FAIRBANKS — The scent of fermenting barley filled the air in Rob Borland’s shop on Sunday afternoon, a sour fragrance that he’s been dreaming about for more than a year.
Borland hopes it’s the smell of a promising start.
With a pair of modest homemade stills in one end of the room, his otherwise anonymous shop off Becker Ridge is the new home of Ursa Major Distilling. The batch of vodka that Borland started Sunday makes his business the first local entry into Alaska’s tiny but growing liquor production industry.
“It’s pretty much going to be a hobby and a part-time job, and we’ll see where it goes,” Borland said. “So far we’re having a lot of fun with it.”
If all goes as expected, Borland hopes to have his first batch of Long Winter Vodka on local liquor store shelves in May. He plans to follow it up with vodkas infused with Interior Alaska berries and a gin flavored with juniper and spruce tips.
Borland, who works as the assistant fire chief for the Ester Volunteer Fire Department, has been working for more than a year to get to this point.
It began unexpectedly in early 2012, when Borland and his wife, Tara, took a winter vacation to the Caribbean. During a tour of a rum factory, Borland was fascinated by the process. He returned home with the itch to try it himself.
But unlike beer brewers, who can dabble in home batches, small-scale distillers need to work their way through a series of grueling steps to manufacture liquor legally. It requires more than a half-dozen state and federal permits to distill even a drop of alcohol, and Borland spent more than a year navigating the process.
It required the construction of a separate distilling building near his home, as well as a small barbed-wire fence to provide a mandated zone of separation from his residence, even though no public tasting or direct sales are allowed.
He finally got his federal permit in January, allowing distilling to begin. By the time bottles are being filled, the Borlands figure they’ll have invested about $75,000 into the project.
“I knew it was going to be hard,” Rob said. “I didn’t know it was going to be as hard and frustrating as it has been.”
Borland has no background in distilling, and has spent the last year poring through books to learn as much as he can about the craft. But both he and Tara have backgrounds that they say have made their project much easier.
Tara, who works at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Community and Rural Development, has a background in chemistry and understands the distilling process. Rob has found his experience in a more unexpected place — he previously worked at the Flint Hills refinery, where he worked to transform petroleum into refined fuel.
Borland said making fuel and alcohol are surprisingly similar processes.
“If you were to put crude oil in there, you could refine it,” he said, pointing to his still. “It’s really the same system, but you’re starting with a different feedstock.”
Vodka can be distilled from pretty much anything — potatoes, wheat or even fruit. Borland plans to make his recipe from Delta-grown barley, providing a distinctive Alaska touch to his spirits. Vodka requires less culinary finesse than other varieties, and Borland is confident he has the skills and ingredients make a smooth, pure and tasty product.
“Vodka is a little more science than art, so that’s what we’re going to start with,” he said.
Borland plans to expand to gin next, with a spirit he plans to flavor with juniper berries and spruce tips. If that’s a success, whiskey and even rum could follow, if he can figure out how to put a northern twist on the Caribbean standby.
Making liquor is a small industry in the state, with only the Alaska Distillery in Palmer and Bare Distillery in Anchorage operating. Borland said he knows of a few distillers who are working their way through the licensing process in other parts of Alaska.
With a growing movement toward eating more local foods, Borland figures it’s the right time to embrace distilling.
“I was a brewer all through college, but I kind of missed the whole microbrew thing. I hope I’m getting in on the ground floor on this,” he said.