Craft distilleries in Alaska are reeling after a decision that could change the part of their businesses most accessible to the public: tasting rooms. Distilleries have been operating tasting rooms since 2014 legislation allowing that practice. But now, state officials are saying distilleries aren’t allowed to serve mixed drinks.
The tasting room at the Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines opened almost three years ago, serving cocktails like ‘High Bush Cranberry Gimlets,’ ‘Spruced Up Gin,’ and ‘Moscow Moose.’
Craft distilling is a growing industry in Alaska. There are currently nine in the state. Port Chilkoot part-owner Heather Shade says the tasting room has been a crucial part of their growth.
“The tasting rooms allow a small business to start up, they allow us to succeed in a challenging economic environment in the state, and it allows us to grow our staff, infrastructure and distribution by having cash flow into our businesses to do that,” says Shade.
Now, Shade is trying to figure out how this part of her business will be affected by a recent decision from the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. A complaint against Juneau’s new distillery brought attention to a potential gray-area in Alaska statute.
The legislation that allows distilleries to open tasting rooms says they can sell their own product. ABC Board Director Erika McConnell points out that doesn’t include the other beverages distilleries use to make cocktails, like the vermouth in a martini.
In a memo to the board McConnell writes, “There is nothing in the statutory language itself to suggest that a Bloody Mary, a martini, or a margarita qualifies as ‘the distillery’s product.’”
Shade says there’s a reason for not serving spirits straight up.
“The purpose of mixing our products with ingredients and ice and serving them in this way is so that people know how it’s going to taste in their cocktail,” says Shade. “And so they know how they might want to make it at home.”
But the board sided with McConnell. It voted to uphold an advisory that prohibits the sale of mixed drinks made with outside products, starting immediately.
Shade says Port Chilkoot does make a lot of its own mixers on-site, including ginger beer.
“We’re going to continue operating the way we’ve been,” says Shade. “We produce our ice on-site. We produce our juices and syrups and almost everything.”
She says they will stop using alcoholic mixers produced off-site.
At the recently opened Amalga Distillery in Juneau, Brandon Howard says the same – they’re not going to stop serving cocktails. Howard says Amalga makes its own ginger beer and tonic water they use in most of their drinks.
“Until we have clarity from the board and until we know that these regulations that they’re considering are completely legal, yes we are going to continue doing what we’re doing,” says Howard.
Both Shade and Howard say not only would serving exclusively straight spirits take away from the experience of the drink, they don’t think it’s responsible.
“I think it’s irresponsible to serve an individual basically three ounce shots of gin and then just send them out,” says Howard. “The mixed drink part of our business is not an insignificant part, but the way in which it leads to bottle sales for us is massive.”
According to ABC Board’s McConnell, it is okay for the businesses to continue mixing drinks with products they make themselves.
Dale Fox is the President and CEO of Alaska CHARR – Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association. Fox says CHARR helped get the original legislation passed, and now they agree with the ABC Board’s decision to limit tasting rooms.
“It’s morphed into bringing in other spirits that are not the product of that distillery,” says Fox. “Mixing drinks, entertainment and a whole series of other things that were not allowed in that provision.”
Fox says if you want to mix drinks, get a bar license. That’s why he says even if state lawmakers clarify the rules and allow for the sale of cocktails at distilleries, CHARR probably won’t support it.
State Representative Chris Tuck says new legislation is on the way.
“We will be introducing something to rectify the situation,” says Tuck.
Tuck was the primary sponsor on the tasting room legislation back in 2014. He and several other legislators wrote to the ABC Board to say they never meant to prohibit distilleries from serving mixed drinks.
“When we had our grand opening of the bill signing, even then at that ceremony we had mixed tastings for people to try,” says Tuck.
McConnell says the board will be looking closer at regulations around distilleries.
Shade and Howard are challenging the state’s interpretation. They say for now they will continue with business as usual. That includes cocktails.