Meet the Maker Behind the Only Vodka We Drink Neat
There’s nothing we love more at Surf Air than a company that eviscerates the expectations of a given category—well, except maybe a great drink. So when we find both at the same place, consider us on board.
Give our shared appreciation for shaking up an industry, Hangar 1 Distillery and Surf Air have become fast friends. The Bay Area-based spirits company is rapidly upending vodka’s reputation for being flavorless or ‘safe’. Instead you’ll find unique signature flavors like Buddha’s Hand Citron, Syrah Barrel Reserve, and Chipotle. Their botanical-infused, farm-to-bottle approach (and artistic labels) distinguishes Hangar 1 from the crowded back bar, but it also makes for a product that can be sipped straight from the bottle—as intended by its maker.
That’s Caley Shoemaker, the woman manning the distillery. Shoemaker came to the Bay by way of Denver, Colorado, and joined Hangar 1 as their head distiller in 2014. She sat down with us to chat all about her not-so natural progression from art school to alcohol, why you should taste your spirits at room temp, and how she turned the local fog into a trending flavor profile.
You can find Hangar 1’s vodka on all Surf Air flights.
How did your career in distilling begin?
I was drawn into distilling by accident.
I had an art degree and was looking to work in an anthropological museum type place. I was bartending at a craft beer brewery for fun while I was finishing up grad school and doing all that stuff and that’s what life does to you. A friend told me to go check out a distillery tour because I was so into craft beer, so I did. I thought it would be really cool to work there. Long story short that’s what ended up happening! Here I am 10 years later.
How did you learn the process of distilling? Did it happen on the job?
I think that’s a process that’s still going on and will go on until the day that I retire, but I started at Stranahan’s Whiskey as a tour guide. They didn’t really have a program other than the distillers stepping away to show someone around, so I worked every other Saturday to give the distillers the day off. The tours and tastings grew very quickly, and that turned into me putting together the tasting room program that was open multiple days a week.
The whole time I wanted to learn how to distill, and on the weekends the guys would be gone so I would do the gravities on the tank and the fermenting and keep track of the process. Eventually I apprenticed on the stills, learned to blend and barrel, and moved my way up into an operations position.
When I got the opportunity to come to Hangar 1, we were moving facilities. So I went through the process of actually building the Hangar 1 Distillery, which really rounded out the skills that I already had and forced me to learn a lot of new ones along the way as well.
I saw that you draw a lot of inspiration from your nearby farmer’s market. Can you tell us a little bit about how you come up with new flavors or ideas? What’s your creative process?
Growing up in Colorado, you see spring to summer to fall to winter in the most classic expressions of those seasons. I don’t really see that in the Bay Area, but where I do see the seasonality is at the farmer’s market. It’s become my way of marking time.
The farmer’s market at the Ferry Building is especially exciting because that’s where a lot of chefs from the top restaurants and folks from bars across the city go. So not only do I get to talk to farmers—I also get to talk to chefs and bartenders about what they use in the kitchen and what flavors they pair and how to treat the different botanicals.
That lets me get excited about stuff and I can buy small amounts and bring them back to the distillery where we can do test batching.
And how did the idea of infusing fog into vodka come about?
I came here expecting California to be this big beautiful green state after being in the high altitudes and dry environment of Denver, and when I got here it was at the height of the California drought and so things were not as green as I was expecting. It was a big shock to me.
Conservation runs in my blood. (My grandfather was responsible for building a system of parks along the river of Denver that used to be a trash-filled area.) I got to thinking about the drought and how much water we use in the making of any beverage, including distilled spirits. Coming from a whiskey background, there’s a process by which you cut down your spirit from barrel strength to bottle strength and the water you use is incredibly important. Traditionally whiskey makers use water with their local terroir; they use spring water, especially in the UK. We don’t do that as much with vodka; we go for reverse osmosis water or deionized water. I wanted to bring that water flavor profile into the vodka but also talk about an alternative water source.
Through tons of research we discovered FogQuest that has had success with these fog collection nets for countries that don’t have a lot of access to water but need agriculture to survive. I wanted to bring that into the Bay Area.
We have tons of fog, and we haven’t done a project like this before. We started working with one of their volunteers locally, collecting the fog, and then I sought out wine makers that I wanted to work with and basically what we do is we take their finished lovely wine that should go to a bottle, but instead I steal it and we put it into the still. We distill it to 190 proof to get to that neutral vodka profile. (Though it’s not truly neutral. A lot of the flavor notes from the wine come through.) Then we add that water collected from the fog back into the vodka to bring it down to 80 proof bottle strength, so you’re truly tasting California because all you’re tasting in there is California wine and water collected from the Bay Area’s fog.
It reminds me of a hike near a stream on a summer day, you can smell that warm wet stone. It pairs really spectacularly with oysters because of that.
Speaking of flavor profiles. What are some top line tips for tasting. How can people become more critical tasters of vodka, or even other alcohols?
Often times tasting can be intimidating because there’s this feeling around wine that you have to know the flavor profile already. Realistically all you’re doing—because everybody has a very different palate that’s formed off life experiences and genetics and a wide range of other things—is very subjectively experiencing something. You don’t have to have the right answers, or the same ones that the sommelier has necessarily.
I think it’s a great exercise to take three or four different vodkas, or different pilsners or whatever you’re into. Get very similar ones, because you’ll find that the flavor profiles are widely different when you taste them next to each other.
For spirits, I always say: definitely don’t swirl. Spirits are so much higher in alcohol than wine, and alcohol is very volatile. When you swirl it and then nose the glass you’re going to get a lot more notes of pure ethanol, which overwhelms the sense of smell.
Last thing, drink your spirit at room temp for a tasting. Chilling vodka is a great way to get it down quick if you’re doing a shot, but you’re not going to get all those flavor notes, and those volatiles from the vodka are going to get quieted down when chilled. So experience it the way it’s meant to be experienced: straight out of the bottle. Once you’ve decided which one you like and you’ve really enjoyed that flavor profile, then you can go forth and drink it however you like.
Have there been any flavors you’ve put out in the market that have done really well that surprised you?
Yeah, just recently we had a vodka that was a honeycomb. We worked with a local beekeeper to get whole comb honey and we actually just broke the whole comb out of the frame and into the vodka to macerate, so it wasn’t as cloyingly sweet as a “honey vodka” would be and it had a lot of warm beeswax notes to it and it was something I thought was really fun.
It was a limited edition, but it did so well that we did a second batch of it and that’s done so well that we’ve been exploring the idea of potentially releasing it in small amounts in a bigger release. It’s always exciting when that happens.
Are there new flavors that you’ve been exploring this spring season?
I’ve been playing around with fennel. Growing up in Denver, you hike everywhere and the southwest is warm and dry and smells like sage. So that’s a note I definitely identify with home.
When I came here I had the same experience with fennel. You can smell wild fennel growing all over the place in the Bay Area, so I’ve always wanted to make a vodka with it. We’ve been doing some infusing and instilling and I’m hoping we can turn that into a release. I think it would go spectacular with all the fresh berries that come in through the market in the summertime.