Two distillery apps vie for one Skagway license

Skagway residents could be sipping locally crafted spirits in the near future. Two entrepreneurs have applied for distillery liquor licenses in Skagway. Their applications are part of a growing craft distillery market in Alaska. But there can only be one distillery in the Gateway to the Klondike.

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Haines’ Port Chilkoot Distillery Icy Strait Vodka, 50 Fathoms Gin and 12 Volts Moonshine. (Photo by Emily Files, KHNS - Haines)
Haines’ Port Chilkoot Distillery Icy Strait Vodka, 50 Fathoms Gin and 12 Volts Moonshine. (Photo by Emily Files, KHNS – Haines)

The two distillery liquor license applications came before the Skagway Borough Assembly in the past six months. The first, in November, was from Gary Heger, for a distillery called ‘Skagway Spirits.’ The second, which came before the assembly last week, is from Dan and Christine Turner, for a distillery dubbed ‘Alaska Stillman.’

“There’s only one distillery license allowed in Skagway,” said Cynthia Franklin, director of the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office.

She said only one distillery is allowed per 3,000 people in Alaskan towns and cities. So why are there two applications for Skagway?

“Should [Heger] not be able to produce, we’re waiting to step in,” said Joel Probst, the project manager for Alaska Stillman.

Probst said the Turners know there’s only one distillery allowed in Skagway. But they want to be next in line if Heger’s Skagway Spirits license doesn’t go through.

“The vision is to get four to five full-time people working and having a year round operation there with the ability to export a commodity that’s flavorful and appealing to broader audience,” Probst said.

Heger did not respond to requests for comment by deadline for this report. But according to Franklin, it looks like his Skagway Spirits venture is on track to get final license approval. The alcohol control board is scheduled to make a final decision on Skagway Spirits’ license at its April 26 meeting.

“It really is first come, first serve. Skagway applied for the license, if they meet the requirements, which they have every indication that they will, the board gives that person the license,” Franklin said. “The board doesn’t have the authority to deny the license because there’s someone else coming up behind them that says hey we have a better idea for a distillery. Skagway can only have one.”

Franklin says back when state regulations around liquor licenses were established, they couldn’t have foreseen the ‘sea change’ in the alcohol market that’s happened in the past decade or so.

“You have this rise of craft breweries, craft distilleries, brewpubs,” said Franklin. “When our rules were written in 1980, we had no manufacturing of alcohol in Alaska we imported all of our alcohol…So these rules were written for a very specific market that’s changed drastically.”

“There’s currently five operating distillery licenses in Alaska and it looks like it’s going to at least double over the next year,” said Heather Shade, owner of the Port Chilkoot Distillery and president of the Distillers Guild of Alaska.

Shade said distillery license applications have cropped up across the state, not just in Skagway, but Juneau, Fairbanks, Homer.

“I think it’s a good trend,” Shade said. “The micro-distilling industry has the potential to create good, local manufacturing jobs and to support partner industries such as Alaska agriculture and tourism. So I see it as a good thing that our state can encourage and tap into.”

Shade said the entrepreneurs behind Skagway Spirits recently joined the distillers guild.

The question of which business will get Skagway’s only distillery license could be answered by the end of April.