Munchies

How This Distillery Is Turning Thin Air Into Booze

In the midst of California's serious drought, one Bay Area-based spirits company sought a more sustainable solution to creating vodka.

by Ali Wunderman
May 20 2016, 8:00pm

Situated beneath the three monstrous legs of San Francisco's infamous Sutro Tower is a handful of little contraptions know as fog catchers, which look more like a middle school science fair project than a new approach to California's dire drought situation. Plus, they're helping a project that gets you drunk.

"It's really low tech," explains Chris Fogliatti of Fog Quest, the Canadian non-profit dedicated to worldwide water conservation. "Fog and drizzle are made up of really tiny droplets of water. This is designed to have the small drops impact the mesh, and when it becomes waterlogged, water drips into the collection trough and then into the container."

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Fogliatti checking the fog catcher. All photos courtesy of Hangar 1.

Fogliatti is the volunteer director setting up and monitoring the mesh and PVC pipe fog catchers scattered throughout the Bay Area, collecting data and then distributing the collected fog water to local vodka distillery, Hangar 1.

Globally, fog catchers aren't new to the world of water conservation, but they're entirely novel to the world of liquor. In the midst of a serious drought that pushed California Governor Jerry Brown to mandate a 25 percent reduction in water use statewide, the Bay Area-based Hangar 1 sought a more sustainable solution to creating their vodka, which is 60 percent water.

Hanger1-Fog-Point-Field

They didn't have to look very far for an answer. It was rolling over the hills towards them, just across the bay.

From the vantage point of Sutro Tower looking West, anyone can see the characteristically dense bank of fog careening towards the city from the sea, encapsulating the former sand dunes that now make up the ironically-named "Sunset" neighborhood, which is usually so inundated with fog that witnessing the sun going down is better done almost anywhere else.

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Hangar 1 head distiller, Caley Shoemaker.

While the fog may be a nuisance to some, Hangar 1 head distiller Caley Shoemaker saw it as a treasure trove of usable water just waiting to be plucked from the sky, so she did a tremendous amount of research before linking up with Fog Quest to see if it could be pulled off.

Lo and behold, over the course of three off-season months, they were able to gather 88 gallons of fog water from three catchers alone. The process of distilling it into vodka began.

"In partnering with Hangar 1, Fog Quest is aiming to raise awareness around alternative, sustainable water sources while simultaneously creating innovative, cool consumer products," said Fogliatti. Similarly, Shoemaker promises that this project is the first of many such initiatives, "designed to return favor to our foggy home—a home which makes our pioneering distillation approach and our dedication to local agriculture and fresh ingredients possible." It's all very Bay Area.

We traipsed from the fog catchers of Sutro Tower across the bay to Alameda where Hangar 1 is headquartered (in an old WWII airplane hangar), where a tasting of all the vodka-creation steps awaited. Last in the lineup was their new, limited edition vodka, Fog Point, named for its key ingredient.

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Photo by the author.

But first, it was time to try the straight vodka. Though hardcore enthusiasts might disagree, vodka isn't typically known for having easily discernible flavors, yet even Hangar 1's standard product was as delicious as it was potent at 80 proof. This was chased by straight up, unfiltered fog water, which I had never before had the opportunity to try. It was definitely earthy after passing through all the coastal eucalyptus trees, but it was refreshing and delicious.

Next was the sweet, fruity wine, Bonny Doon, used as the vodka distillate for Fog Point, and selected because of the winemaker's similar commitment to sustainability. It too, tasted great.

After trying all the disparate parts, we finished with the result, which was a spirit worth sipping neat—something I have never before said about a vodka. There were hints of vanilla, citrus, and honeysuckle, with a finish of warm floral and pepper.

Adding cranberry juice cocktail would have been an insult to what Hangar 1 has developed; a smooth, almost gin-like vodka encased in a beautiful bottle designed in homage to the fog catchers from whence its innards came.

Hangar1-Fog-Point5-lemon

There is definitely sticker shock at $125, but blacking out at that price is a little easier knowing that all the profits from this limited edition run will be donated to the expansion of water conservation research. Plus, you can always drink it with your pinkies out to really lean into that luxe lifestyle.