Juneau’s Amalga Distillery named James Beard semifinalist

a distillery
Maura Selenak fixes a gin and tonic at Amalga Distillery. Feb. 1, 2024. (Yvonne Krumrey/KTOO)

The environment of Amalga Distillery’s taproom in Juneau feels different from other drinking establishments in town. It has light wood, mid-century inspired furniture and natural light from the large, street-facing windows competes with the stylized exposed bulbs that hang from the ceiling. 

The vibe of the taproom is a focus for co-owner Maura Selenak. 

“When you come into our space, it’s distinctively not a traditional bar feel,” she said.” We really wanted it to be open and airy and light and welcoming,”

She said she and the staff create an environment where people can enjoy and learn about what they can do with the alcohol that Amalga makes. And now, it’s been noticed by those outside of Juneau. 

Juneau’s Amalga Distillery is a semifinalist for the 2024 James Beard Awards in the category of “Outstanding Bar.” It’s their first nomination, but they’re not the first business in Juneau to be recognized for the prestigious culinary award.

At first, Selenak couldn’t believe her distillery had been nominated. She and her co-founder and husband, Brandon Howard, found out through a friend. 

“We woke up and had an Instagram message from a friend saying ‘Congratulations! James Beard!’,” Selenak said. “It was shocking, we had to double check, we were like ‘is it a joke?’” 

She said that even getting this far is a big enough deal for her. 

“It was not even on our radar as something that was even possible for us.”

The bar category includes any establishment that serves beverages, including breweries, distilleries and even coffee shops. 

The category is for “consistent excellence” in what they serve, and also “outstanding atmosphere, hospitality, and operations, while contributing positively to its broader community.”

A block away, chef-owner of In Bocca al Lupo Beau Schooler rolled out bagels in the kitchen.

The restaurant has been named a semifinalist seven times, including last year. He said the process is still a bit of a mystery to him.

“They take an open call for nominations, and they kind of narrow it down from there to their list, and then people come out and judge that list and that narrows it down to the nominees and then they come and judge again. But I don’t know who or what or when or how,” he said.  

He said he thinks that the recognition is helpful for restaurants in larger cities, but here, he isn’t sure it makes a big difference.

“As far as locals go, we’ve had a lot of support from the local community so it doesn’t really change that in their eyes for us,” Schooler said.

Schooler said for him, what makes In Bocca al Lupo worthy of recognition is the staff.

“I kinda wish it wasn’t my name on there, just the restaurant’s,” he said

Selenak feels the same way. She said Amalga’s taproom wouldn’t be what it is without the staff.

The James Beard award winners will be announced this summer.

KTOO is our partner public media station in Juneau. Alaska Public Media collaborates with partners statewide to cover Alaska news.

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