We sat down with Caley Shoemaker, head distiller at Hangar 1 Vodka (one of the recommended pairings for our Pleased as Punch Box), to chat about her journey, flavored vodka’s reputation vs. reality, and Hangar 1’s distillation process.
S&S: How did your journey lead to becoming head distiller at Hangar 1?
CS: I got my start in craft spirits distilling at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. At Stranahan’s, I had a great opportunity to really dig into all aspects of the whiskey-making process, from grain selection through to barrel maturation and blending. I’ve always been fascinated by how the chemistry of distilling affects the quality, texture, and flavor of the final product.
In 2014, I left Colorado and Stranahan’s to join Hangar 1 Vodka, where I was able to bring my passion for distilling to making complex and authentic tasting vodkas and to work with farm partners to select the absolute best ingredients that are responsible for giving Hangar 1 its signature smoothness and crisp, clean taste.
S&S: What would you say makes Hangar 1 an exciting place to be?
CS: I would say our appetite for innovation, which has been a key part of our DNA from the very start. We continue to try and push the boundaries of vodka-making. Despite the stereotypical definition of vodka as a “colorless, flavorless, odorless spirit,” vodka, in my mind, is anything but generic and boring. At Hangar 1, we are constantly testing out new recipes in our pilot still, using locally sourced ingredients to create unique, fresh, and flavor-forward expressions.
S&S: What’s unique about Hangar 1’s distilling process?
CS: We got our start using traditional eau de vie techniques, capturing the natural flavors and aromas of fruit to reimagine vodka as an artisanal spirit. We use a custom-made copper pot still with two columns and a 75-gallon pot still system that allows us to create small batches of new infusions using local, in-season fruit. We marry the traditional European eau de vie techniques with Midwestern grains and ripe California wine grape. The result is an incomparably smooth vodka with a hint of fruit essence.
S&S: What are the “rules” of flavored spirits as Hangar 1 sees them? How do you know what works and what isn’t quite right?
CS: For our flavored spirits, we work with specialist growers to source fruit at the peak of ripeness. I experiment with different ingredients that may eventually be offered in the Tasting Room as a seasonal, small-batch Distiller’s Exclusive vodka, or released on a national scale, like Hangar 1 Rosé. Drawing on the wonderful epicurean culture of San Francisco, I visit the local farmer’s market to pick new, seasonal produce, herbs, and spices. Using my pilot still in the workshop, I take my recently purchased products and, hours later, turn these ingredients into fresh, innovative vodka flavors. Those that pass the test will make it into the Tasting Room for visitors to exclusively sample.
S&S: How important is origin or native terroir to a drink of choice? Do you find people connecting to the stories behind your flavor choices?
CS: Hangar 1 was founded in Alameda, California, which has been and will continue to be its home. Every batch of Hangar 1 has been produced and bottled in California. Our number-one priority has been, and continues to be, to source the highest quality, freshest ingredients that we can get our hands on. It is always the preference to source all of the ingredients in California. Every flavor choice has a story, and we love sharing these stories with our consumers. We find they connect with the stories because it allows them to know exactly how the ingredients were sourced and the amount of thought and care that went into creating the product.
I think Hangar 1 Fog Point is a perfect example of how terroir can really affect the flavor profile of a spirit. Hangar 1 Fog Point is a vodka made using San Francisco fog. Back in 2016, when we created the first batch, California was in the midst of a major drought and we at Hangar 1 wanted to find a way to help support alternative water sources, given that vodka is made of 60% water. So, we partnered with a non-profit organization called FogQuest to turn San Francisco fog into usable drinking water. We then used that purified water to make a special, limited-release vodka expression.
The first batch was so well received that we decided to release a second batch last year. This time, we decided to collect fog in different parts of the Bay Area than we did for the previous expression to see how it might affect the flavor profile. The result was a unique-tasting vodka, quite different from the original batch made in 2016. Where and when the fog was collected really affected the flavor profile of the final expression. It was quite amazing, actually!
S&S: Wow! What would you say an element like fog imparts to the final product?
CS: The resulting vodka had a round and floral nose with vanilla, cream and honey suckle scents, as well as a velvety mouthfeel with tasting notes of vanilla, citrus, and pear, finishing with warm floral and pepper notes.
S&S: Was there a challenge early on in overcoming a preconceived reputation of flavored spirits? What would you say is the current state of this category?
CS: Definitely! Flavored vodka often comes with a negative connotation, because most of the flavored vodkas on the market use chemicals or synthetic flavor additives. Most people associate flavored vodkas with flavors like bubble gum or whipped cream, for example.
At Hangar 1, however, we use real, fresh, and in-season ingredients to capture their essence and create a clean, well-crafted spirit. For instance, when distilling Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka, we actually use the flowers of the mandarin orange tree to capture the flavor you taste. We pick at the height of the bloom, so we’re constantly battling time and the elements, and the flowers are very delicate—so we have to use them right away. However, the vodka’s complexity and natural taste are always worth the trouble.
S&S: Would you consider an infused vodka to be an extra flavor boost or more of a main focus when conceiving a balanced cocktail?
CS: The smoothness and balance of our infused vodkas make them fresh-tasting and easy to sip chilled, neat, or mixed into your favorite cocktails. For me, it is very important that all of our vodkas, including Hangar 1 Straight Vodka, are made to easily drink neat. It really depends on the cocktail, but an infused vodka can be both a main focus or an extra flavor boost.
S&S: Any particular examples from drinkers or bartenders on a great use of Hangar 1?
CS: I personally love Hangar 1 straight in a dirty martini. The round mouthfeel and slight floral notes from the grape distillate in the vodka play really nicely with the salty, oily notes from the olives and their juice. This all comes together to create a cocktail that is way too easy to drink!
S&S: What would you say has been your biggest hit?
CS: Our most recent innovation, Hangar 1 Rosé Vodka, is a first-of-its-kind blend of our Hangar 1 Vodka with a California rosé wine. Consumers are responding really positively to this latest offering; however, our variety of unique flavor profiles provide something for a wide range of palettes and tastes.
S&S: What do you do when you’re not working?
CS: I really enjoy hitting our local farmers market to really experience what is in season. It’s a great opportunity to interact with farmers and chefs to get inspired. I’m also an avid hiker and runner, and addicted to spinning. I really enjoy being outside and exploring a quiet mountain trail or challenging myself on the bike.
S&S: Sounds like a great way to unwind. Cheers!