One of the signs of a strong local food (and spirits) community is the frequency local artisans are featured on menus. In Chicago, Death’s Door (Door Co.), Koval (Chicago) and North Shore (Lake Bluff) have established themselves as the premier, small-batch distilleries in the Midwest. Their gins, aquavits, eau de vies and vodkas have been making regular appearances on Chicago’s finer cocktail lists and beverage programs. I noticed the same dedication in San Francisco earlier this week, as Hangar One seemed to show up quite a bit on several drink lists.
The company, launched in 2002, is part of a larger, 28-year old spirits company called St. George Spirits. True to its name, it produces vodka in an old, abandoned military airplane hangar in Alameda, located just across the bay from San Francisco.
“We are photographers of the way things smell,” said Lance Winters, the Master Distiller at Hangar One. “We try to take olfactory snapshots of everything we distill.” As Winters showed me around his two, enormous copper pot stills, he kept emphasizing the fruit. Specifically, the tons of kaffir lime leaves, buddha’s hand and mandarin orange blossoms his company have been shipping in from Exeter, a farm town about three hours Southeast of Alameda, near the Sequoia National Forest.
When Winters bought the company from founder Jorg Rupf, he didn’t want to copy anyone’s style (and certainly didn’t want to purchase artificial or synthetically-produced flavorings), so at first, he learned how to make eau de vie, converting grain to whiskey. All the while, his focus was to tease the aromatics out. He realized that one of the keys to making an artisanal vodka – as opposed to the mass-produced, column still brands that dominate most bars in America – was to create a spirit that actually had a pronounced aroma.
He started with four varieties. In addition to a straight vodka (which contained a small amount of viognier grapes), there was also a citron (with buddha’s hand), a kaffir lime and an orange blossom. I’m not a big vodka drinker, but I do love natural flavors and aromas, and there are plenty in these bottles. A small glass of the citron was poured for me; the bright citrus of the buddha’s hand practically hit me in the mouth, filling my tongue with a lemony tang. Other flavors have followed: a biting chipotle (nice for bloody Marys), a spiced pear and a deeply-intense raspberry. Winters achieves the infusion by not getting hung up on marketing-speak, calling multiple distillations “bullshit.” Most brands brag about the number of times their vodka has been distilled, equating more distillations with higher quality, kind of like camera companies try to convince consumers that more megapixels are actually a good thing (and worth the higher price). Winters says without some impurity, there would be no flavor, and in fact, tries to run his alcohol through as few distillations as possible. “We try to distill positive impurities,” he said.
In terms of production, Hangar One is a speck on the wall. To put it in perspective, Smirnoff sells about 10 million cases a year; Hangar does about 30 thousand. Smaller production and fresh fruit mean slightly higher prices too – a challenge in an economy where drinkers are more cost-conscious and may not seek out the niche brands as easily. But Winters and his team seem super-charged about the challenges. Under the umbrella of St. George Spirits, they mess around with agricole rums and other spirits. They get to play with different fruits (and vegetables) and love the challenge of distilling the essence of nature into something quaffable. They are spirit “geeks” who relish the opportunity to spread their gospel, one glass at a time.
Hangar One products are available at Binny’s in the Chicago area.