I’ve long appreciated Hangar One’s artisanal vodka, both the straight and flavored versions. The Mandarin Blossom’s floral character comes from real mandarin orange blossoms, the raspberry vodka smells like a bramble patch in the heat of summer because they macerate whole raspberries in the spirit, not just the juice or a concocted flavoring. It’s real flavor, because they use real ingredients.
On a recent visit to the distillery, I learned just how real these folks are. Dave Smith, the distiller at St. George Spirits, maker of Hangar One, met me in the tasting room. I’d already worked through a half dozen vodkas with Annie Jesseman, including the recently released spiced pear, and single malt whiskey, but thankfully had been swishing and spitting a la wine tasting. We headed into the distillery, housed in a hangar on the old Alameda Naval Air Station.
Smith stopped to punch down a wash made of corn, wheat, barley and rye destined to become whiskey, then climbed atop a 4,500-gallon stainless steel fermentation tank to check on a batch of sugar cane juice. We looked at the stills, sipped a cask sample of something that could have passed for Armagnac (it wasn’t, but still…) and peeked into employee fitness and massage rooms.
But the highlight was a true alchemist’s lab. Dave plucked green gallon jars off counters and shelves, unscrewing lids and poking his forefinger in to taste various experiments. Chipolte, smoked seville orange, carrot, mushroom, key lime, rosemary…even Douglas Fir, the remains of distiller Lance Winters’ Christmas tree. Then it was back the tasting room for St. George’s absinthe, eau de vies and liqueurs. Souvenirs eventually included the Qi White Tea liqueur and Aqua Perfecta pear liqueur. Now it’s time to break out the shaker and create some alchemy of my own.