Alaska is called the last frontier for good reason. The vast majority of its land is unsettled, reachable only by airplane (when the weather is cooperating) or dogsled (when it isn’t). When it comes to homegrown booze, the nickname is apt as well.
Alaska has been among the final states to climb aboard the distilled spirits bandwagon. It wasn’t until 2014, in fact, that distilleries here were allowed to offer tours and tastings. With the passing of House Bill 309, the industry entered the modern era. The Distillers Guild of Alaska was established soon thereafter. Today, it holds nine members and counting. Anchorage Distillery is one of its most prolific and is set to become the first Alaskan operation to distribute widely throughout the Lower 48.
“We get all of our grain from local farmers,” says Bob Klein, the CEO of Anchorage Distillery. “Our rye and wheat come from the nearby Matanuska Valley in Palmer. The barley comes from Delta Junction, outside of Fairbanks.”
The sourcing doesn’t just make for a good story on the label. It also affects the flavor of the resulting liquid, even for so-called neutral grain spirit. Most vodka makers simply source industrial ethanol, run it through rectification and proof it down. But for Anchorage’s Glacier Melt vodka, Klein and master distiller Travis Lee are starting from scratch, using 100 percent Alaskan-grown barley.
“It imparts a unique flavor to all of our products,” says Klein. “Up in Delta Junction, the growing season is much shorter. The vegetation is exposed to much more sunlight in the summer, and the soil is the product of all sorts of glacial movement. We try to make sure that shines through.”
Glacier Melt is slightly sweet in the finish and creamy on the palate—a smoother drinking experience than you might expect with vodka. After all, most big brands on shelves today are distilled from corn, wheat and even potatoes. Barley—not so much.
Its characteristics are distinctive enough that when the spirit is used at the base of Anchorage’s Aurora gin, the grain notes are at least as discernible as the botanical overlay. “We thought we had something pretty special, so I entered it into a bunch of competitions,” says Klein. “Judges found some flavors and aromas from the grain rather than the botanicals—everything from shoe leather and tobacco to fresh-cut grass. We got some delightful off-the-wall tasting notes.”
In addition to obscure descriptors, the judges also awarded them praise. In 2017, Aurora gin, a fairly classic London dry style, took home gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. At the same time, Anchorage was making strides back home, scoring an exclusive contract with the Alaska Railroad, the main mode of transit for visitors to Denali National Park.
“Tourism is a huge portion of business up here,” says Klein. “So when we got on trains, moving most of the tourists around the state, and in the duty-free for the cruise ships, that really exposed us in a big way.”
Next up was building out a proper tasting room, complicated more by matters of legality than actual construction. “[Craft distilling] is so new that the government didn’t really know what to do with us,” says Klein. “Bars generally look at tasting rooms as competition. But because we’re located in an industrial area [just outside of downtown Anchorage], we faced less resistance from them.”
Despite restrictions (they can’t have barstools or live entertainment; they can only create cocktails using alcohol distilled on-site), they’ve been attracting a growing number of fans to their quaint confines, fashioned to mimic a 19th-century-era mining shaft. Visitors today won’t find barstools. They will, however, encounter barrels—as Anchorage is now laying down whiskey. “We’re committed to local grains, so we’ll be doing a rye as well as a barley and wheat,” says Klein. “We’re reserving the ability to kind of blend these barrels to flavor.” The casks are a combination of new oak in addition to ex-bourbon and ex-Jack Daniel’s. Klein expects some of them to be ready to bottle in just over a year.
In the meantime, Anchorage’s four-person crew is having a blast working with their essence stills, experimenting with vibrant additives such as ghost pepper and fresh blueberries. For the master distiller, flavor development here assumes more of a role of chef than technical scientist. “This isn’t just throw a switch and see what comes out on the other end,’” says Klein. “There’s a lot of inventiveness and tasting that goes into everything we produce.”