Alaska born, Nevada bound
High Mark Distillery followed the grain and doubled down in Reno.
Felicia Keith-Jones has led an adventurous life, to say the least. She’s taught Indigenous children in remote Alaskan communities, piloted across the Last Frontier in bush planes, trained to be a distiller in Ireland, and launched her own distillery, putting her among the less than 1 percent of distillers who are female.
Today, she crafts high-quality spirits with unique stories behind them — a mix of others’ tales and travels of her own — in Reno, but the start of her distilling journey began 3,000 miles away in the small village of Sterling, Alaska.
When she lost her husband at the age of 34, Keith-Jones and her young sons were at a crossroads. After spending a year of healing in Hawaii, the family returned to Alaska, where Keith-Jones worked for a company that chartered bush planes. One day at the hangar, she met an Irish family of fourth-generation distillers who were scheduled to fly out for an eight-day fishing trip, but the weather wouldn’t cooperate.
After several days of bonding while waiting for flight clearance, the family — in a pre-Airbnb time — suggested a house swap. In exchange for staying at Keith-Jones’ home in Alaska, she and her sons could use the Irish family’s seaside cottage.
“My family in Scotland and a great uncle of mine out of Ireland had really interesting spirits recipes, and they’d always send bottles over, but I had never tried to make any of them myself,” she recalls. “On the trip to Ireland, I got to see some of the greats making their spirits. I thought, ‘You know what? I could do this.’ I started studying for it over there and absolutely fell in love with distilling.”
With a background in science as a teacher and several years spent working with a commission to develop biofuels, Keith-Jones dove into nine months of training in Ireland to become a master distiller.
When she returned to Alaska, she bought a 10-acre ranch and converted the airplane hangar into High Mark Distillery in 2010, which quickly became a hotspot for locals and docked cruise ship passengers.
“For the lifetime of our distillery, all of our organic grains have always come from Winnemucca, including when we were up in Alaska, so when friends from Reno suggested we move here, it made a lot of sense,” she says.
Nearly five years ago, Keith-Jones moved to Reno, bringing with her High Mark’s quality spirits — and an ambition to expand.
The fan favorite, the Scottish hard spirit applejack, was crafted from a family recipe handed down from Keith-Jones’ Great Uncle Tim. It’s made from organic, heritage apples grown at Big Canyon Acres in Idaho, where High Mark has exclusive access to the fruit.
“I thought every family, like ours, had applejack on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. I didn’t realize it was so weird in America,” she says. “There are only five of us in the United States right now that actually make true applejack.”
For a lighter alternative to High Mark Apple Jack’s 50 proof, try the Apple Jane at 25 proof. High Mark’s vodka is a twist on the recipe Keith-Jones learned in Ireland and made with 100 percent Nevada-grown spring white wheat.
“The last thing our vodka ever touches is ground coconut shells off the Big Island in Hawaii, which we filter it through,” says Keith-Jones, who saw a brewer use the technique during her year-long stay in The Aloha State.
High Mark’s foray into moonshine, Blind Cat Moonshine made with Silver State sweet corn, came after she acquired a recipe from a bootlegger named Arthur in West Virginia.
“He’s been moonshining since he was nine years old, with his dad and granddad. He has never once wanted to be legal. He just enjoys making it. The knowledge and American history he brings to the table is stuff that I’d never be able to learn at a distilling school anywhere,” she says. “Being trusted with his recipe for the lifetime of our distillery was a huge honor.”
From there, Keith-Jones began to incorporate fruit into her spirits, starting with the Blueberry Cobbler Shine made from a 118-year-old recipe she received from the family that runs Gatorland in Florida. Cherry Vanilla Shine and Peach Ginger Shine came soon after.
Barrel of Fun
High Mark’s barrel-aged bourbon gives patrons a chance to get hands on by adopting their own barrel, which allows them to host barrel-filling and bottling parties and be involved in the whole process.
“People love to have a tapping party,” Keith-Jones says. “They check those barrels for humidity and temperature and give it a good waxing if they need to or check for evaporation, so they are coming in frequently.”
At High Mark’s tasting room, located at the corner of Longley Lane and Mira Loma Drive in East Reno, Keith-Jones and her knowledgeable staff tell the stories behind the recipes and teach the proper way to sip high-proof spirits. It also serves as the venue for workshops, such as a recent Kahlua-making class — albeit a temporary one. High Mark is in the process of building a new 12,000-square-foot production facility and tasting room in South Reno.
“A temperature-controlled barrel room! It’s every distiller’s dream,” she says. “I always said that if this industry got in the way of me being the best mom I could possibly be, then I was out. But it’s allowed the boys to travel all over the world with me, and so far it’s been such a cool blessing for our family.”
As a writer, Claire McArthur admires Felicia Keith-Jones’ commitment to storytelling when it comes to her high-quality spirits — and her contagious passion for the industry.
High Mark Distillery & Barrel House
4690 Longley Lane, Ste. 28, Reno
775-622-9188 • Highmarkdistillery.com