Skagway’s first distillery is up and running. Skagway Spirits opened its doors a couple weeks ago, serving up locally-sourced drinks to residents and tourists.
Macy Zavala and his wife Christina are visiting Skagway on a cruise. They found their way off of the town’s main drag, and to the distillery at Alaska Street and Ninth Avenue.
“I love micro-distilleries and small batch production,” says Zavala. “It’s really nice, the handcrafted stuff.”
The two have each tried a couple of cocktails.
“So this is my second lemon drop,” says Christina Zavala.
“I had the spruce tip and tonic, which was really, really good,” says Macy Zavala. “And then the Collins, which is also good.”
Skagway Spirits is a family operation, built through the efforts of Janilyn, Gary and Lucas Heger. Janilyn is whipping up a spruce tip gin and tonic during a busy evening.
She makes a lot of the ingredients herself.
“The botanicals so far are spruce tip, fireweed, and rhubarb,” says Heger. “We’ve got a homemade tonic syrup in the making right now, so we’re going to get away from the canned mixer and bring on our own.”
Soon, she says they’ll also have a homemade ginger beer.
The business officially opened at the end of June.
“The day that we were handed our license, it was kind of anti-climactic and euphoric at the same time,” says Heger. “But we were ready, we were stocked and opened on the doors. Our first guest came peaking in the window before we’d actually turned our sign on for the first time. Turned around, we’re walking away and I ran out to the street ‘No! Don’t go!’”
Now, the old airport hangar-turned-distillery is packed with customers.
Heger’s son Lucas does the distilling. He says right now, they’re producing just a couple types of liquor.
“Right now we’re doing vodka and gin,” says Heger. “Just un-aged spirits to kind of get things off the ground. But we’d like to start doing our own fermentations. Playing around with rum or possibly whiskey depending on what makes sense.”
He says it’s taken a couple years to get the business to where it is now.
“It’s definitely taken a lot of work to get the space ready,” says Heger. “But we’ve had an incredible amount of help from our friends and family and it definitely feels like a community effort.”
A bottle from the Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines sits on a shelf in the back room. Heger says they’ve gotten support from other distillers in the state.
“It’s a very small community right now of Alaskan distillers but I think we’re all rooting for each other,” says Heger.
Craft distilling is a growing industry in Alaska. Port Chilkoot opened in 2014. Amalga Distillery in Juneau opened in May.
Skagway Spirits had some competition for the town’s only distillery license from another business, Alaska Stillman. But they eventually withdrew their application.
In Alaska, only one distillery is allowed per 3,000 people.
Skagway is a major cruise ship destination and sees over a million tourists in the summer. Janilyn Heger says she hopes to provide both visitors and locals with an authentic Skagway experience.
“We’ve been asked if we’re going to do tours. That isn’t the goal,” says Heger. “We do want the cruise ship passengers to come, but we want them to have this off-Broadway, more Skagweigian experience then line up and participate in another tour.”
The Hegers hope to continue to grow their business, adding new drinks, liquors and homemade ingredients. For now, they have a full menu of drinks in-house. And, their gin and vodka bottles are now on the shelves of the local liquor store.