August 1, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 30

New distillery nears grand opening

The gleaming stainless steel cooker and fermentation tanks, the copper-topped still, the metal-strapped oak barrels and the stout bottles all stand ready. Once the plumbing mechanics for the steam boiler are completed, the Port Chilkoot Distillery will begin to turn its first batch of grain and water into whiskey.

“We’re really close,” co-owner Heather Shade said.

For more than a year, Shade and her husband and fellow owner Sean Copeland have labored at turning the dilapidated former Fort Seward bakery into a handsome, finely-crafted home for their modern distillery.

Timber-framed joists made from local spruce that have been rubbed with a tung oil concoction replaced the two walls that used to divide the structure. The doors, made with reclaimed wood from Juneau, cedar siding and new windows designed to replicate the originals maintain the building’s historic look. There’s a concrete floor that slightly slopes to the center drain, along with new roofing, insulation, wiring, plumbing and sheet-rocked walls. A deck at the front door was made from wood salvaged from a former Haines water tower.

Not much of the building built in 1904 was salvageable, Shade said. “It was really run down and there was no maintenance for years.”

The foundation was good, but it had to be jacked up about 12 inches, as over the years the roadbed beside it had been filled in, she said. The roof structure and wall framing were also sound.

Rebuilding wasn’t the only hurdle Shade and Copeland faced. They also required both state and federal permits, which have now been finalized.

“We’re heavily regulated,” she said. Even the labels, which were designed by local resident Laura Rogers, have to be approved.

Vendome Copper and Brass Works of Louisville, KY, built all of the distillation equipment, which was designed especially for the Port Chilkoot Distillery.

“We wanted to have the versatility to make different spirits,” Shade said.

It takes approximately 250 gallons of grains and water to make 15 gallons of whiskey. It’s a five-step process. The corn is first boiled with water in the 250-gallon cooker for about half an hour. Afterwards, wheat and malted barley are added. The whole cooking process takes about an hour. All of the grains are non-GMO certified from Washington.

The mash is then transferred to a 300-gallon fermentation tank, where it remains for several days. After that, the fermented mash—with the use of a pump and hose—goes into the still. The still is heated by steam to separate the alcohol from the grain, water and yeast. Whiskey is distilled twice.

The clear spirits then trickle out into a brushed, stainless steel barrel on wheels. When enough has been collected, the spirits are then placed into a 30-gallon oak barrel that has been charred on the inside and left to sit for about two years while it undergoes constant monitoring.

“The spirits resting in the oak gives it flavor and color,” Shade said. “Two barrels from the same place can taste different. It reacts with the wood and the components also react with each other.”

Shade and Copeland will begin with a Bourbon-style whiskey, an Icy Strait Vodka, a Port Chilkoot Gin (a tentative name) and a legal moonshine called 6 Volts Moonshine.

Moonshine is what comes right out of the still only slightly refined, she said.

“It will be a drink for the adventurous who want that rustic taste it has before it ages in oak. There’s an interest in the history of moonshine now.”

Unlike whiskey, vodka and gin do not require aging, so will be ready after resting only a few days. Locally harvested wild plants, along with herbs and juniper from Washington and Oregon, will be added to the gin.

Current law allows the distillery to only sell to other distributors, such as liquor stores, restaurants and bars, but Shade and the four other distilleries in Alaska are trying to change that law to allow them to offer samplings and to sell alcohol by the bottle to visitors.

Until that happens, Port Chilkoot Distillery visitors will only be allowed to watch the distillation process, not taste its results.