Where a Vodka Distiller Goes for Inspiration

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Caley Shoemaker, head distiller at Hangar 1 vodka, expands her palate at the farmers market

Like most head distillers, the artisans who maintain quality control during production of liquor, Caley Shoemaker came to the job through a more quotidian beverage: beer.

It was while Ms. Shoemaker, a native Coloradan, was studying photography at the University of Denver that she was introduced to the Mile High City’s craft-beer culture. On weekends, when she wasn’t working at an art gallery, she’d tour one of the region’s dozens of breweries.

Ultimately, that set her on a path to overseeing all vodka-making at Hangar 1, which uses grain and distilled grapes to create “sipping” vodkas, which taste good enough to be served straight.

“Maybe I was set on my path earlier, though, in high school, when I took the Starbucks Coffee Master program, which was like an intensive sensory immersion course,” says Ms. Shoemaker, 28.

Since joining the Alameda, Calif., distillery last January, Ms. Shoemaker has been focused on finding seasonal ingredients to infuse her vodkas. One of the few female head distillers in the world, she is always on the hunt for new flavors. She often finds them at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, a place she discovered only after moving to California last April.
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As an adult, she was obsessed with the skill of brewing beer. She carried a beer journal wherever she went and read every book she could about critical tasting. Eventually she stumbled upon the Denver whiskey distillery Stranahan’s and signed up for a tour. “I was fascinated by the process from the moment I first walked in,” Ms. Shoemaker says. “I got into whiskey with the same passion I had for craft beer.”

Ms. Shoemaker quit her art gallery job and worked her way at Stranahan’s from tour guide to distiller over five years. Her palate became attuned to the effects of the barrel and harvest on the flavor of the spirit. “The way that natural plant materials can affect such a simple, elegant process is amazing,” she says. “You’re always at the mercy of the ingredients.”

For Hangar 1 vodka, she often finds those ingredients on Saturdays at the farmers market, beside the Ferry Building. “I just hop on my bike to the ferry in Alameda, and it goes through the Bay under the bridge and drops me right at the building,” she says.

The expansive market was a shock to Ms. Shoemaker, who hadn’t been exposed to so much fresh, seasonal produce in Colorado. During colder months there, “produce was shipped in from somewhere else,” she says. “Here, it’s all very local year-round, and the way the gorgeous produce is displayed shows how much pride the farmers take in their work.”

She hunts through the vendors of purple bell peppers and foraged pine needles for something new and unexpected. She recently purchased a crate of Thai basil to try out in her workshop’s 8-gallon still, a copper vessel for distilling liquid through heat and condensation.

“My goal is to capture the essence of fresh fruit or botanicals,” she says. If it works, she bumps up the recipe to 75 gallons, with the hope of selling it exclusively at the distillery. Hangar 1’s four mainline expressions—straight, citron, mandarin and lime—are distilled in 500-gallon stills.
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For her September wedding to a professional musician who happens to work for a brewery, the couple ordered their flowers from a regular vendor at Ferry Plaza. Other times, she’ll become fixated on shiso leaves, family-made honey or a certain mushroom vendor. She recently purchased pink peppercorns and autumnal persimmons. The persimmons might become a garnish for a cocktail, a vodka infusion or a spicy bread to eat at home with her husband.

“As I walk through the stalls, I might think, ‘This would be a beautiful addition to a cocktail for an event, or a great infusion, or an essence,’ ” Ms. Shoemaker says. “Other times I’m just thinking about what I’m cooking for dinner that night.”
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Even if all those crates of persimmons and peppercorns don’t get macerated and infused into a bottle of Hangar 1 vodka, Ms. Shoemaker says tasting different flavors expands her sensory vocabulary. “Every time I try something new at the farmers market, it informs my palate—and that will express itself some time, some way,” she says.

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