The left coast of America is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand it’s the home of laid back, drugged out hippy cool. On the other it is home to the largest collection of insecure, obsessive compulsives. These folks happen upon ordinary pursuits such as drinking coffee or having a beer and obsess about them to the point of creating new industries. Witness the birth of the premium coffee market and microbreweries – both with origins on the left coast. While the rest of us get bored learning about which sub species of possum excreted the coffee bean in our cup of Java, we are generally grateful to the OCDs for driving up quality.
The OCDs have recently discovered hard alcohol. I counted some 17 micro distilleries within spitting distance of the Bay area – making various gins and vodkas. Thanks to the company of friends who are well knows lushes, I was able to sample a broad swathe of them on a recent visit to San Francisco.
I discovered Hangar 1 vodka suitably enough at an aviation industry cocktail party. We were waited on at this aviation themed event by attractive young ladies in gentlemen’s fantasy airline hostess wear (Hooter’s Air did actually take to the air with hot looking skimpily clad air hostesses. That was about the extent of their business plan however, and they couldn’t keep it up). Hangar 1 is made by St George Spirits in a hangar at the former Alameda Naval Station across the bay from San Francisco. Its partly made with pot stilled voignier grapes (flown to the distillery in the Hangar 1 blimp – a neat party trick) with a creamy texture and round full feel in the mouth. Its a nicely balanced vodka that is very, very good. It’s available from specialist retailers in the US and at Majestic Wines in the UK.
My next vodka tasting was over dinner at Aziza the lovely Michelin-starred Moroccan fusion restaurant, in the company of Long Tall Sally, the squaw, mini me and other good friends. We had Sub Rosa and Tru, both locally produced flavoured vodkas. The Sub Rosa vodka we tried was saffron flavoured, with a gentle golden hue and very complex flavours (as complex as a gin they claim, with 8 spices). This drink has big flavours with loads of savoury, spicy notes include lemon, coriander, ginger and of course, a mild saffron aftertaste. We also tried the lemon flavoured vodka from Tru; clean flavours, all organic, perfect in a G&T. Tru is a politically correct brand, brewed by a collective, whatever that is. They publish all kinds of carbon footprint data on their label. I know women who like diamonds and I am personally fond of dripping carbon off the end of a decent Cohiba – otherwise I don’t know much about why anyone finds carbon so interesting. I was too drunk to read all they had to say about their carbon footprint, but I’m sure it makes them happy. It was a decent spirit however and I guess it’s drunk by the smugly politically correct, Prius driving classes looking for an alternative to their ethically grown, organic, fair trade Sauvignon Blanc. In the UK we call these people Liberal Democrats. I believe they are called Pinkos in the USA. Regardless of which side of the Atlantic you are on, they are an instantly recognisable species. As a rule they wear sandals, sometimes with white athletic socks. Their men tend to beards, their women don’t shave their legs and both sexes are predisposed to hugging trees.
The next tasting was at Rye, a very cool bar in the Tenderloin district with M, who is neither Lib Dem nor Pinko. M was partial to absinthe and insisted I taste the wares of the St George distillery, the same guys who make Hangar 1 vodka. These guys leapt into the market as soon as absinthe was legalised in the US some years back. Their absinthe is a fine spirit best drunk with a splash of water. It is too fine to be drunk using the Bohemian technique (see Absinthe and Star Fucking, Nov 28), although as a guy I find setting light to flammable liquids while drunk to be quite entertaining.
The house of St George also makes gins. Their trio includes a dry rye gin, the Terroir and the Botanivore. The dry rye is probably the only one of its kind in the world – I have yet to come across another pot distilled 100% rye based gin. The botanicals in this gin have been selected to enhance the juniper flavours. Its a nice, clean drink with a sophisticated palate – a gin for whisky lovers. The last two are not flavoured gins, but have very distinct botanicals (think of Bombay Sapphire for example v a clean London dry gin such as a Tanqueray). The Botanivore has eighteen botanicals with a soft flavour. One can taste the spices but they remain in the background with the characteristic juniper flavour remaining front and centre. The Terroir was my favourite, a complex gin with douglas fir from Mt Tam, coastal sage, California bay laurel and who knows what else. This was like no other gin I have tasted, best drunk extremely dry. Forget the garnish.
Of the spirits sampled I would add Hangar 1 vodka to my list of permitted alternatives to the standard Grey Goose martini – it is that good. Terroir I would keep in my liquor cabinet too. It is that interesting.
Once you are done drinking in San Fran it’s fun to visit the Occupy San Francisco camp by the Embarcadero for a post prandial stroll. There are more stoners here than at all other Occupy camps combined. Inhale gently and you can go to bed relaxed.