Like so many Yukoners during this crazy low-bush cranberry season, I’m clearing out the freezer to make room for berries. In the process I’ve unearthed several treasures: 10 kilos of pork bones, 3 duck carcasses, 2 whole Taku River sockeye, undated, and best of all, 3 bags of spruce tips, harvested in 2014, that I’d completely forgotten about.

I’ve roasted the bones and the carcasses and turned them into stock, dry-cured  and smoked the salmon and, with the happy spruce tip windfall, made a big batch of syrup, enough to last until spring. That is, under normal circumstances.

But there’s a problem. I’ve found a new use for spruce tip syrup.

On a recent visit to the Tasting Room at the Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines Alaska, my friend and fellow cook Lyn Fabio ordered a Spruced Up Old Fashioned from Macky Cassidy, the charming manager. This crisp, cool, revitalizing cocktail offered up a triple dose of spruce flavour—in spirit, sweetener and bitters.  

The spirit was the distillery’s 50 Fathoms Gin, a crisp, London-dry style gin with up-front notes of juniper and, the element that transforms the gin into something truly unique, a bright and elusive shiver of fresh spruce at the finish.  

Professional tasters love this gin — in 2015 it won gold at the American Craft Spirits Association Tasting Awards in Austin, Texas, and double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

“We were competing with the big name gins there so we’re really proud of that one,” says Heather Shade, co-founder of Port Chilkoot Distillery with her husband, Sean Copeland. Pretty good for a distillery that launched its first small-craft spirit just two years ago.

Shade and Copeland had long been fans of micro-brewed beer and small-batch craft spirits. They loved Haines, too, but in order to stay they needed work. So they combined passion with practicality, renovated a historic, Fort Seward building (Copeland, a master carpenter, did the work) installed stills and barrels, started distilling, and opened their doors in September 2013. In 2014, after successfully lobbying the State of Alaska for new legislation allowing tasting rooms in distilleries, they added the Tasting Room and hired Cassidy, who shares their enthusiasm for local flavours and invents many of the cocktails  

Shade says the beauty of small-batch distilling is the flexibility it provides — they can experiment with wild and cultivated indigenous ingredients to make uniquely flavoured, truly northern spirits.

Local farmers custom-grow botanicals, and Cassidy incorporates made-in Haines artisanal products into her cocktails. Dipper Kitchen provides highbush cranberry and other syrups, while the spruce tip bitters (a brilliant use of spruce tips) in my new favourite cocktail were made by Moxie Bitters, a tiny cottage industry owned by local Margaret Freidenauer, who will soon move in-house and sell her line under the distillery’s label.

You can buy these products at the Tasting Room — another great reason to visit the distillery. Fabio and I each brought a small vial of spruce tip bitters and a rather larger vial of Fathom 50 Gin home with us, eager to reproduce that dynamite cocktail. The Distillery makes its own spruce tip syrup — we figured we could do that, too.

I found the forgotten spruce tips, made the syrup, and took a jar over to Fabio’s house. And now she shares my problem. The supply of syrup is dwindling. Another visit to Haines may be required. But that’s okay, because there’s the fabulous new bourbon to try (again) and the absinthe made with locally-grown herbs (Artemisia absinthium, lemon balm, anise hyssop), and clearly I’ll need more gin…

Spruce Tip Syrup

4 cups (1L) fresh or frozen spruce tips

4 cups (1L) water

1 ½ cups (325 mL) sugar

2 tbsp. (30 mL) fresh lemon juice

Bring water and spruce tips to the boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. Strain through cheesecloth into a clean pot. Stir in sugar and lemon juice, bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars, cool and refrigerate. Will keep for up to four months.

Makes about three 1-cup (250 mL) jars.

Spruced Up Old Fashioned

Adapted from the Tasting Room

2 oz. 50 Fathoms Gin

½ oz. spruce tip syrup

3 drops spruce tip bitters

lemon wedge

Stir gin, syrup and bitters with ice. Pour into a rocks glass over one large ice cube. Squeeze lemon wedge over top and drop into glass.