gin with a combination of wild Alaska plants. They will be looking to local artists to design the labels for their bottles.

“Producing quality spirits is a complex and creative process that takes time,” Shade said. “We’re not out to create a $6 bottle of vodka to get drunk off.”