Caley Shoemaker isn't your average vodka maker. Which is fitting, because she's not making an average vodka. Hangar 1's Head Distiller, who came to the Alameda operation from the world of whiskey, is now overseeing a frenetic expansion. Over the next year, Hangar 1 will launch several new flavors as well as a dedicated visitor center and tasting room. Shoemaker is balancing a heavy load, and she hasn't even celebrated her 29th birthday yet. In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, she sheds some light on her rapid ascent, and the misunderstood nature of her chosen spirit.
[jump] Tell us a little bit about your history, where you came from, how you got into distilling, etc…
I grew up in Denver and began my career in the art world, and came into distilling through pure passion. When I started at Stranahan’s [Colorado Whiskey], I worked as hard as I could to learn everything I possibly could about the distilling process and the science behind making great spirits. The world of distilling, and the workings of a distillery are un-endingly fascinating for me. Learning to distill made abstract chemistry principals seem so simple and concrete and really made all that science stuff click with me in a way that was meaningful; so it has been a passion since the moment I had the opportunity to jump in. Also, being one of the few female distillers in the industry is really special. I’ve been so welcomed into this small, close-knit community and whenever I am doing tastings and meeting young women who are passionate about the spirits industry, I always tell them to go for their dreams, there’s a lot of room in spirits for strong, innovative women with creative minds.
You came to Hangar 1 from the world of whiskey. What has that transition been like?
The transition has been amazing. My favorite part of whiskey (other than frequently enjoying the aroma of a barrel aging warehouse) is the critical tasting aspect. Doing this with vodka presents a bigger challenge, and I love that. The nuances of vodka are so much more subtle — it is a real pleasure to dig into and figure out what makes vodka so unique as a standalone spirit. In vodka distilling, when our product goes right from the still to the bottle, it’s very important to select the best ingredients from the very start and utilize rigorous distilling methods. Hangar 1’s Alameda roots allow me to take advantage of everything that Northern California has to offer to make the highest quality best tasting vodka. This is especially true for our flavors — we can utilize local, fresh produce so that our flavored vodkas literally capture that freshness as part of their character. Moving into the vodka world has also been my first real foray into the world of cocktails. And I am so impressed with the craftsmanship and creativity that some of the best bartenders and cocktail bars exhibit. I love a good weekend adventure for the perfect cocktail.
What was your previous role at Stranahan’s and how did your day-to-day responsibilities change as you took over at Hangar 1?
While distilling at Stranahan's, I was fortunate to learn about running and managing multiple stills at one time, and this is a skill that I am happy to bring to Hangar 1. Each still runs with its own personality, and I'm always so interested and intrigued to see how barometric pressure and ambient temperature effect the distillation process. This has come especially in handy at Hangar 1, where our production still may be running at the same time as the pilot still and I have to manage both — and sometimes also oversee our small lab still. The smaller stills allow me to test new batches of potential tasting room exclusive flavors, while we continue to create our core, everyday lineup.
Vodka has to fight a sense of being a boring spirit, how does Hangar1 stand apart from this unfair reputation, and what do you say to the haters?
In my opinion, vodka has the reputation of being something that you use when you just want to add alcohol, but not flavor. The traditional definition of vodka is as a “flavorless, odorless spirit.” If this were truly the case, there would be no reason for so many vodkas [to be] on the market. Hangar 1 is unique: It has a distinct nose and signature flavor that sets it apart as a high end sipping spirit. This is a result of its unique mix of wine grapes and grain that goes into distillation — again, all a nod to our signature fresh taste. It stands on its own really well. In fact, I am always fighting the stigma that vodka needs to be tasted chilled. I want everyone to sample our vodka at room temperature — so they can truly experience its depth, while also appreciating its crisp cleanliness.
Speaking of sampling, you have a brand new visitors center and tasting room opening in early 2016. What are you looking forward to most about the new visitor center? What do you think will be most exciting for new visitors?
The pinnacle of our new home is going to be the Visitors Center and Tasting Room, which opens next year. Our new home celebrates the history of Alameda and the Naval Air Station and that’s really important to us. The Tasting Room is going to be really special for anyone who loves fresh flavors and unique ingredients, since we’re all about pushing the boundaries on vodka distilling. I am most excited about the new Pilot Still in my workshop, that will allow me to create special batches of vodka, all in the name of research and innovation. Using this special still, I will be creating signature, small batch Hangar 1 flavors, and the only place to try them (and buy them) will be at the hangar. Visitors should also get excited to check-out the private tasting room, which has sweeping views of the Bay. Save the date now if you’re planning a private event or want a show-stopping landscape.
What are some of the aspects that make Hangar1 a particularly exciting distillery to work for?
When I first arrived in California, I was stunned by the fresh produce and wonderful unique local offerings. I am having so much fun experiencing our amazing agricultural scene — and it has been a huge inspiration for working on tasting room exclusives. Every week, I head down to the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building and am always so inspired by and impressed with the quality and variability in the fresh produce and seasonal ingredients that I can find. I’m especially excited to be part of the Alameda community, especially the group of businesses on the Alameda Naval Air Station. Our little island is going through a huge revival — and everyone in the community is very involved in making sure that Alameda grows without losing its special charm.
How do you make the limited edition special flavors that you are developing?
Our flavored vodkas are made by macerating carefully selected fresh ingredients. The ingredients will steep in the vodka until all of the flavor is captured. Then, some of the infusion is reserved, while the vodka-soaked fruit or herbs are added to the still with a bit of water. From here, we distill the rest of the alcohol out of our fresh ingredients to truly capture their essence. This distillate is then blended with the infusion to create the final expression.
What’s new on the horizon for the distillery, what can we expect to see next?
Our most exciting upcoming things are the opening of the new visitors center and some special- tasting room exclusive flavors I am working on for our visitors. We are really excited to re-open to host visitors and groups and to taste vodka with everyone.
How have you adjusted to life in the Bay Area? Where exactly did you settle down? And what are some of your favorite places to eat and drink in and around the city?
Life in the Bay Area is amazing. I've settled in Alameda and love the community that we have on the island. I really enjoy heading into Oakland. The art, food, and culture in the town is so authentic and I love it. I also love to get into the city to enjoy the restaurants and events that are always going on. My absolute favorite part of Northern California? The farmers markets, hands down.
Although not a typical vodka maker, it appears as though Shoemaker has had little difficulty adapting to the typical quality of life here in the Bay Area. Pay her a visit at Hangar 1's new tasting room when it opens to the public in early 2016.