“I just can’t believe we made it happen,” Heather Shade, co-owner and distiller at Port Chilkoot Distillery said. “I thought it would take at least another year.”
Shade helped lead the lobbying effort to change Alaska’s distillery laws. She coordinated with the four other Alaska distilleries, along with tourism groups and local chambers of commerce.
This Haines distillery is the only one in Southeast, and one of five throughout Alaska.
When Shade and her husband Sean Copeland starting making vodka, gin and whiskey in 2013, they knew their business’s growth had a major legal roadblock. Distilleries in Alaska were not allowed to sell their spirits on-site. So Shade and Copeland set a goal: they would lobby to change the law in the next three years. It only took one.
House Bill 309 passed earlier this year. A few weeks after the law went into effect, Port Chilkoot Distillery opened its newly legal tasting room.
“Every step of the way when we were testifying in the committees and working with people to explain importance of this bill, it kind of felt like it was just going to die every step of the way,” Shade said. “And so when it passed unanimously through the Senate floor two days before the end of the legislative session, it just kind of felt surreal.”
Now, distilleries in Alaska can sell limited amounts of their own products on location. Just like wineries and breweries, like Haines Brewing Company, have done for years. Shade thinks the change in Alaska’s distillery laws is a result of a growing state and nation-wide craft distillery industry. Three years ago, there was only one distillery in Alaska. Now there are five.
Shade says the main reason they wanted a tasting room is so they could participate in the tourism industry. This past summer, visitors would come to the distillery and ask for tours. After seeing and smelling what they were making, many people wanted a taste.
“I just had to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, Alaska state law only allows to produce. We can’t sell you anything.'”
To actually try some Icy Strait Vodka or 50 Fathoms Gin, tourists would have to go to a local bar or liquor store.
“I think the laws restricting us from having on-site tasting room was the biggest hurdle in our industry,” Shade said.
Last year, Port Chilkoot and other Alaska distilleries started reaching out to their local senators and representatives. Shade invited Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins to the distillery.
Soon after, Anchorage Representative Chris Tuck introduced House Bill 309, which Kreiss-Tomkins co-sponsored.
Shade formed the Distiller’s Guild of Alaska and coordinated the distilleries to give feedback on the proposed bill, which needed some tweaking.
Shade says there was some push-back against the bill, because it’s helping an industry that creates alcohol. Rates of alcohol abuse are especially high in Alaska.
But HB 309 puts restrictions on how many bottles and drinks distilleries can sell per person in the tasting room and what hours they can be open. They aren’t allowed to have live entertainment or bar seating.
House Bill 309 was signed into law in July. In October, the new law went into effect. And, on October 31, Port Chilkoot Distillery opened its tasting room.
On a recent busy Thursday night, tasting room manager Macky Cassidy mixed drinks for a crowd of customers from a menu she created.
Cassidy is the distillery’s first employee. She’s part-time, but that could change once the tourists come to town. For now, most of the customers are locals.
“The Haines 75 has been popular [tonight],” Cassidy said. “That’s the one with champagne and cranberry and vodka. And then the Hot Apple Toddys have been popular because it’s kind of chilly.”
“There’s something fun about being able to go to the place something’s made and try it there,” said Haines resident Jedidiah Blum-Evitts, who was drinking his go-to cocktail — a gin martini.
Lindsey Moore was standing nearby drinking the Haines 75. She’s visited distilleries in the Seattle-area before, but this one is different.
“You walk in and automatically know three-quarters of the group that’s here if not the entire group,” Moore said. “And you run into people and get to have conversations with them. So that’s what kind of makes it Haines to me, it’s got a small-town feel to it which I enjoy.”
Cassidy hopes the tasting room will help infuse a “cocktail culture” in the beer-loving town of Haines.
And Shade says, the tasting room will make her and her husband’s investment into this distillery pay off sooner than they expected.