Haines distillery finds its niche with tasting room, bang-up cocktails

The tasting room at the Port Chilkoot Distillery celebrated its one-year anniversary on Halloween. Co-owner Heather Shade helped lead the effort to allow distilleries in the state to operate tasting rooms. The distillery’s specialty cocktails use a wide array of regional ingredients to complement the locally-blended and distilled spirits. The tasting room has added to the distillery’s popularity and helped double their business.

Tasting room manager Macky Cassidy. (Jillian Rogers)
Tasting room manager Macky Cassidy. (Jillian Rogers)

On a recent afternoon, tasting room manager Macky Cassidy is mixing cocktails.

“I like all Old Fashioneds because they’re stirred, and stirred drinks are kind of relaxing to make, kind of mesmerizing,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy stirs and shakes an array of craft concoctions for locals and visitors all year round.

“I really like making the Absinthe-Minded, which is actually a cocktail that Melina Shields came up with when she was bar-tending here and it’s just a nice, well-balanced drink that’s a pretty color and people are usually happy when they get it.”

The creations are devised by Cassidy and the owners of the distillery and include a lot of traditional drinks, with a Haines twist. But sometimes customers request mixtures that sound too tempting not to try.

“Some people have been asking for a collaboration with the brewing company  to do a beer cocktail, that’s something we haven’t done yet that I’d like to explore. And then barrel-aged cocktails is another avenue that we haven’t gone down yet.”

The Port Chilkoot Distillery menu. (Jillian Rogers)
The Port Chilkoot Distillery menu. (Jillian Rogers)

The distillery itself is the only one in Southeast, and has been open for about two years. Co-owner Shade says she thought it would take a lot longer to open the tasting room because of a state law that prohibited on-site sales. But after months of lobbying and testifying, Shade was instrumental in getting a bill passed in the legislature that allowed distilleries to serve a limited amounts of their wares, just like breweries and wineries. And so just a year after the distillery opened its doors, the tasting room was unveiled to the public.

“Well, we really didn’t know what to expect,” said co-owner Shade. “I remember when I asked Macky to come on board as our tasting room manager I said ‘We don’t really know what this is going to be like. I think people will want to come, but they might not.’ And it turned out people really liked it. The tasting room itself kind of seems to mean different things and serves different purposes at different times of the year.”

She says for locals, it’s a spot to catch up with friends, sip a craft cocktail and learn about different drinks they can make at home with their favorite Port Chilkoot spirit. It’s also a chance to get a little marketing in for those out-of-towners.

“Our tasting menu reflects our community and their taste, pretty much – sometimes weird, sometimes diverse, some of them have made it onto the long term menu,” Shade said.

A year ago, the products were limited to Icy Straight Vodka, 50 Fathoms Gin and 12 Volts Moonshine, but over the last 12 months, they’ve added absinthe and two types of whiskey to the menu. The cocktails served up in the tasting room also include a host of local ingredients. Haines-produced Moxie Bitters, cranberry syrup, spruce tips, rose hips, and other regional fruits and flowers are added to spice up the blends.

The whiskey – both bourbon and rye – were revealed earlier this fall and have been wildly popular. Those whiskies are the first made in Alaska, and while they’re young, just two years in the barrels, the reviews are encouraging. The bourbon and rye will hit shelves around the state this month.

The distillery was given a boost earlier this year when they won a regional small-business competition called Path to Prosperity. Shade says the success of both of the wholesale market and the tasting room, means the business will stay open through the winter.

“Having the tasting room and being able to invite visitors in has been huge for us. I think it’s what is allowing us to grow our business.”

She says that the addition of the tasting room has nearly doubled their business. And adjacent to the bar area, in plain view, is the operation itself, with Shade, her husband and partner Sean Copeland, and other helpers blending and pouring and pumping the award-winning spirits in giant tanks.

As for what the future holds, Shade says the growth is calculated. They don’t want to grow too fast, but instead are looking to continue expanding without compromising the process or end result.

“We really like the size we’re at. We really like the size of our team and there’s still room for growth at this size with these people in this space. Although, we are running out of places to put barrels so we’ll need to build or find something soon. We’re trying to keep our growth slow and controlled because that’s our style.”