Loyal readers know that I'm prone to making my own vodka infusions. I find most commercial flavored vodkas have a chemical, artificial flavor. DPaul and I have experimented with many permutations, sweet and savory alike, but even my Mad Scientist tendencies have their limits. Fortunately for me, the concoctionists at Hangar One are not so constrained.
We visited the Hangar One distillery on the former Alameda
Air Force base Naval Air Station a few months ago, along with a couple of other local food bloggers. It's a recommendable excursion, though I would prefer to return and experience it when they are actually doing something; on weekends (and, for that matter, many weekdays -- it's a small-batch operation), it's basically a huge, cavernous warehouse with a big, pretty alembic still perched in the middle of the floor. Still, it's interesting to see where they do what they do, and to hear their philosophy about making top-notch infused vodkas.
Infused. That's the operative word here. Whereas big-name industrial distillers like Grey Goose, Smirnoff and Absolut flavor their vodka with chemical extracts, Hangar One's vodkas derive their flavors from direct contact with the actual ingredient they are meant to taste like. (Interestingly, Chow's panel outwardly disliked both Hangar One and Charbay, both artisanal, fruit-infused products. I know from personal experience that vodka infusion deconstructs the flavors of the source ingredients, sometimes resulting in some intensified notes and others suppressed; it is surely easier, or at least more effective, to build a better -- i.e., more generally palatable -- flavored vodka chemically. But count me among the stalwarts who prefer a true infusion.)
The other thing I respect about Hangar One is their tendency to sidestep the obvious. Everyone else makes lemon; Hangar One opts for the otherworldly and highly perfumed Buddha's Hand. Lime is de rigueur; but Kaffir lime adds an exotic edge.
But why stop at pedestrian fruit flavors? Last year, they kicked off their Alchemist Series, extremely small batches of more experimental flavors, with a wasabi-infused creation, which I unfortunately never had the pleasure of trying. (Our tour guide at the distillery recounted that, as wasabi is a member of the mustard family, it combined with vodka, a volatile solvent, to form, well, mustard gas. The distillers had to wear gas masks while developing the infusion.)
This year, it's chipotle. So when the manager at Plumpjack Wines told me they had just gotten their small allocation of the stuff in, I bought it on the spot. As I proudly unsheathed the bottle from the brown bag when I got home, DPaul's eyebrows rose.
First up, a taste, straight up. I poured the barest drizzle into two shot glasses, and sipped.
From the instant the liquid -- nay, the very vapors -- hit the palate, a searing burn and almost meaty smokiness pervaded my mouth. Tears welled in my eyes. I hacked out a couple dry coughs.
In other words, delicious. But clearly, not a spirit meant to be taken lightly, or alone. Bloody Marys are the obvious application, and no doubt what inspired this invention, but here's the thing: Neither DPaul nor I particularly care for them.
So what to do with this literal and figurative firewater? I wasn't the first to come up with a cocktail showcasing the vodka's incendiary qualities, but I found little else. My mind immediately drew to complementary flavors in Latin and Southeast Asian cooking -- a little tropical fruit for some sweetness to temper the burn, some lime for sour to balance the flavors. Perhaps a little salt to round things out. After all, how does it go -- Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet?
I am no mixologist, but a little experimentation yielded some surprisingly delicious results. We produced two cocktails, of similar proportions but of slightly different ingredients, each with distinctive character. The smoky chipotle flavor remains assertive, yet never overpowers -- no mean feat that. The names are arbitrary and whimsical -- one of them dubbed by our neighbor. I look forward to tweaking these recipes further; no doubt we'll reach smoky cocktail nirvana right around the time the last bottle of chipotle vodka is plucked from the shelves.