Down a residential street in the Gold Rush-era town of Skagway, Alaska (population: 1,191) a traffic light affixed to a barn beckoned me away from the melee of the cruise ship I had just disembarked and into the Skagway Spirits’ distillery tasting room. A Bone Dry Gin and Glacial Vodka were on offer, as well as a small selection of cocktails including a Hooch Old Fashioned made from a spirit drawn from a single barrel simmering in the corner. Only a small handful of other intrepid travelers were present at the bar, taking a breath of fresh distillery air away from the crush of cruise passengers usually jockeying for the same restaurants, excursions, and attractions on days spent in tiny port cities.
“Our location isn’t for everybody, but we always say we get the best tourists because they were interested enough to go through the neighborhood,” says Janilyn Heger, whose family owns the distillery. For scale, Skagway doesn’t have any real traffic lights — the nearest being roughly 80 miles away.
Despite being the largest U.S. state, Alaska boasts only about 10 craft distilleries, the majority of which are located in Anchorage and Fairbanks, 800-plus miles away from Skagway. Four Alaskan distilleries are located within the Inside Passage, the island and fjord tail of southeastern Alaska that extends downward from its mainland. It’s parallel to the British Columbia coastline, one of the most popular routes for cruises to Alaska. Skagway Spirits, Haines’s Port Chilkoot Distillery, Juneau’s Amalga Distillery, and Ketchikan’s Uncharted Alaska were all born in port cities whose seasonal cruise tourism was acknowledged in the decision to open, and is an ongoing factor in their ability to continue to operate. And with the number of cruise passengers to Alaska growing by about 65 percent over the past 10 years, they’re getting the traffic they hoped for.
While new distilleries anywhere in the U.S. face location-specific challenges, it’s safe to say that those in Alaska’s Inside Passage have a great deal more to overcome, with extreme limitations placed on licenses, supply, and distribution channels. Juneau, the largest of the Inside Passage cities and Alaska’s capital, is famously inaccessible by road. The only way in is by plane or boat, and the latter is the primary means of delivery for all of the distilleries here. This necessitates finding suppliers that are even willing to supply them this way.
“There seems to be an asterisk with small writing on every [supplier’s] website that says ‘excluding Alaska and Hawaii,’” says Travis Robbins, co-founder of distillery Uncharted Alaska, whose additional challenges in Ketchikan included finding a location to distill its various gin and vodka expressions that wasn’t built on pilings.
“At the time, it was in the back of my mind that [the cruise industry] would be a potential boost to us. Especially since we were hoping to make products that we would sell through the retailers, the liquor stores, and people buying at the local bars.”
“Our equipment can push several thousand pounds sitting on top of an area that is only 20 square feet,” he says. “Instead of watching our tanks drop through the floor into the ocean, we decided to find a concrete floor.”
Timing and flexibility also present a unique challenge for Inside Passage distilleries. In an Amazon Prime world where the majority of the country can expect a delivery on any given day, “I call Tuesday ‘food day’ because our supply comes once a week,” says Heger. “Everything from building materials, furniture, food — you name it — comes in on a [weekly] barge from somewhere else.”
“Our costs are high, and it’s a very seasonal flux of sales,” adds Heather Shade, co-owner of Port Chilkoot Distillery, known locally not only for its gin and vodka but as the oldest of the Inside Passage distilleries. Its products also include barrel-aged spirits such as bourbon, rye, and rum, as well as absinthe crafted from local botanicals. “Anything about operating a manufacturing business here is challenging,” Shade says. “We don’t even have an office supply store.”
Port Chilkoot was founded by Shade and husband Sean Copeland in 2012 before tasting rooms were even permitted anywhere in Alaska. Its owners are considered pioneers in Alaska’s micro- distillery movement, starting the Distillers Guild of Alaska in 2013. The guild was responsible for helping to enact the 2014 legislation that allowed distilleries to serve their products on-premise, which in turn paved the way for the opening of Amalga (2017), Skagway Spirits (2017), and Uncharted Alaska (2020).
“The cruise ship market makes up 68 percent of our sales. We solely looked at locations close to the ship docks for this reason.”
A passion for distilling and providing a unique taste of Alaska were Port Chilkoot’s primary motivations upon its launch, but its owners were already thinking ahead to the business ocean liners might bring to their doors.
“At the time, it was in the back of my mind that [the cruise industry] would be a potential boost to us,” says Shade. “Especially since we were hoping to make products that we would sell through the retailers, the liquor stores, and people buying at the local bars.”
The Alaskan Art of Cruising and Boozing
Fast-forward to today and cruise passengers comprise a large part of these distilleries’ business, whether on-premise or through retail and restaurant sales that spike during the cruise season, which runs from May through September.
“The cruise ship market makes up 68 percent of our sales,” says Robbins. “We solely looked at locations close to the ship docks for this reason.” All of the Inside Passage distilleries are within walking distance of their respective ports, even if specific locations are a little outside the usual bounds of foot traffic.
The port in Haines can only support one large cruise ship at a time, which limits cruise traffic to Port Chilkoot, but the distillery has taken the next step in capitalizing on what traffic there is.
“I think without exception [passengers are] able to take [bottles] back on board.”
“We have agreements with some of the smaller cruise companies such as Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic,” says Shade of the discounts and freebies offered in the tasting room when voyagers visit. Several cruise lines also carry Port Chilkoot products on board, such as its 50 Fathoms Gin and Icy Strait Vodka. The brand recently worked with American Cruise Lines to offer an offshore excursion to the distillery, which features a tour of the production facilities and barrel room as well as a tasting flight. The excursion was consistently booked by passengers on those ships, who were offered a taste of all of Port Chillkoot’s six signature spirits and any limited releases on hand.
While visiting the distilleries in person is actually the easiest way to get a taste of these regional spirits, it’s not the only way. While Port Chilkoot is currently the only Inside Passage distillery that distributes outside Alaska — though according to Heger, Skagway Spirits is currently in talks with a potential distributor — for passengers who wish to take home a few bottles of their favorite spirit and spread the word, it is possible to purchase and carry them back onto the ship.
“I think without exception they’re able to take it back on board,” says Heger, though different cruise lines have different policies as to how alcoholic purchases are handled upon re-embarking. Yet another challenge for these distilleries can be convincing cruise patrons that they can actually bring their bottles home with them.
“We have had some people insist that they can’t,” Shade says. A representative from Princess Cruises confirmed that purchases made in port are welcome on board, and language included in passengers’ passage contract outlines how alcoholic purchases made in port cities will be checked and held by the ship until final disembarkation.
Vacationers aren’t the only ones who get to enjoy these coastal spirits. To sustain their businesses and honor locals, most of these distilleries stay open for business for at least some of the off-season.
“We made a pledge to the community that we would be open in the wintertime,” says Robbins of Uncharted Alaska, a move he hopes in time will inspire other local businesses in Ketchikan to follow suit, preventing the ghost-town feeling that can plague some cruise port towns when the horizon is empty. While acknowledging that profits do slow down in the winter and costs escalate, locals are a critical part of the business to not alienate, and are worth celebrating through consistent access.
“Local sales are our most treasured, and we have an amazing following,” he says.
A Taste of Alaska
Alaska’s Inside Passage distilleries provide more than just an engaging off-ship activity while ships are docked; the products at each distillery also celebrate local flavors. The gins made across all the distilleries on the fjord provide an outlet for showcasing locally foraged botanicals, including juniper berries, spruce tips, rhubarb, and even kelp. Amalga Distillery gets a big assist from its location here, aptly naming its gin Juneauper, while Skagway Spirits points out the high pedigree glacial water gives its products. Port Chilkoot even offers an absinthe made with local wormwood, lemon balm, and anise hyssop.
A focus on local flavors has even become somewhat mandatory. While many of these distilleries share amicable relationships with the bars in their towns, early pushback by popular bars in Juneau against Amalga’s tasting room created a stipulation in local legislation that tasting rooms could only offer cocktails with ingredients made by the distilleries themselves — a challenge that merely upped the Alaskan expertise for these already inventive makers.
“My vision was that there would be a very local, southeastern Alaska product.”
“You can’t make a cocktail with anything you don’t make,” says Heger, who refers to Skagway’s tasting room as her “liquid kitchen,” where she crafts innovative ingredients that approximate the flavors of popular cocktail mixers. There, the cocktail menu includes a Spruce Tip Gin & Tonic, a Rhubarb Collins, and a Fireweed Cosmopolitan.
Despite the inherent challenges that Alaska’s Inside Passage distilleries face, the growth of the industry over the past decade — alongside the growth in cruise tourism to Alaska — has created a marketplace with a symbiotic relationship between travelers and makers, an outcome that speaks to the very genesis of the local industry.
“My vision was that there would be a very local, southeastern Alaska product,” Shade says. “so that when people did come to Alaska, no matter how they got here — by cruise ship, or by car, or ferry — that they would have the opportunity to find something unique and local wherever they went.”