Flavorless No More

Small batch by small batch, the makers of a new artisanal vodka have tapped into the market for America's best-selling spirits

I've never been much of a mixer—at least not when it comes to hard liquor. I learned my lesson young, as most people do. But later, when I began to want actual flavor and even subtlety in what I drank, I saw a higher logic to "never mix, never worry." The peat smoke and toasted barley in a single-malt Islay whisky; the sweet corn and new-charred white oak in Tennessee whiskey; the pure pear perfume of Poire William, with the whole fruit miraculously preserved inside the bottle—why do anything but savor the spirit neat, or with a bit of water to make it bloom?

Distillers wield an impressive array of techniques and secret potions to make their liquors mysteriously deep-flavored. They age them for years in barrels to achieve rich caramel color and complex flavors. But what of clear liquors that are often meant to be the basis of a martini or a gimlet—or the inexplicably popular vinyl-pink cosmopolitan? What, specifically, of vodka, the liquor I relied on in college for its minimal aftereffects?

Vodka is supposed to be flavorless. According to the official U.S. government definition, it is a neutral spirit "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." A good vodka or gin is considered to be one without the harsh, rubbing-alcohol fumes of ethanol, which can be overpowering in a high-proof clear liquor. Gin has an herbal base that effectively masks the ethanol: its chief component is juniper berries, whose principal use in the kitchen, after all, is to camouflage gaminess. It was logical for gin makers to cash in on the "premium" and "super-premium" craze and promote their own exclusive blends of roots and herbs. Vodka was a less likely candidate.

Stolichnaya paved the way, as William Grimes recounts in his witty Straight Up or on the Rocks (2001). By 1976 vodka had overtaken gin and whiskey as the top-selling spirit in this country—a position it has mostly continued to hold in the nearly three decades since. But Stolichnaya stumbled after the Soviet downing of Flight 007, in 1982, hurt sales of Russian products and left a ready market for the Swedish premium-priced Absolut. (Like "colossal" as applied to olives, "premium" and "super-premium" have little immediately discernible meaning. The general rule is that vodkas costing $20 to $25 a bottle are premium, $25 and up super-premium.) In the late 1980s I visited the Absolut factory, in a particularly beautiful part of southern Sweden near Malmö. The news then was flavorings like citron and pepper, which lent themselves to Absolut's colorful Pop Art—influenced ads. Flavorings made a virtue of the need to soften the harshness of nearly pure alcohol, and captured a big new market. But on my visit I came to appreciate qualities my guides never emphasized: the texture and taste of unflavored vodka.

Every vodka does have a flavor, I discovered, and the base ingredient determines it. Vodka can be made from any starch or sugar that will ferment into alcohol. It originated (in Poland or Russia, depending on who's writing the history) as a rustic homemade spirit distilled from any sugar source at hand, such as beets or molasses; the ethanol was masked by honey, pepper, citrus peel, and the like. With the arrival of industrial stills and charcoal filters, in the early 1800s, the defining technique became the filtering and dilution of 190-proof alcohol into a smoother but still potent liquor, usually 80 proof.

When I returned from Scandinavia, I began tasting many kinds of vodka, and found potato vodka to be the cleanest-tasting; examples are the reigning Chopin, pure and fiery, and Glacier. If I had to drink straight shots at, say, a Russian meeting where the rule of no eating after the first round was being observed, I would want them to be a good potato vodka—even though the Russians, surprisingly, scorn it.

Most vodkas, in Russia and elsewhere, are distilled not from potatoes but from grains. Few grains can compare with wheat for balance and sweetness (as I discovered again when sampling many small-batch bourbons). Rye, for example, is a bit rough and sour to my taste, whether in whiskey or in vodka (Belvedere and Wyborowa are rye vodkas).

But it is exotic flavorings, with exotic variant spellings (kurant, peppar), that have kept market attention on high-priced vodkas—along with frosted and odd bottles. None of this has much to do with the way the vodka is distilled, the quality of the ingredients, or whether it is what to my mind would actually merit a "super-premium" designation: something produced in small quantities under close supervision, using local ingredients.

The rise of connoisseur vodkas opened an unexpected vista to two artisan distillers, Ansley Coale and Jörg Rupf, who inhabit two corners of northern-California paradise. Coale redefined American brandy with his Germain-Robin, distilled from the best Mendocino County wines that he and Hubert Germain-Robin, the descendant of a long line of French cognac producers, can find. Germain-Robin is aged in barrels in the matchless climate of far northern California, and critics regularly call it the best in the world (see my "Don't Call It Cognac," December 1995 Atlantic). Rupf, too, is descended from generations of distillers, in his case makers of Alsatian eau de vie; he has pursued his inherited art in Alameda, in the Bay Area next to Oakland. His Aqua Perfecta eaux de vie, distilled from raspberries, pears, cherries, and other fruit that is never processed or even refrigerated, are highly regarded here and more so in Europe.

Until a few years ago Coale and Rupf had never worked together, but they shared a great deal. Both made their reputations by practicing a hallowed European craft to transform top-quality California ingredients in European artisan stills, giant copper contraptions that look like something from Jan van Eyck or Hieronymus Bosch. Both received rapturous reviews and numerous awards. And both had more and more trouble getting their products into liquor stores.

The network of family-run liquor distributors that prevailed in the United States into the 1980s has largely disappeared. As in many other businesses, consolidation and corporate ownership are in the ascendant; as a result, ties to local communities and the ability to gamble on a small brand have been lost. Salespeople work on commission, and it is rarely worth their time to talk up an eau de vie likely to sell a few bottles at best. However exalted their quality, Germain-Robin and Aqua Perfecta are niche products, relegated to the bottom of a distributor's list. With the increasing consolidation of liquor distributors (some states have just two or three), Coale and Rupf were seeing their products fall off lists altogether.

Vodka, of course, is at the top of any list. And artisan, or at least artisan-style, vodkas were commanding high prices. In the mid-1990s the success of Belvedere and the French Grey Goose, with its brandylike toffee flavor and plum aftertaste, showed that people would pay $30 a bottle for vodka. The Dutch Ketel One—sweet, with an indistinct but pleasant flavor, a syrupy texture, and a challah aftertaste—claims to be produced in "pot," or single-batch, stills like the ones Coale and Rupf use. (Industrial producers use continuous "column" stills, which require far less supervision and produce a far less focused reflection of the fruit, grain, herbal infusion, or wine being distilled.) Cîroc, a French vodka made from grapes (and thus really an eau de vie), and Citadelle, a French vodka made from wheat, come with similar claims and sell for similarly high prices. The claims are somewhat mysterious, given the prohibitive cost of single-batch distilling in large quantity.

The likelihood is that a component of the vodka is distilled in single batches and added to an industrially distilled base. This is the method Coale and Rupf hit on in the spring of 2001, when they first discussed teaming up to make vodka as a way to get distributors to take their other products seriously. They knew they could never make from scratch the quantity of vodka required. It was natural, though, to use Rupf's great expertise in distilling fruits. Rupf thought to blend handmade eau de vie distilled from fresh California fruit into a high-quality industrially produced vodka. He tasted every unflavored vodka he could find, and hit on one distilled in the Midwest from Great Plains wheat"the best vodka there is," Coale grandly told me when I recently visited him and Rupf. (Of course, they didn't tell me who made it. To taste high-quality vodka distilled from North American wheat, look for Shakers, made in Minnesota, and Pearl, made in Canada.)

The difference between the four flavored vodkas made by Hangar One, as they named their new brand, and others starts with the freshness of the fruit Coale and Rupf use, and the fact that they use it only in season. Rupf buys from longtime suppliers and usually cleans the fruit and puts it to macerate in vodka the day it arrives. Raspberry was an easy choice, because Rupf has made eau de vie with it for years and knows the secret of extracting maximal flavor from berries. The men also chose a citron called Buddha's Hand, a fascinating though somewhat alarming fruit that looks like a sea creature you wouldn't want to cross. Unlike other citrus, it has an entirely sweet pith, and thus is well suited to maceration. Buddha's Hand, an Asian variety, has caught on in California, probably as much for its appearance as for its gentle but alluring flavor (I love citron, especially in marmalade, but standard varieties can be bitter; the closest exposure most people have had is with the green bits in fruitcake). To give life, color, and fresh-fruit texture Rupf adds to the base vodka some raspberry juice or a bit of the undistilled vodka infusion of citron, orange, or kaffir lime leaf.

The real difference, though, is the addition of the same infusions after Rupf and Lance Winters, his partner, have distilled them into smooth, intensely perfumed eaux de vie. (Rupf does not redistill the bought vodka, and he dismisses claims from makers of high-priced vodkas that they distill three, four, or five times. "I don't know what that means in a continuous still," he says; U.S. law regulates any claims of multiple distillation on the label.) These bring a craft and elegance new to flavored vodkas.

I've never seen the point of flavored vodkas, and for all their elegance, Hangar Ones didn't really change my opinion. Well, two flavors didn't. I found the kaffir lime to be herbal and somewhat bitter, and the mandarin blossom—which includes distilled orange-flower infusion as well as the fruit—perfumey, with a very floral nose and a strong candied-orange flavor. (Distributors must sign up for rations of the raspberry, and no liquor stores in my area had any.) But I must admit that the Buddha's Hand citron was perfectly delicious—with an extremely bright nose and a flavor like a lovely fresh cross of lemon, lime, and orange. I wanted to mix it right away with Pimm's No. 1 and tonic water, find a chaise longue, and disappear for a few days.

The real test of any vodka maker is unflavored vodka. Coale set Rupf just that test: if the idea of their partnership was to get out of their small niches, they would need a noteworthy flagship. And they would need something they could always deliver. Seasonal fruit vodkas, unavailable in some months, are an oddity that baffles distributors.

Rupf had spent his life bringing flavors into pinpoint focus, but now he had to achieve a smooth, balanced, unintense flavor whose main virtue was masking the ethanol. To do this, big manufacturers have traditionally relied on sugar and citric acid—both of which U.S. law allows, in very low quantities, as "neutral" blenders in vodka. Coale and Rupf wanted to avoid additives they considered unnatural. To get rid of the ethanol fumes and enhance the texture, Rupf experimented with distilled wine (unaged brandy). He found that wine made from viognier, an aromatic white grape, loses its identifiable character when distilled to a high proof but "works really well to black out the ethanol."

"Straight" Hangar One vodka is an unusual triumph: delicate to the nose, almost watery compared with other premium unflavored vodkas, and distinctly winy and light on the tongue. It has the gentle potency of an eau de vie, and a finesse I found in no other vodka. I wouldn't want to mix straight Hangar One with much more than ice and soda. But it would certainly make an elegant version of an inherently inelegant cocktail like the fruit-punchy cosmopolitan.

The name was inspired by the former naval air station across the road from Rupf's original distillery; Coale was drawn to the atmospheric, strangely quiet base, like a lost city. He found a dramatic 1930s nighttime photograph of a vast movie theater lit from within and slapped it onto a hastily designed Web site (www.hangarone.com). It turned out to be a kind of prophecy. Within a year of the first release Rupf was evicted (his landlord and neighbor said he wanted more space), so Rupf relocated his distillery to a former hangar on the base. It is ten times the size of his old location—and reminiscent of the picture Coale had found.

It is a spectacular place. Rupf told me that even on the hottest days the temperature inside seldom rises above the mid-70s—a claim I found easy to believe. The beautiful redwood rafters alone, not to mention the fifty-foot ceiling, absorb a good deal of heat. The men plan to open a full tasting room by Christmas, to replace the makeshift table I saw, covered with specimen jars of various macerating fruits. I was there on the first day the still was in action, distilling wine and filling the vast hangar with a warm, bready scent. Anyone in the Bay Area should visit the plant to see eerily beautiful streamlined architecture—and to understand the distiller's art.

What began as a way to get a foothold on distributors' lists has in three years overtaken everything else the two men have ever done. Hangar One has sold exponentially beyond their initial projections. "So far we're small enough to do everything hand-controlled," Rupf told me. He wanted to keep it that way.

Coale told me that his dream is to avoid raising money for the huge investment in promotion usually required to build any liquor brand, and also the subsequent discounting to retailers to prop up sales figures. Rather than put money into advertising, he said, he wants to give profits to local distributors to put back into their communities as charitable contributions. Other large liquor manufacturers frequently donate to worthy causes, of course, and some even have well-publicized foundations. But Coale's idea is for decentralized, extremely local giving, to be determined by people right in the communities where it can help. "We want to do it, not trumpet it," he told me. Customers will "figure out," he said with his gift for promotional overstatement, "that we're making the best vodka there ever was." They'll say, "Look what these people are doing with their money!"

Coale had found enthusiasm among the few distributors he had approached—family-owned, and thus in the minority. "They're sensitive to this issue," he said, meaning giving back to the communities from which they profit. "Otherwise you can say they're just drug dealers." His next hurdle will be to persuade his investors to resist the high profit a quick sale of the company might bring, or any huge infusion of funds that would pay for advertising and promotion but involve ceding control. If unpersuaded stakeholders remain, he told me, he will try to find the money to buy them out.

I hope he succeeds. His is a model other artisans would doubtless be more than happy to follow—if only they could devise a way to tap into the market for America's best-selling spirits. If Hangar One's act-local model takes hold, maybe the big guys will follow it too.