Occasionally in life you come into contact with people who are driven to excellence…the kind of people who will go to painful lengths to improve their craft and refuse to compromise. They are the small minority willing to push the envelope and defy convention. Sometimes these people produce faster cars, pants that make your ass look amazing or radical architecture. In the case of Hangar One Distillery…they make Vodka that will blow your mind.
Vodka is an anomaly in the world of Spirits. In most cases the more money you pay for a premium spirit such as Scotch Whisky, Gin, Rum or Tequila you get more flavour, more aromatics and more complexity. In the case of Vodka however the tradition has been that the more you spend, the less you get. Vodka distillers such as Grey Goose are proud that they put their vodka through so many distillations and filters that you basically get something that tastes like water with the ability to get you drunk. On the other end of the spectrum you can find vodka in almost every flavour known to man, often created with artificial flavours and used to mix with Coca-Cola.
On our recent trip to Hangar One Distillery just outside San Francisco in Alameda, California my brother Cody and I found out that Master Distiller Lance Winters and the good people at Hangar One have a different idea. They produce small batch, hand crafted vodka made in classic pot stills in a 65,000 square foot building which once served as an operational aircraft hangar at the old Almeda Naval Station. As we entered the tasting room on a casual Monday afternoon we had no idea what was in store for us.
Their straight vodka, which is made with a blend of grain and Viognier grapes, has a great texture with a slight viscosity, unreal purity and an outstanding citrus character. Their “flavoured” vodka’s are nothing short of a spirit-ual experience…get it? Vodka is a spirit? Sprit-ual? Why am I so hilarious?
Anyway, the line-up is truly an orgy for the senses. I swear they have somehow created a microscopic army to ram fresh fruit straight into your nasal cavity and have genetically engineered fruit molecules that pole-dance on your taste buds. They source the freshest and most expressive ingredients possible including kaffir lime, mandarin blossom a crazy little fruit called “Buddha’s Hand” which is quite possibly the weirdest fruit I have ever seen. They also produce a duo of seasonal vodka’s created from fresh Fraser River raspberries in the spring and spiced Bartlett pears in the fall.
Then things really get crazy. Deep within the re-furbished aircraft hangar sits “the lab” where Lance creates experiments born of pure awesome, some of which end up in the Hangar One “Alchemist Series”. The first bottling of Alchemist Series vodka involved the use of 500 pounds of Wasabi. I can only imagine how intense that effort would have been as it will likely never be produced again due to the nasal clearing, eye watering effects of its distillation. I did however have the pleasure of tasting the second bottling of Alchemist Series which is Chipotle, produced from a base of distillation of fresh peppers and then blended with distillations of roasted chipotle, fresh Fresno chillies, habaneras and dried pasillas. I can safely say this stuff is intense. Beyond the obvious spice that caused me to stomp my feet and slap the bar like an idiot there was a symphony of flavours almost beyond description. The hallmark of all these vodkas is their purity and the Alchemist Series is no exception.
While vodkas are the hallmark of the Hangar One brand, these madmen/genius’s also produce a wide range of spirits under the St. George Distillery label. Here founder Jorg Rupf and Lance Winters create a range of superb spirits ranging from superb Eau de Vie, outstanding Whisky, an apple brandy (think Calvados), their own version of tequila produced from 20 tons of Agave they shipped up from Mexico and more.
After a lengthy tasting session, which included their entire range as well as some crazy “experiments”, we bid farewell to our outstanding hosts. In a world of spirits dominated by large conglomerates and products marketed in rap songs it is truly a breath of fresh air to know that there are still those willing to rise above the hype and dedicate themselves to excellence. We had made a pilgrimage to California in search of great wine, but we left with a craving for vodka.