Distiller Felicia Keith-Jones, left, and her assistant, Kylie Peterson, posing together inside High Mark Distillery in south Reno, Nevada. Courtesy photo.

When Felicia Keith-Jones found herself steering a $40 million Lockheed Martin airship over vast white oceans of snow, she tried to keep her focus on the thrill of the moment. The thrill – and the challenge. She was operating the LMH-1, a sleek helium-lifted hovercraft fitted with thrust-vectoring C1-30 engines. This hybrid blimp can sail along Alaska’s frigid horizon for weeks at a time, all while carrying 18 passengers, 22 tons of cargo – and a fully functioning cocktail bar.

The LMH-1’s pale, bullet-shaped frame equals the weirdest kind of watering hole that’s ever drifted above the unforgiving wilderness; and the shelves inside its bar hold spirits that were distilled by the same woman who’s been piloting the experimental craft.

In a sense, there’s some poetic parallels to that story. The LHM-1 is an airborne beast designed to conquer frozen fields and daunting tundra where ice roads dare not go. Keith-Jones — the only woman in the world with hours logged flying one — is herself a pathfinder, one of only a dozen female certified master distillers anywhere. Lately, the LHM-1 is not the only thing she’s wanting to steer. She’s also pushing distilling’s grand traditions entirely in her own direction. For some in the business, that’s an intimidating goal, but Keith-Jones is driven by that same sensation of lift-off-to-levitation she gets from flying the LMH-1: Every obstacle is worth tackling if it leads to a feeling of pure, unbridled freedom.

Living on her own terms has brought Keith-Jones down unexpected paths. First, she signed up to be a teacher in the most remote islands lost in the northern wilderness. Then, she started climbing into the cockpit of a C2-07 as she worked toward a new career as an Alaskan bush pilot. The philosophy has since made her the creative force behind one of the first American distilleries opened outside the Lower 48. But if fans of Keith-Jones thought she’d soften on her daredevil ways after that, they were in for one another surprise: Ten years into building her distillery business, she picked up her entire Alaskan operation — High Mark — and moved it to the desert mountains of Nevada.

Much like the sun-brushed spectacle of the LMH-1 gliding on the sky, her distillery transplant represented something people really hadn’t seen before.

“You have to have a no-fear factor,” she stresses. “If it hasn’t been done before, that’s Ok.”

A Mountain Girl at Bushmill’s

Keith-Jones grew up in a Colorado ranching community where she developed enough athletic prowess to earn a scholarship to the University of Alaska. After graduating, she agreed to teach kids in that territory known as “the last frontier.” Most of the communities she was embedding herself in could only be reached by boat or plane. The isolation made some would-be teachers think twice, but Keith-Jones threw herself into the work. A few years later, she started training as a pilot.

“You’re 50 feet off the ground, and it is a different gravity – your body reacts differently,” she explains. “The weight of the earth just melts away, but you have to be laser-focused.”

While flying sportsmen out to empty, lonesome islands, Keith-Jones met the Shanahan family, who hail from the northern shores of the Irish Republic. She soon became one of their favorite pilots to hire. In 2010, the family invited her to have an extended stay at their home, which put her in a cottage in County Donegal near the border with Northern Ireland. Keith-Jones began spending her days driving through the emerald countryside on her way to a distilling apprenticeship at Bushmill’s.

“At that time, they weren’t really used to females, because there just aren’t really a lot in the distilling world, and especially in Europe, where it’s really male-dominated,” she remembers. “I was kind of like an odd unicorn that came in; but they were very gracious – and I learned a lot of old-world distilling techniques.”

During those days of border crossings, Keith-Jones slowly developed a signature Irish vodka. It was the first of many spirits that she’d put her own touch on. Today, that nascent Irish vodka – a single-malt, single-grain with spring water – is still a mainstay within High Mark’s tasting room. Keith-Jones likes telling visitors that it’s the bottle where everything started.

After her Bushmill training, she was addicted to distilling. Keith-Jones knew there were zero distilleries in her adopted home of Alaska at the time. That wasn’t going to stop her. High Mark officially opened its doors the same week that Alaskan Distillery cut its ribbon. They were both embarking on something new for the state.

The name High Mark had several meanings for Keith-Jones’ family, not the least of which is a reference to grizzly bears rubbing their heads, necks and shoulders against trees in the great northwest, leaving their scents up high on the trunks, showing other bears passing through whose territory it is.

“With High Mark, I was just telling the boys, now, ‘Ok, here I come,’” she says with a smile.

‘With The Old Breed

One of the first things Keith-Jones made was an applejack that used her family’s recipe from Scotland. She’d grown up with her uncle shipping bottles of it across the Atlantic every holiday season. After switching from a native Scottish apple to the honey crisp apple, Keith-Jones dialed her jack into something that packed a tasty punch for those visiting the tasting room.

It was Keith-Jones’ place in Alaskan aviation that led to one of her other distilling successes, though she had to go down an Appalachian rabbit hole to pull it off.

When bush pilots on the icy frontier heard that one of their own was opening a distillery in Anchorage, a particularly opinioned flyboy decided to share a secret from his traveling adventures. He handed Keith-Jones some moonshine he’d picked up in West Virginia – and then added some advice.

“He said, ‘‘If you don’t like this, you shouldn’t shine,’” she recalls. “Before that day, I thought moonshine wasn’t me, and that I would never make it. But when I tasted this one that he gave me, I finally got it. That’s when I said to myself, ‘Oh, this is why people say they sip shine while their sitting on their rocking chairs and whittling all day.’”

Keith-Jones started doing some detective work on where the mysterious moonshine came from. She eventually flew out to West Virginia in hopes of getting to the bottom of its origin. That’s when she tracked down a pretty young lady who was selling bottles of the enigmatic shine in milk jugs out of the trunk of her car. The girl had strategically positioned herself at a landing along the river where tourists where finishing their rafting trips. It turned out the personality behind the backwoods spirit was the girl’s then-73-year-old grandfather Artie, a third-generation illegal moonshiner and bootlegger. To this day, Keith-Jones withholds Artie’s last name out of respect for his whiskey rebel ways. But when she first met him, he told her that he’d started distilling at the age of 9, alongside his dad and grand-pap. Sometime around the age of 13, he took over the stills for the family.

Keith-Jones asked Artie if he’d share some secrets with her. He ultimately agreed to give her his main recipes.

“He believes in a hundred percent sweet corn,” she explains. “He’s never verified from the recipe, and those roots go all the way back to Popcorn Sutton and all the old greats…When I finally got to see him physically make it, he was telling me a story about his neighbors, and gossiping, but at the same time, he was mixing things up and it just looked like he was doing this kind of ballet with his hands.”

Artie’s training and notes became the basis for High Mark’s popular Blind Cat Moonshine.

But there was another piece of the past that would help Keith-Jones at the distillery, too. She’d become friends with Mitch Miller, owner of Florida’s Gator Land. It’s a place where visitors get to feed chicken and turkey bits to live alligators and learn to call-in baby crocodiles with their mouths. The braver guests even zip-tie right over the giant reptiles’ heads. For years, Miller’s grandfather had traveled through the steamy swamps with medical cures from his apothecary. After he died, his family discovered four leather-bound journals containing all his distillation recipes to heal everything from Rheumatoid arthritis to bouts of melancholy. Miller allowed Keith-Jones to go through the books. From them, she identified how she wanted to make her Blueberry Cobbler Shine.

High Mark’s assistant distiller, Kylie Peterson, says the Blueberry Cobbler Shine is one of her very favorite things to make. That’s partly because even visitors at the tasting room who are new to spirits often love the stuff.

“That’s something I’m really proud of putting in the barrels,” Peterson says. “I feel like people are always surprised by that choice — that, and our Applejack — and they say it’s something that they’ve never tried before. Even people who don’t like blueberries, when you tell them, ‘No, just try it,’ they’ll usually end up buying a bottle. The cobbler shine is a really fun one.”

Kylie Peterson, assistant (left) and Distiller Felicia Keith-Jones posing together inside High Mark Distillery in south Reno, Nevada. Photo courtesy High Mark Distillery

Moving a Distiller 3,000 Miles

A decade into building High Mark’s fanbase, Keith-Hones began to rethink the company’s future.

Throughout the distillery’s life in Anchorage, Keith-Jones had been sourcing all her fruits and grains from one region of the American West. Her white wheat and sweet corn came from the Winnemucca Co-Op in Humboldt County, Nevada, while her fruit came from Big Cannon Acres, a 162-acre Idaho orchard by the Nevada border. She was convinced these ingredients were key to people valuing her spirits. But that also meant operating in Alaska came with major production challenges. She says that for every $3,000 worth of grain she had shipped from the Lower 48, she had to add on $1,500 in freight costs. Alaska also has some of the highest state alcohol tax in the nation, which is charged by volume. Keith-Jones got exhausted from constantly navigating those numbers while keeping the prices of her bottles affordable.

In some respects, moving to be closer to her agricultural sourcing made sense. Yet, she was a mountain girl through and through, which meant she couldn’t image living in sandy flatlands pocked with cactus and tumbleweeds. Eventually, Keith-Jones visited Reno to see what the area was like. That’s when everything in her mind’s eye changed. The region didn’t resemble the hard, arid openness she associated places like Las Vegas. Instead, the landscape — especially Reno’s southern terrane — was majestic high desert surrounded by sweeping, snow-capped summits towering off the valley floor.

“Once you see Lake Tahoe, and all the trees, and the Sierra mountains — and you know there’s beautiful weather with four true seasons — it’s becomes more like, ‘This, I can do,’” she explains. “This is Alaska without the mosquitos. It’s just beautiful.”

Peterson, the young woman who’d soon become Keith-Jones’ trusted distilling assistant, agrees. Peterson grew up in the sprawling alpine meadows of the high Sierra, pursuing a college degree in wildlife biology so she could indulge her love of the outdoors. When she first heard about High Mark, just after her 21st birthday, Peterson was working as a boat captain for tourists on Lake Tahoe. The wilderness plane pilot and the wilderness boat pilot hit it off right from the start.

“I admire her so much,” Peterson says of her mentor. “I like that she lets me be hands-on with the distilling. She’s very patient, and while she definitely knows what she wants, she lets me figure it out by actually doing the job.”

Keith-Jones describes Peterson as the kind of team member who can rescue a situation whenever she herself is juggling multiple tasks. On any given day, High Mark’s owner might be watching the stills, putting on cocktail classes, speaking to media and hosting promotional events – all at the same time. Peterson helps make sure that’s possible. Keith-Jones is also happy Peterson may end up leading the way for the next generation of female distillers who will re-define the industry.

After seeing what Keith-Jones has done, that’s something Peterson has a growing interest in.

“Since I’ve been working with Felicia, I’ve learned that there’s so many aspects to distilling, and now it totally fascinates me,” Peterson remarks. “As far as women in craft distilling, I hope that there’s more of us coming up now. I would love to be a master distiller. And I’m working towards that. It’s definitely a career choice at this time in my life. I never thought I would enjoy this as much as I do.”

One thing both Peterson and Keith-Jones are eagerly awaiting is High Mark’s new, much larger distillery and tasting room coming online in south Reno. It will be a facility that Keith-Jones has overseen the design and construction of; and one tailored to her continued urge to chart her own flight path in spirits.

When explaining how she’s gotten her business to the point of that expansion, Keith-Jones harkens back to her many days up in the clouds, particularly one in which she had to make an unexpected landing because thousands of Canada geese flying overhead — so many that it practically blackened out the sky. She and her passengers were grounded for 18 hours before the Hictcockian heavens cleared.

“You have to be prepared for anything at any time,” she says of flying. “When we left that day, did we think, ‘We need to bring food for a day-and-a-half?’ But you have to be prepared and always bring a survival bag. And I think it’s helped because, with the distillery, there’s never a day that’s the same. You just have to roll with the punches and be ready to react. If I had a recommendation for someone starting a distillery it would be try piloting first. Or, be a teacher, because you’re constantly getting different issues that you have to react to. You’re definitely adapting all the time. But that kind of diversity is what’s always intrigued me.”  •