Since taking the reins at Alameda's Hangar 1 Vodka a year ago, Caley Shoemaker has built a distillery next door to St. George Spirits and Faction Brewing, and created new flavored vodkas. And she was just named one of Zagat's 30 under 30 "rock stars" redefining San Francisco's hospitality industry.
Shoemaker studied photography in art school, but she was bitten by the spirits bug when she toured a whiskey distillery in Denver.
Today, she is one of a handful of female head distillers, and she's on a mission to change how we think about vodka.
1 How did you go from photography to distilling vodka?
"I got into craft beer after art school, but never thought of it as a career. I heard about Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey and went on a tour -- and was hooked. I worked in the tasting room and gave tours. I begged the guys to teach me distillation. The opportunity to make vodka at Hangar 1 was a new challenge."
2 Are your parents spirits enthusiasts?
"My dad was a gin guy, and to this day still drinks gin and tonics. So I thought gin is definitely what I want to drink. It took some time for me to taste other spirits. I always joke that gin is my first love, and whiskey and vodka are my second."
3 What are we doing wrong with vodka?
"Stop chilling vodka. You're hiding all the good flavors. Most people put vodka in cocktails or chill it for a shot, and don't think of vodka as a sipping drink, but I do. I'm not a fan of ice-cold vodka. When you taste the spirit at room temperature, the alcohol blooms off the surface and you get more of the nuances."
4 How have you put your stamp on Hangar 1 vodka?
"We're working on super-small batches called Distiller's Exclusives. I visit farmers markets and chat with organic farmers, find out what interesting botanicals they're growing. I'm most excited about a pink peppercorn that I'm working on. Tamarind turned out bizarre; the little bit of sweetness you get from eating tamarind did not come through in the vodka."
5 What's it like working in the testosterone-fueled spirits world?
"I see more female distillers, even though we are still in the minority. The guys don't treat us differently. I'm hoping more girls see distilling as something they can do when they grow up."
-- Mary Orlin, Staff