While 2014 was a banner year for Alaska distilleries thanks to a law change that brought back tasting rooms, High Mark Distillery owner Felicia Keith-Jones said 2015 is shaping up to be even better.
Earlier this month, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce named High Mark Distillery in Sterling its 2014 Small Business of the Year. With plans to open a second tasting room in Soldotna and with a new contract with Fred Meyer that shipped out 300 cases earlier this month, High Mark spirits are now distributed at 210 locations statewide.
“I was honored they let me carry the title because we have so many good businesses in the area,” Keith-Jones said about the award. “It’s a nice message from the community that said, ‘thank you for working hard in our area.’”
The distillery currently produces four spirits: Nickel Back Apple Jack, High Mark Vodka, Blind Cat moonshine and its newest concoction, Blueberry Cobbler shine.
Keith-Jones said her business has come a long way since she opened the distillery on her 10-acre property on Thomas Street in 2012. Only a few months after she opened a tasting room to the public in her airplane hangar turned production space, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board shut down all distillery tasting rooms in the state.
As the first female to be sole owner of an Alaska distillery, Keith-Jones joined the other four state distilleries and formed a guild and worked with state legislators to modernize outdated distillery laws. She said the passage of House Bill 309, which passed before the end of the 28th Legislative session last April, helped level the playing field for the five small state distilleries ability to compete with beer and wine makers.
HB 309 brings small distilleries on par with local wine and beer makers by allowing tastings, sales of small amounts on premise and limited sales for off premise consumption.
“We needed the laws updated so we can have tasting rooms open to the public, sell retail and give tours to align us with the rest of the country,” she said. “Distilleries are a huge powerhouse for bringing in tourism.”
In the summer many of the area fishing lodges bring their clients to the distillery for a tasting after a half-day trip on the river, Keith-Jones said. For the first time this summer, High Mark Distillery will serve as a stopping point for the Princess and Holland cruise line buses that travel from Seward to Homer.
The tasting room is inside the 5,000 square foot warehouse and has a fireplace and has a rustic feel with wood cut from a lumber mill on Robinson Loop that takes guests back into the old world style. The barn on the property is used as the barrelhouse to store spirits as they ferment, she said.
High Mark Distillery’s tasting room is open on the weekends from noon to 7 p.m. Customers are allowed up to 3 ounces of spirits per visit and allowed to purchase a bottle and merchandise from the distillery.
High Mark plans to open a second tasting room in Soldotna next month and has leased space in the old Ace Auto building on the Sterling Highway. She said she expects to open that location by the middle of February or early March.
The Apple Jack, a Keith family Irish recipe, takes 30 days to make with the first 10 days to press the juice. The distilling process is completed in Sterling and then bottled and labeled by hand.
Apple Jack comes in a 36 and 48 proof variety and is made from honeycrisp apples that are pressed at a farm in Yakima, Washington and shipped back to Sterling, a process that saves them time and manpower, she said.
“It’s like having another team,” she said. “It means we can crank out more volume.”
The High Mark vodka is 120 proof and made with spring white wheat. She said this year she will change her wheat supplier to a farm in Palmer. High Mark is the first distillery to have legal moonshine and she has 27 licenses and permits recognized to make it. The blueberry cobbler shine, which is only sold on site until she receives federal labels, is a combination of the moonshine and vodka with blueberries and vanilla beans from Hawaii and is filtered through coconut shells.
“I learned in Ireland to stay pure and use only one grain every time,” she said. “I want the true flavor to come through. There is so much pride in a family name connected to a distillery there is no way to have an inferior product to pass on to my two boys.”
The name High Mark holds three Alaskan meanings, she said. In snowmachining, her late husband’s favorite sport, high mark refers to the rider who can take his or her rig the furthest up the mountain. Second, in commercial fishing the high mark is the maximum load of fish a vessel can hold, which means pay day for the fishermen and good times. And third, bears mark trees to stake territory and Keith-Jones said she has made her mark in the Alaskan distillery world.
“I wanted to see if I could accomplish the American dream and start with nothing and become a distiller without large investors and bank loans,” she said.
In July Keith-Jones said she expects to get her large distilling equipment back, including a 23-foot rectifying tower, which is being welded to the rest of her equipment and will increase how much she can produce.
Keith-Jones said small Alaskan distilleries pay the same taxes as the industry leaders like Jack Daniels and Jamison at $12.80 a gallon. She said while she could make more money in any other state, her business contributes to other businesses, which supports the local economy. She uses American Fast Freight to ship and distribute, buys Alaskan products and hires Alaskan workers.
“My goal is to make sure we serve Alaskans first,” she said. “I’m here because we love home.”
Reach Dan Balmer at email@example.com.