By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
The alcohol distillery industry in Alaska has been consumed of late by a series of lengthy regulatory measures, particularly since August of 2017 where the Advisory Marijuana and Control Office (AMCO) released an advisory that prohibited the making of cocktails with off-site ingredients at distilleries. Though the use of non-alcoholic mixers, syrups and garnishes have been given the green light by the legislature, other standards such as tasting room aesthetics and sample sizes for the 10 spirit distilleries within the state are still up for discussion.
In Sept. 19, 2014 the Alaska Legislature passed House Bill 309, which gives Alaska distilleries the opportunity to utilize tasting rooms however they see fit for business. The law limits tasting at distilleries to three ounces of consumption per customer per day. In comparison to other alcohol-based facilities, wineries are allowed to serve 18 ounces, breweries can serve 36 ounces and restaurants and bars do not currently have a cap on the number of drinks sold to a customer.
Three years later, controversy emerged involving distilleries and the use of mixed drinks in order to market products. Because of uncertain intent in state law and regulations, amendments have been proposed, with compromise between bars and distilleries or breweries being the ultimate goal.
This May, Senate Bill 76 – which would have overhauled the state alcohol laws – was pulled from the table, but a last-minute amendment was put to Senate Bill 45, which addressed the issue of cocktails.
SB 45 would amend the relevant laws to read that the holder of a distillery license may combine the distillery’s product – defined as an alcoholic beverage distilled on the licensed premises – with other ingredients including mixers, liquids or garnishes that are not alcoholic.
That bill is currently on its way to the governor’s desk.
Beth Smith, owner of Skagway bar Happy Endings, believes both distilleries and breweries keep the town fresh and she says they are an asset to the local community.
“I am kind of surprised it has become such a big deal,” Smith said. “I don’t see them as a problem. I don’t see them [distilleries] as competition. I just think they add to the diversity of town and it’s nice to be able to work together with everybody rather than fight with everybody.”
According to Joel Probst, manager of Klondike Brewing Company, “that’s just the reality” as far as vying for the after-work crowd.
“It’s not as big of a contentious issue in Skagway as it is in some of the other communities,” Probst said.
All in all, Skagway Spirits Distillery co-owner Janilyn Heger says she feels elated and relieved that the amendment was pushed through in her business’s favor, especially prior to her one-year anniversary with Skagway Spirits on June 22.
“I would like to think that it’s entirely behind us, but I don’t know,” Heger said. “We will be vigilant in what comes before the ABC [Alcohol Beverage Control] board and if anything happens with the legislature.”
Heger is one of the eight distilleries to join the Alaskan Distilleries Guild. Many guild members sought both advice from their own lawyers as well as banding together with the distilleries statewide. She said it always comes down to the same question: Why are distilleries considered a threat to business when bars offer such diverse experiences?
“If I were a bar owner and I looked at a distillery as competition, I might be embarrassed, Heger said. “You know it’s like we have two spirits, not a full bar, two spirits. But all we can do is serve three ounces with the two spirits we make.
“A bar has a huge variety of spirits and can make any number of alcohols and concoctions with it and they can do that until the wee hours of the night. They can have TVs and pull tabs and entertainment and we can do none of those things.”
Bar owners in the state have previously stated a desire to equalize the playing field, and that distilleries should not operate de facto bars, however The Skagway News reached out to multiple bars within the state on this issue, and all declined to provide a comment pertaining to this topic.
It’s been a long-drawn out ‘win’ for distilleries, but Alaskans are still restless, searching for a better solution that benefits both parties.
“They’ve been working on the Title 4 rewrite for six years,” Probst said. “Everyone from every part of the industry was involved, from public health to distillers to brewers to bar owners to public safety. All of these people were at the table.”