A family of self-described ‘serial entrepreneurs’ in Skagway think they’ve found their final adventure: a craft distillery. After more than a year of paperwork and preparation, Skagway Spirits is set to open this spring. The new business is part of a growing craft distilling industry in Alaska.
“So I’m gonna put an ice cube in there and a little bit of lime,” says Janilyn Heger as she mixes cocktails in her ‘test kitchen.’ She has a bag of lavender-colored ice cubes she made using fireweed petals.
“It just adds a little bit more color, is all,” Heger says.
She pours vodka distilled by her son Lucas into a glass.
“So classically a cosmo is vodka, cranberry juice,” Heger explains. “But this is our fireweed hibiscus tea and a little bit of triple sec. And I’ve been told to shake it until you can’t stand to hold onto it.”
The vodka, triple sec and fireweed tea make a rose-color cosmo. Skagway Spirits will just have gin and vodka to start, so Heger is creating locally-sourced teas, bitters, and ice cubes to add variety to the drinks.
“We’re just trying to look at what can we harvest here that we can then get creative with.”
Other items on the menu include Moscow mules with homemade ginger beer and gin and tonics with spruce tip tea.
Skagway Spirits will be the first distillery in the Gateway to the Klondike, at least in modern times. Janilyn, her husband Gary, and their son Lucas are working together. The Hegers have a good friend who is a distiller in the Lower 48, and they’ve thought about getting into the business for a while. Gary says when he bought an old airplane hangar on Alaska St. and Ninth Ave., the pieces started to come together.
“Easily ten years, I’ve always had that in the back of mind,” Gary Heger said. “Having a distillery, [that] would be a good place for it.”
More recently, the Hegers were inspired by Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines.
Skagway Spirits’ slogan is ‘distilling with a pioneering spirit.’ It harkens to Skagway’s gold rush history. The Hegers have debated how much to use the Klondike Gold Rush in their branding.
“We were kind of talking in the beginning, so much Gold Rush,” Janilyn Heger said. “It’s the mandate of the park service, and a lot of the tours, that’s a theme. And so I’ve been a tour guide in Skagway off and on for years and I thought ‘oh by the time they get to the hangar they’ll be so over it.'”
They decided to go with a more industrial theme for the distillery and tasting room itself, taking advantage of the look of the airport hangar. But the Hegers did decide to use the iconic picture of stampeders climbing the infamous Golden Staircase of the Chilkoot Trail. It will decorate the gins bottles.
“In the beginning I thought it’s everywhere, it’s overused,” Janilyn Heger said. “But when you put it around the bottle, it’s magnificent.”
The vodka bottles are labeled with a picture of Skagway’s harbor.
Choosing labels and experimenting with cocktail recipes is the fun part. But Janilyn says, the past year has not been easy.
“It’s a big process, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a lot of desk work, as much as the creativity part in the distillery.”
One of the challenges came in the form of another potential distillery in Skagway. Shortly after the Hegers filed their license application in late 2015, Haines residents Dan and Christine Turner filed one for a distillery called Alaska Stillman.
Alaska law currently allows just one distillery per 3,000 people. It’s first come, first serve, giving Skagway Spirits precedence in this case. But representatives from Alaska Stillman have been fighting to stay on the Alcohol Beverage Control Board’s radar. Documents from the last few ABC meetings show that Alaska Stillman requested a spot on the board’s agenda because they were skeptical Skagway Spirits would actually operate. Phone calls to Alaska Stillman were not returned by deadline for this story.
Janilyn Heger says she did not find out about Alaska Stillman’s persistence until recently. The ABC board requested the Hegers present documentation proving they intend to use their license.
They did that, and now, the contention over Skagway’s one distillery license seems to be put to an end. The acting director of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office says representatives of Alaska Stillman withdrew their application.
“We’re a start-up business, so it’s kind of like writing the script, you think you know the end of the story,” Janilyn Heger said. “And as you go along there’s a twist and turn that changes the part of the story. So we’re going along with the twists and turns.”
The Hegers plan to start serving cocktails by May. And they aren’t the only craft distillery in the region set to open soon. Amalga Distillery in Juneau is also getting close. That means Southeast Alaska, which had zero distilleries four years ago, will soon have three. And there may be more to come.