Like many fields, alcohol distillery is a male dominated one — but Hangar 1 Vodka head distiller Caley Shoemaker is making a name for herself as one of the few female distillers. Shoemaker brings a fresh perspective to vodka and the flavors of California’s own Hangar 1, which is distilled in Alameda using only the freshest ingredients — a practice highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Hangar 1 Vodka comes in many different flavors — and trust me, they’re delicious in a nice, mixed drink.
Shoemaker is also working on the build out of the brand’s new distillery, as well as it’s visitors center, which is due to open last year. Recently, she hosted a cocktail hour at Downtown LA hot spot Clifton’s Cafeteria — along with some tasty drinks using Hangar 1 Vodka — and this person to know was nice enough to sit down with me to answer a few questions about that vodka distilling life. Check out the Q&A below!
How did you get your start in vodka distillery?
After making whisky for the last five or so years, I had the opportunity to come over to Hangar 1 and join this brand that’s really well-established and looking into the future. That was really exciting for me, because — while I find whisky fascinating and it’s definitely something I hugely enjoy — the nuances in vodka are so much more subdued and distilling vodka seems like such a challenge that I was excited to make the jump and do something different.
What are the challenges in distilling vodka as compared to whisky?
Whisky relies a lot on the grain that you’re going to brew your wash or your mash and distill it. You’re keeping a lot of the grain flavor. Vodka is distilled to a much higher proof. When you’re distilling to such high proof, you’re removing a lot the flavor that comes from whatever you’re fermenting to make that well in the first place. Now, a little bit of that always sneaks through, but you just have this little tiny mountain of flavor coming through and that has to be dynamic. It has to be awesome, because vodka is such a clean, clear spirit in the end that the little bit you have to play with, you really have to do a great job. It’s hard to make something that stands out and is that high quality in such a clean, naked spirit. You don’t have the barrel aging to clean things up either and it’s a big difference.
Take me through some of the flavors from Hangar 1 Vodka that we have here tonight.
These are our main lines. We have our Straight, which is made using grains and grape. So the grains are going to give the vodka some more bright citrus-y notes and the grapes smooth that out by adding a rounder mouth feel, a little bit floral note. It’s a great stand alone spirit and definitely awesome for sipping or in cocktails. It’s really truly our flagship.
In the Mandarin Blossom, we use Mandarin oranges as well as the flowers that blossom on the tree when they’re about ready to grow. That’s awesome, because not only are you getting the orange, you’re getting the floral rosewater note from the blossoms. It’s great standalone or in cocktails, but it also makes a nice cocktail complement in a place owhere you would use a flavoring or something like that.
Buddha’s Hand Citron is a fun one. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Buddha’s Hand — a lot of people have not — but they’re kind of an odd fruit. It’s this snarled finger-looking fruit that comes from a citrus tree and it’s basically the ancestor of a lemon. So if you took the lemon and removed a lot of the juicy bits and just had a lot of pit and peel, that’s what you would get from a Buddha’s Hand. It tastes a lot like lemon, but you’re getting a lot of the strong, woody oils that you would get from a lemon peel. So this one is nice because it’s bright and citrus-y, but it’s also got a bit of earthiness to it.
If you want to go real earthy, we have the Kaffir Lime here. This one is made using limes as well as the leaves from the lime tree, so it’s really energetic and fresh, but it still has those grassy, woody notes in the background that come from those leaves.
Which one is the most challenging to make? Which one is your favorite?
That’s hard, because all of our flavors are made using fresh ingredients and we’re really trying to capture that fresh essence. I think all of them each have their own unique challenges and I have a hard time picking a favorite. I really like the Buddha Hand, because it’s so interesting and there’s not anything else like it, but occasionally I’ll lean back to the Mandarin Blossom, because I like the flowers and the blossoms. It depends on where I’m leaning and what kind of cocktail I’m having, I go between those two, but the Straight always definitely my favorite.
What are the benefits of using fresh ingredients to distill?
I think that recently consumers have started to lean toward something that’s a lot more authentic. They’re looking for something that doesn’t taste artificial. In California, we have such a great agricultural scene and all of these farmers making this wonderful stuff that we can really take advantage of. It makes a product that doesn’t taste like candy or fake — it tastes like you’re having an awesome cocktail, but you’re also getting to appreciate the agricultural bounty that California has to offer. I think it’s a win-win.
What kind of cocktails do you suggest bars and folks use these vodkas in?
They’re really versatile. The Kaffir Lime goes great in a cocktail where you might use gins, like a rainbow fizz, because it does have those earthy notes, but it’s really bright. It’s almost interchangeable for a fun take on a tradition gin cocktail.
The Buddha’s Hand is really versatile and does great everything from an earthy spicy cocktail where it provides the brighter notes to being the citrus note in a sweeter cocktail. The Mandarin Blossom does great in everything from a Cosmopolitan to even a vodka soda.
Are the flavors for sale or only available in bars?
Both. We try to have really awesome distribution in California — it’s our biggest market. So we have these available in bars and restaurants, but you can also buy them at your local store.
What is your personal go-to drink?
That’s a hard one. My absolute favorite thing to do — and it’s kind of a strange thing — but I love to go to a bar or restaurant I’ve never been to and ask the bartender to make me a drink with Hangar 1, just giving them card blanche. Most of the time, they have some awesome drink that they’re working on and never got to do yet or they have something on their menu that they really want to showcase. By doing that, I get to taste amazing things all the time — what’s seasonal and some ingredients I may not have tasted before.
What’s coming up for Hangar 1 Vodka?
We’re about to open a new tasting room. We’re in the process of construction right now, but we’re going to have a brand new tasting room and visitor area. The distillery is up and going, but as of March or April of 2016, we’re going to have it open, so people can come do tastings and enjoy the view of the San Francisco Bay Area from the distillery.
Some images from Hangar 1 Vodka/Facebook