Drinking on the Last Frontier, by Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
As someone who lives there, it certainly would not surprise me to learn that there was a whiskey still somewhere in Sterling. After all, there’s a reason we all chose to live out there, right? However, I was surprised to learn earlier this year that Sterling would be home to a legitimate (as opposed to illicit) distillery.
High Mark Distillery is part of the 10-acre High Mark Ranch, located on Thomas Street, off Scout Lake Road. It is owned by Felicia Keith-Jones, and takes its name from her late husband’s favorite pastime. Other distillery personnel include her executive assistant Jeannie Brewer, her brother and master distiller Ray Keith, and distiller Roger Phillips. The distillery is housed in a 5,000-square-foot building and consists of a 450-liter copper pot still and 23-foot-tall copper column still, both manufactured in Germany specifically for High Mark.
Keith-Jones has an extensive background in the making of spirits, having studied distillation and fermentation at the Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., and then spending several months working at a distillery in the town of Ardara in County Donegal, Ireland. She is originally from Alaska and also has a degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage.
She told me that her vision for High Mark was to fuse “old recipes and traditional techniques with modern technology.”
To that end, she’s purchased state-of-the-art equipment, like her pot and column stills, but will be using them to make spirits in traditional ways.
She also is very interested in utilizing Alaska ingredients, so much so that she is working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to develop a strain of white spring wheat suitable for distillation, which can be grown around Delta Junction. Test acreage will be planted this spring, and the outlook is promising. However, until suitable wheat can be grown in state, she is paying to have wheat shipped up here from Washington for milling on site prior to distillation.
Currently, High Mark has plans to offer three different spirits. First, there’s Blind Cat Moonshine, the traditional “white lightning” that all of us who grew up in the South are familiar with. It will be 90 proof and available in 375-ml or 750-ml bottles.
Next, Arctic Ice Vodka will be 80 proof and only sold in specially designed 750-ml bottles. Finally, Nickel Back Apple Jack, a traditional Scottish hard apple spirit made to a recipe handed down by Keith-Jones’ great uncle Tim, will be 50 proof and available in 750-ml bottles or half-gallon growlers.
While I was there to conduct my interview for this article, I tasted a small sample of the Nickel Back Apple Jack and found it delicious. It had a rich, spicy apple flavor, but with plenty of alcohol to back it up. I am certainly much more familiar with tasting beer than spirits, but I know a good thing when I taste it, and Nickel Back Apple Jack certainly qualifies.
Looking long term, Keith-Jones has lots of exciting plans. She would like to open a bed and breakfast in a house that is next to the distillery. She’d also like to turn the barn on the property into a climate-controlled bourbon house to allow her to properly age whiskey in barrels. Eventually, she thinks High Mark Ranch might become a major stopping point for tourists visiting the Kenai, given that Morgan’s Landing State Recreation area is so close by.
Personally, I am extremely excited to see a business like High Mark open on the peninsula. With five breweries, a winery, a meadery and now a distillery, the Kenai is becoming quite the producer of artisanal alcoholic beverages.
Besides providing all of us who live here with easy access to such quality local products, all of these businesses will act as a magnet for tourists, encouraging them to come here and spend their money.
There will be a premiere party at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, at the Duck Inn on Kalifornsky Beach to launch this new distillery. Their new distillery table will be unveiled and the first 100 folks in the door will receive snowmachine tool bags.
Finally, in the shameless personal-plug department, I will be teaching my annual class on the art and history of brewing during the spring semester at Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College. The class will be held from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. Tuesdays from Jan. 22 to April 30. We taste beers in class, tour all the local breweries and generally have a fine time learning to increase our appreciation of good beer. It is a one-credit course, with the cost of the beers to be tasted included. Call 262-0330 for more information.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska —Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.