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Kodiak Island Brewing bets on spirits to reinvigorate business

Ben Millstein and his dog, Phineas in the back room of the brewery, surrounded by beer stills, May 5, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)
Ben Millstein and his dog, Phineas in the back room of the brewery, surrounded by beer stills, May 5, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

This spring, Kodiak Island Brewing debuted a gin they’ve been working on for months. Labels are in, and the new liquor is now available at the brewery’s tasting room. It’s the business’ latest bet to bring a new, spirited customer base back after a post-pandemic dip in sales.

The brewery has been experimenting with spirits lately. They debuted a vodka last year, they’re currently aging whiskey, and the brewery started selling gin earlier this month. Ben Millstein is Kodiak Island Brewing’s founder and owner. He said this latest project has been going for a while.

“You want to make something distinctive yet not too bizarre, and it just takes a while to get a good ingredient list together and technique and all that,” he said. “I’m a little bit new to the spirit world, so it maybe took me longer than it might have taken some people but that’s been really exciting.”

The new gin is primarily flavored with juniper – common in gins. But Millstein also incorporated other ingredients to give it a signature flavor with hints of ginger, citrus, and even kelp.

Spirits are the brewery’s latest endeavor to get more customers through the door. It was partly spurred by the pandemic, which has been tough on restaurants and bars. Millstein said small business grants helped for a while, but he’s still not sure the brewery will survive.

“To be honest, I’m not sure we’re going to come out of the red. This is our 20th anniversary – I’m not sure we’re going to see 21,” Millstein said. “It’s just people’s habits have changed. The post-pandemic economy will be different than the pre-pandemic economy.”

Recently, the brewery started selling its vodka at local restaurants. They’re trying to sell it at local liquor stores as well, but wholesale isn’t enough to offset the decline in sales.

They used to serve over 700 drinks in a single night before the pandemic, but now Millstein said they’re lucky to serve 250 on a typical Friday.

Millstein said the only way to stay in business now is to get more people to come to the bar – and reconsider the brewery’s role in the community.

“Part of the vision became to have a more of a community center, certainly when we moved into this building with that larger tasting room,” he said. “It was to give people a place to meet and for clubhouse/community center type of events.”

Kodiak Island Brewing gets boosts from community events once in a while. They host artists every month as part of Kodiak’s First Friday Art Walk and expect more traffic during the island’s Crab Festival. But they have high overhead costs for their equipment, rent and salaries for employees.

“Most of the money that walks in the front door leaves out the back door,” Millstein said. “It’s a fun business to be in, people are glad to be here and there’s always a beer at the end of the day. That’s all very fun, but it’s not an easy business to make money at.”

The brewery is celebrating its 20th anniversary as part of Crab Fest, which runs Thursday, May 25 through Monday, May 29. They’re hoping patrons arrive sporting brewery merchandise or tye-dye for a community toast Thursday evening, potentially holding a glass of their new gin.

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