Aspiring distillers in Skagway say they have one more hurdle to clear before they start making vodka and gin. Gary Heger hopes to start a family-run distillery called Skagway Spirits.
“We’re very close, we’re just waiting on the Feds at this point,” Heger said.
His new business venture – Skagway Spirits – was on the agenda at an Alaska Alcohol Beverage Control Board meeting earlier this week. Heger says the ABC board is close to giving them the green light and granting their distillery license. He says all they need is federal license approval, which could take up to four months. (No one from the ABC board returned requests for comment.)
“You know it’s been a slow process, far more involved than we ever anticipated. But when you’re dealing with this subject matter — alcohol — it’s understandable I guess.”
Heger says he’s been interested in the craft of distilling for a while. But it wasn’t until recently that he, his wife Janilyn and his adult son Lucas decided to take the leap. He says it had to do with a number of things, including finding the right space, at Alaska Street and Ninth Avenue. He says the thriving Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines also was a factor.
“Visiting there, that kind of sparked the interest again.
Although, Heger says, he’s learned from the Haines distillery owners that it’s not an easy business.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet experience in that going into it, it’s going to take time before it’s profitable. Kind of a labor of love.”
Heger is 68 years old. He’s worked as a general contractor for years. But now, he’s planning to put his efforts into gin and whiskey instead of roofing and construction. He says it’s something he and his wife can start and his son can carry on.
“Me, I’m on my way out. So while I have an interest in doing this, I feel Luke’s got a good grasp on [distilling.] And it’s something we’ll all get to set up together and then he can just carry the torch on.”
The Heger family participated in a distilling workshop in Washington last month. And they’ve joined the Distillers Guild of Alaska.
Heger envisions a distillery possibly open year-round, with a tasting room. They would start out with vodka and gin and move into whiskey and maybe other spirits.
The Hegers aren’t the only ones who want to open a Skagway distillery. Haines residents Dan and Christine Turner have also applied for a distillery liquor license in the Gateway to the Klondike. But right now, only one distillery is allowed per 3,000 people in Alaska towns and cities.
Joel Probst is the project manager for the Turners’ proposed distillery, called Alaska Stillman. He said in an interview last month that the Turners understood Heger gets precedence since he applied first. But he thinks there’s a chance that population limits on distillery licenses could be changed with legislation.
“We are very aware of the Heger situation, the Skagway Spirits situation,” Probst said. “In the event that that does go forward we wish them all the luck in the world and of course we’ll be standing there to do our best lobbying efforts in Juneau to try to get those population limits lifted and have another distillery in town. Competition’s always good.”
“I’m kind of of the mind the more the merrier,” Heger said. “That wouldn’t give me any heartburn if there was another distillery here.”
Heger says it’s up to the state. If there were two, he thinks some kind of Skagway distillery tour would be a good idea to draw the cruise ship visitors to both places.
If its license is granted, Heger says Skagway Spirits would be the sixth distillery in the state. There are others in the works in Juneau, Fairbanks and Homer.
Heger says as soon as they get the go-ahead, they’ll start distilling. He hopes to open to the doors to some degree this year, and to be bottling and fully open for business by next summer.