Hangar 1 Distillery is most famous for its vodka, but head distiller Caley Shoemaker came to the company via whiskey: the single malts of Stranahan’s Whiskey in her native Colorado, to be specific. She worked there for five years before moving one time zone west to infuse Hangar 1 vodkas with all the fruits and botanicals that Northern California affords. And she speaks about certain technical elements of her craft the way some people talk about an old flame.
“I was also distilling wines and using California wine grapes to make vodka and I just sort of felt like there was more,” Shoemaker tells SF Weekly by phone. “Brandy has such a rich history, and I was dying to bring back barrel maturations into my life.”
The chemistry of fermentation had long fascinated her, doubly so when it came to putting her elixirs into American oak. Hangar 1 had long toyed with wine barrels to yield some curious flavor profiles, but even that playful process felt limited. So Shoemaker deemed it time to “push it over the edge,” the equivalent of plummeting over Niagara Falls — in a barrel, maybe.
While admitting that “I’m not a wine person, I grew up in Colorado where beer is king,” she found herself ineluctably drawn toward the techniques of French brandies, working with a brandy distiller to experiment on a Chenin Blanc-style brandy they were making, blending it with California brandy, and finishing it in some old American single-malt whiskey barrels. Shoemaker will never escape whiskey entirely, it seems.
“No, I won’t,” she says. “And I never intend to. It’s just one of those things that I throw myself back into. It’s been wonderful to have barrels back in the building again, and the flavor profile is something that I would call a ‘great gateway brandy.’ ”
Having made its official debut on March 27, Bentwing Brandy — the name is in keeping with the aeronautical themes of a distillery in the former Alameda Naval Air Station — succeeds at two tasks. It’s complex enough to enjoy on its own, yet it’s sufficiently amenable to cocktails that Shoemaker is confident she can woo hardcore whiskey fans with it. The primary reason for that dexterity was hardly serendipity or alchemy; it was good grapes.
“Brandy — super-old brandy — was made as a classic higher-end thing, but over time brandy has become this place for people to use throwaway grapes or pomace,” she says, referring to the viticultural equivalent of cannabis seeds and stems. “It’s traditionally been a cheaper spirit that’s been used as a way to use up not-good wine, which to me is disappointing, because I had all this wonderful experience working with really good winemakers and distilling their wine — and if you use crappy stuff to start with, you’re going to get crappy stuff out.”
She also made a point to work with a top-tier cooperage. Brandy must age in oak for a minimum of two years, and Shoemaker chose a No. 4 char, which is exposed to fire for a full 55 seconds, imparting the staves with the scaly, carbonized quality that gives No. 4 its cool nickname: alligator char. As it happens, they were the same barrels she sourced at Stranahan’s.
“I think that that intense char does such a wonderful job of breaking down all your wood sugars and your long chains and stuff into the vanilla and the shorter-chained esters that give you the nice fruity, toasty, clove spice-baking notes in your spirits,” Shoemaker says.
Wine barrels are often toasted, but seldom taken quite this far. And with whiskey, everyone is commanded as if by the golden plates of Mormon to use brand-new barrels every time — if you want your product to say “straight” on the label, anyway.
“But I’m making brandy,” Shoemaker says, “and I can do whatever the hell I want.”
Used barrels enabled a different kind of interaction between spirit and wood. That’s a process this distiller could wax on about down to the subatomic level, but from the drinker’s perspective, Bentwing got some “brighter, grassy, cream notes” from this finishing step. Letting everything go too long would tilt things too far into the whiskey territory, but as it is, it’s an approachable spirit with a flavor Shoemaker refers to as “white birthday cake,” with a bit more depth.
“It has a lovely floral note and it’s very sweet and very fresh and bright,” she says. “The brandy out of the barrel by itself is spectacular, but I find that there’s just a little added layer of complexity, a little more of a baking spice note.”
Hangar 1 chose to release it in late March because that’s when it was finally ready after years of tinkering in Shoemaker’s “innovation lab,” but also because this time of year is a dead zone in the calendar, with the holidays long behind us and summer still a ways off. For a distillery whose dedication to pairings is punctilious — every Saturday in February, they did cheese-and-vodka — it made sense to partner with The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena for the release. Shoemaker praises Meadowood as the gold standard of California cuisine, nothing that “brandy has traditionally thought of as an after-dinner-with-some-cigars sort of thing.
“Trust me,” she adds. “There is nothing I love to do more than to sit outside on a warm evening with a cigar and some wood-aged something. But [Bentwing] is so approachable. It does some really fresh daytime cocktails in a really beautiful way, so when you pair it with fresh ingredients, it’s so versatile. And for the release, we’re going to see it in both idioms: as a daytime, fresh cocktail brandy and as a nighttime, sip-after-dinner brandy. The fact that it can play so well in both is very exciting.”
Hangar 1’s Bentwing Brandy, $29.99 for 750 mL, available at hangarone.com