ON the first stage of our home-bound flight from Alaska, from Anchorage to Seattle in Washington State, I got into one of those unpredictable, expansive conversations you sometimes have on a plane. The passenger next to me was a courtly old man who clearly wanted to chat.
He was in his late 80s and a widower, and over the three-hour flight we talked about everything from his career as a lawyer in the aerospace industry to climate change, from the Pope to craft beer and distilling whisky.
His son and artist daughter-in-law have set up a craft distillery in the Columbia gorges near the Idaho border. It is a very small-scale enterprise, with his son responsible for every aspect of the Scotch whisky and his daughter-in-law designing and planning the image, label and the small shop and tasting room where visitors will be able to try and buy the new Washington whisky.
I told him about the increased interest in small-scale distilling in this country, citing the delicious gins now being produced by a number of skilled artisans – including Conker Spirit in Dorset and the Cotswold Distillery. This was set up to create a new malt whisky, but in the years before the single malt will be available, the team has been developing a spectacularly good gin, rich in botanicals, some of them produced and grown locally.
This led us to the wealth of herbs and plants that grow in Alaska and have been known and used by the indigenous peoples for thousands of years. I speculated on the possibilities for some interesting gins and vodkas there. He then told me about a wealthy medical oncologist he had met in Alaska who had set up a large distillery, but he did not know the name.
Suddenly, as the plane began its descent towards SeaTac airport, a hand popped through from the seat in front, handing me a tiny bottle. The hand was followed by a cheerful face introducing us to the Anchorage Distillery, which had been set up by a group of successful medics (including the oncologist), to create a range of vodkas using the unique botanical riches of Alaska. It is, truly, a very small world.
The Anchorage Distillery was founded on old world traditions, hardworking values and a love for distilling quality spirits. They say: “We define our dedication to a superior spirit enriched with unique quality flavors that only can be derived from the pristine terrain of Alaska. Our grains are grown exclusively in Northern Alaska and distilled only with pristine glacier water. Enjoy all that we have to offer … Taste Alaska.”
They make Arctic Ice Moonshine whiskey, Aurora Borealis, a 100 per cent Alaska Gin, and craft-distilled vodkas flavoured with Alaskan Raspberry, Blueberry, Cranberry and Glacier Melt, made with water from a lake that is fed from one of Alaska’s 100,000 glaciers! There is also the Benefactor Vodka, profits of which go to cancer research.
He told us that his father, Todd Goodew, is the chief executive of the distillery and he explained how they are developing new vodkas including one that will be flavoured with the distinctive ghost pepper. That should be an absolute treat – hot as it is, ghost pepper has such clarity and such complex layers.
Autumn is berry time in Alaska, with the colours of high growth and low growth cranberry (low growth is also known as lingonberry), blueberries, bear berries, soapberries, salmonberries and more turning the hillsides a dazzling spectrum of reds, maroons, rust and blue-black. Human foragers face competition from the inland grizzly bears, for whom the rich berry harvest is a key ingredient in their diet as they prepare for the long winter sleep.
The berries are not only exciting flavours for ice-cold vodka, they also inspire preserve-makers who compete with the grizzlies to pick the various delicious edible berries. We picked low growth cranberries and wild blueberries on a guided hike in the Denali National Park. The dwarf bushes had brilliantly coloured red and purple leaves and the tiny fruit – much smaller than the familiar commercial varieties in supermarkets – exploded in our mouths with bright sweet intensity.
We also discovered a commercially grown berry, Haskap, used to make intensely flavoured, deep blue jams and syrups – derived from a familiar garden plant whose berries are poisonous. But so far from being bad for you, haskaps have many beneficial qualities and a zingy flavour with hints of blueberry, raspberry and elderberry!
The haskap is a member of the honeysuckle (lonicera) family and is grown in Alaska and Canada, where it was first introduced nearly 50 years ago. It is sometimes known as “edible blue Honeysuckle” or “Honeyberry.” It comes from the Japanese island of Hokkaido, and the name derives from “hasukappu,” the name used by the indigenous Ainu.
Haskap berries are oval and look like elongated blueberries. Their skin is dark blue but the flesh is crimson. They are high in anthocyanins, vitamin C, phenolic compounds and other antioxidants and among the health benefits claimed for them are reducing blood pressure and relieving gastrointestinal disorders.
Perhaps the most exciting and uniquely Alaskan product is the Birch Syrup produced by Michael East and Dulce Ben-East by tapping paper birch trees. They started the Kahiltna Birchworks about 25 years ago, and the business, based near Talkeetna, on the edge of the vast Denali National Park, is famous in the state for its production of one of the rarest gourmet foods in the world.
It takes an average of 100 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup, by comparison, averages 40:1. The predominant, naturally occurring sugar in birch syrup is fructose, as opposed to maple which contains primarily sucrose. Fructose is more easily digested and assimilated by the human body and has the lowest glycaemic index of all sugars. Birch syrup is high in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, manganese, thiamin, and calcium.
The trees are tapped in early April when the sap rises during a short two or three week season. The process does not injure the trees. There is a limit of one tap per tree and each tree has a two-year rest between tappings.
The Kahiltna range includes three runs of the Birch Syrup, with the late run syrup offering the darkest and most intense flavour. There is also a birched honey, a wild sauce of rosehips, high bush cranberries and birch syrup, a birch caramel ice-cream topping, other confectionery and the extraordinary birch-orange mustard.
Local chefs love the Kahiltna syrup and we found it widely used, including in creme brulee and as a glaze for fresh wild Alaska salmon.
“Did you see the giant cabbages?” Everybody asked the same question when we said we had been to the Alaska State Fair. Yes, we did, and very impressive they were. The giant pumpkins were due on another day – and the only entry arrived with a crash and a splat as a cable snapped on the crane lifting the huge gourd that was expected to beat the 1,297-pound record.
The State Fair is held near the little town of Palmer in the fertile Matanuska-Susitna Valley (known locally as the Mat-Su or The Valley). It is particularly known for the world record sized cabbages and other vegetables displayed annually in Palmer at the Alaska State Fair.
The fertility of the valley led to its choice for a resettlement project in 1935. As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, during the Great Depression, 203 families from the Midwest were moved to MatSu farmsteads and started the Matanuska Valley Colony. The families came from the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and were chosen because of their similarly cold winter climates.
Many of the original Colony families are still in the valley which is becoming a favourite for developments to serve the growing city of Anchorage about 35 miles to the south.
Another town in the MatSu valley is Wasilla, which achieved unexpected worldwide fame as the home area of the Palin family – Palin-spotting remains a favourite sport for visitors from the lower 48!
Of course, Alaska’s most famous product is its salmon – king, sockeye and silver, each one full of flavour, and readily available both fresh and smoked. The seafood also includes rockfish (rather like sea bass), wonderful moist cod and Alaska king crab which is simply delicious. We were given a useful little gadget which cuts the long legs open so that you can easily extract every last morsel of crabmeat.
Reindeer (the domesticated version of the region’s wild caribou) crops up on menus everywhere, mainly as burgers or sausages. It is milder than you expect, a low-fat, healthy meat which is more affordable than beef in this northern climate where there is little cattle farming.
At the other end of the culinary spectrum, you have Pilot Bread, Alaska’s version of the old sailor’s hard-tack. Everyone has an opinion about Pilot Bread, a large round biscuit, a bit like a slightly over-baked Bath Oliver or a less crunchy, flat Dorset Knob. Some people say you may as well eat cardboard, but for others, like the stall-holder we met at the Alaska State Fair, it is a favourite and sustaining snack. It is no gourmet treat, that’s for sure. But it is typical bush food, providing essential carbs in a simple portable form.
We had no idea what to expect in Alaska – salmon, for sure, moose-burgers perhaps (turned out it was the wrong season), and berries. What we found was so much more interesting. A destination that offers not only some of the world’s most dramatic and beautiful scenery and wildlife, but also innovative and exciting food that makes the most of the bounty of the seas and the harvest of the trackless wilderness of mountains, forests, tundra and taiga.
Pictured: Denali in the early morning, Dramatic light from the unpaved track through the Denali National Park; the view from the Alaska Railroad above the Nenana river; Haskap jam; Birch Syrup and Byrch Syrup caramel sauce; Pilot Bread.