At left, Port Chilkoot Distillery owners Heather Shade and Sean Copeland are seen next to their still, March 31 in Haines. The distillery, which began selling liquor in October, is about to enter its first tourist season. Below are examples of the three liquors produced by the distillery to date.
Port Chilkoot Distillery owner Heather Slade tests raw whiskey from her distillery's still March 31 in Haines.
Port Chilkoot distillery owner Heather Shade holds a graduated cylinder of raw whiskey as she tests its purity.
Story last updated at 4/16/2014 - 4:15 pm
At Haines' Port Chilkoot Distillery, the key ingredient isn't the corn that comes in 300-pound lots. It isn't the fresh water that comes from the Chilkat River.
It isn't even the shining copper still made in Kentucky.
Distilling, unlike brewing, needs time better measured with a calendar than a watch. It takes a week to produce a batch of vodka, a month to produce a bottle of gin, and more than three years to complete a barrel of whiskey.
"That's one of the biggest challenges of a business like this," said owner Heather Shade during a tour last month.
Shade and her husband Sean Copeland own Port Chilkoot, which is entering its first tourist season.
The pair opened the distillery - Alaska's fifth and the first in Southeast - in October. Their bottled work has already spread across Alaska, but they hope this summer's sales will give them the time they need to complete the first bottle of their love - whiskey.
On the last day of March, Shade completed another batch of raw whiskey and examined it in a clear cylinder. Clear and harsh-smelling, it's sold under the brand name 12 Volts Moonshine.
On the opposite side of the distillery - a restored former Army bakery - are stacks of oaken barrels slowly turning the raw whiskey into the amber, refined stuff that comes to mind when you think "whiskey."
"We don't mind doing (vodka, gin and moonshine), but the whiskey is a lot more fun," Copeland said.
Shade and Copeland got their start almost two years ago, after the pair visited a friend of a friend in Colorado who had a distillery.
It seemed like the perfect idea for Haines - a town with a microbrewery, several organic farms and passion for locally made products.
They learned the distillery trade, brought the former bakery (built in 1904 as part of Haines' Fort Seward), and Copeland turned his carpentry skills loose on the building.
They acquired a still from the Kentucky company that supplies Jack Daniel's distillery, jumped through federal and state regulatory hoops, then started production in October.
"We're constantly getting better at it," Shade said.
Shade and Copeland are also making a stir statewide, backing a bill to make the rules governing distilleries similar to those governing the state's breweries.
Under existing law, when tourists arrive in Haines this summer, they'll be able to tour the distillery - but they won't be able to try anything.
According to state law, distilleries can only sell to middlemen who then sell to liquor stores, bars and restaurants.
When this summer's tourists - and Alaskans, for that matter - walk into Port Chilkoot, they can buy T-shirts and hats, but no liquor, not even a taste. For that, they have to walk down the street to the liquor store.
"We'd like it to be not just a manufacturing plant; we'd like it to be a place to visit," Shade said.
That doesn't just go for the distillery, it goes for Haines as a whole.
Shade and Copeland say their ultimate goal is to create a destination, to employ locals and sell regionally. "Haines is our home, and we want to do something special here," Shade said.
They acknowledge that business would be cheaper in Juneau or Anchorage, but Haines is their home.
If it takes a little longer to build a business there, that's OK.
It's only a matter of time.