The mix-up over craft distilleries in Alaska

Since opening, Amalga Distillery, like all the micro-distilleries in the Last Frontier, has been overwhelmed by the support of the community and local businesses. Which is why distillers were left scratching their heads when a new analysis of tasting room rules by regulators on Alaska’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, conducted largely at the behest of lobbyists working for competing interests, disallowed the serving of cocktails.

Brandon Howard is a co-founder of Amalga, and its head distiller. Recently he penned a letter to the editor, outlining his concerns. It so clearly communicates the important subtleties of craft distilling that we at MicroShiner support that we asked him if we could re-publish it here in full. - editor

“We built a truly local distillery and tasting room, similar to what customers in the Lower 48 get to experience at their craft breweries and distilleries. Distilleries have been operating with tasting rooms for the last three years after the passage of House Bill 309, so we were surprised by the regulatory reversal and sharp animosity from a few downtown business owners. We have tried to keep our heads down; however, letters such as Kim Metcalfe’s recent My Turn mislead the public. Metcalfe lacks understanding of our industry and is out of touch with the wants of the consumer, implying the State of Alaska is not doing enough to curb our growth saying, “The AMCO regulations may seem petty, but I don’t think they go far enough.” The consumer overwhelmingly disagrees.

Metcalfe says in her letter, “I do not know the owners.” But that is the beauty of our tasting room: you get to meet me, and hear the story and production processes directly from me. We have no secrets. This is why the modern distillery is not simply a factory — as consumer preference becomes more and more local, distilleries and breweries become more and more a part of the community. Craft producers are revitalizing old spaces that have been vacant for years and creating a product and experience with our community in mind. We built a space to showcase our brand and our values, complete with perfectly legal seating so that people don’t need to go directly out into the world after consuming. Metcalfe wrote that, “In fact, it is against state law (AS 04.11.170) to have bar stools in tasting rooms …” In fact, it is not.

Others have tried to cast doubt and attempt to undermine the credibility of craft producers in the state. Metcalfe suggests distillers are just flavoring bulk alcohol. Alaskan distillers produce bourbon, rye, single malt whiskey, absinthe, rum using sourdough, vodkas from Alaskan grain and potatoes, gins with local botanicals and more. Metcalfe criticizes the use of Neutral Grain Spirits (NGS), echoing the concerns Jared Curé, owner of The Narrows. In his public letter to the ABC board, he called it “the dirty secret of the ‘craft distillers,’” asserting that “it isn’t real manufacturing.” Important fact: gin is made from NGS. It is the blank canvas of the gin distiller, like flour to a baker. Curé learned about our sourcing by somehow obtaining our shipping documents from AML showing the shipment of NGS from Anchorage Distillery to Amalga. An easier way to have learned this information would have been to walk up the street and talk to us. We proudly start with NGS from 100 percent Alaskan grain supporting Alaskan farmers. The true “dirty secret” of the craft that the consumer is often unaware of is that many whiskey “distilleries” source whiskey from a big producer and bottle it as their own. Fun fact: distilleries in Alaska pushed through a state regulation that prohibits this practice in Alaska.

As for our costs, Metcalfe accuses us of selling $5 cocktails at margins that bars cannot achieve. In reality, it is more expensive to produce a bottle of Juneauper Gin than it is for a bar to purchase a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Metcalfe does not know our bottom line, yet she is willing to speculate and create misleading arguments. While completely unfamiliar with our industry, Metcalfe, Curé and others have taken it upon themselves to spread false rumors. Meanwhile, large special interest groups like CHARR continue to enable them and sway our Representatives despite significant public support.

I would like to bring the conversation back to what the issue is about. Can we mix the drink for you, or do you have to mix it yourself? It is the same 3 ounces either way.

Where Metcalfe and I do agree, is that this state has a problem with alcohol. When Metcalfe brings the conversation to public safety, and I look down the block, I don’t believe that whether we can or cannot mix the drink for our customer is where the conversation should begin.”

Amalga craft microdistillery in Juneau, Alaska
MicroShinercraft, spirits