Sterling distillery races to fulfill demand

It’s not a shot-type spirit in the least, said High Mark Distillery owner Felicia Keith-Jones. The Sterling-based distillery produces a unique spirit called applejack, an alcoholic beverage produced from apples. Her recipe has Scottish roots.

 

“So, you may get some haggis on the table, and as you’re getting ready to take a bite here comes the relief,” she said recalling Christmas dinners with the family. “They’d sip the applejack from glasses.”

Keith-Jones’s operation is steeped in family tradition, Alaska loyalty and community involvement. She dove head first into distilling on a trip to Scotland in 2010, and the distillery still is in its infancy. Local bars and Alaska liquor stores have offered Keith-Jones contracts, more than she could handle. As a result, the business is expanding beyond expectations.

Not wholly unfamiliar with how to operate a business, Keith-Jones began investing in real estate after having two sons; she wanted to stay close to home. At the time, her husband worked for American Fast Freight. He died five years ago, and everything changed for the widowed mother.

She flew freight in Barrow for two years. One night, hunkered down in a bunker, she was tasked with entertaining two Scottish travelers. After much palaver, Keith-Jones and the travelers agreed to swap homes. The travelers owned a cottage in Ardara, Scotland, a small town on the northwestern tip of the country.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Keith-Jones was introduced to the owners of a local distillery, who taught her until she received a distilling license. She also studied at Bushmills and Jameson, both in Ireland. She finished a master’s course at Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash.

“(Dry Fly) gave me full reign over its distillery, so I could determine if it was really something I wanted to do,” she said.

A great uncle in Scotland released the Keith family recipe when Keith-Jones became serious about opening a distillery.

Fast-forward though equipment purchases and logistics meetings, Keith-Jones opened High Mark Distillery about two months ago. The distillery and shop are located in a hangar on the same land as her residence. The hangar is the product of Keith-Jone’s love of aviation, but it’s the perfect fit for a distillery as well. High Mark’s rectifying tower is 23 feet high; the hanger is 25 feet high.

The distillery currently produces two spirits: Nickel Back Apple Jack and High Mark Vodka. In March, it will introduce a moonshine called Blind Cat.

“That’s mean cat,” Keith-Jones said.

Currently, the distillery can produce 40 to 55 cases of spirits a day. There are a dozen 750 milliliter bottles per case. Bars are requesting one-liter bottles, Keith-Jones said. All batches made at the distillery have sold out, she said.

Bars offering High Mark Spirits on the Kenai Peninsula include the Duck Inn, the Upper Deck, the Backdoor, Hooligan’s and Main Street Tap & Grill; the stores carrying the products include Country Foods and Three Bears in Kenai and Vaughn’s Minimart and Save-U-More on Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Keith-Jones recently negotiated a contract with Brown Jug, and she’ll provide the spirits to five stores initially. The liquor-store chain wants at least 19 stores covered by summer. High Mark vodka is paired up with Red Bull for a concert series in Juneau — Keith-Jones returned from the state capital after landing more contracts. Oaken Keg also has contacted the distillery.

The response has been overwhelming. The business’s distilling equipment was shipped off for upgrades; they needed to be larger to keep up with demand, Keith-Jones said.

“It’s the best problem in the world to have,” she said. “There’s always problems. But you can experience one of two things: tons of product nobody wants to buy or limited product because you didn’t comprehend it would blow up as quickly as it did.”

Demand is coming from outside the country, too. The distillery received a call from a business owner in Cape Town, South Africa interested in buying some. Keith-Jones said she’s uninterested in being everywhere at the moment.

“I’m one of those loyal girls, so I’m going to take care of Alaska first,” she said.

Alaska heritage permeates the business. High Mark holds three meanings. First, high marking while snow machining refers to the rider who can take his or her rig the furthest up the mountain, grabbing the “high mark.” Second, in commercial fishing the high mark in the maximum load a vessel can accrue before sinking; it means money and good times. Third, bears mark trees to stake territory, claiming to be the biggest and baddest in the forest.

High Mark is the biggest and baddest, Keith-Jones said.

She’d eventually like to produce a signature series of Notorious Alaskans for her bottles. It’s OK if people in the Lower 48 “don’t get it,” she said, because Alaskans live and breathe the culture.

Her long-term goals include using her residence as a bed and breakfast, establishing tours for the distillery and converting an unfinished barn on the property into a bourbon barn, a future product she’s already named Why Not Whiskey.

Visit High Mark Distillery in Sterling at 37200 Thomas Street in Sterling or call 260-3399 for more information.

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