DU Alumni

Photography major distills her talents into top slot at Hangar 1

Caley Shoemaker (BFA '09) is head distiller at California-based Hangar 1 Vodka. She’s one of the few female distillers in the country. Photo courtesy of Hangar 1

Caley Shoemaker (BFA ’09) is head distiller at California-based Hangar 1 Vodka. She’s one of the few female distillers in the country. Photo courtesy of Hangar 1

Caley Shoemaker walks into a bar in the Bay Area. Not just any gin joint, but a posh purveyor of high-end spirits, tended by an ingenious mixologist who knows precisely when to shake and when to stir.

Make me a drink made with Hangar 1, she tells the maestro.

And then, when the concoction arrives, she sits back and savors her handiwork.

Since January 2014, Shoemaker (BFA ’09) has been head distiller at California-based Hangar 1 Vodka, headquartered at an old airplane shelter at the Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco. She’s one of the few female distillers in the country, and she’s making a name for herself — and her product — in the Bay Area’s bustling artisanal beverage and cocktail scene.

Shoemaker doesn’t just oversee the crafting of silky vodkas, she’s leading every aspect of operations. Right now that means preparing for the 2016 opening of a tasting room for visitors, hiring and supervising staff, selecting ingredients for new products, washing floors, assembling furniture and tending to the sometimes-cranky, sometimes-compliant copper stills that produce her vodkas. If one breaks down or malfunctions, Shoemaker is on the job.

A decade ago, this is the last job the Colorado native would have expected to headline her resumé .

Back then, as a University of Denver undergraduate, she was studying photography at the School of Art and Art History. Once she finished common curriculum requirements and began intensive studies in her major, she started looking for opportunities to put her passion to work. She interned at a gallery in the art district on Santa Fe Drive and started thinking about furthering her education, perhaps in an anthropology or museum studies program that would nurture her interest in Mayan linguistics and pictographs.

Those plans were thwarted by stock market collapses and economic chaos. “The recession hit, and there weren’t a lot of art jobs out there,” she says.

Her senior year, with her budget and expenses in mind, Shoemaker took a job at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, a Denver-based distillery that claims to make the “first Colorado-born whiskey.” She led tours that introduced visitors to the entire whiskey-making process, from brewing to aging to bottling. Within no time, Shoemaker was supervising the other tour guides and the tasting-room employees.

What she learned as a tour guide whetted her thirst for some whiskey-brewing know-how. “I did find the distilling aspect fascinating,” she says, noting that she spent some of her downtime on the job grilling the distillers about their craft. “I was following those guys around all of the time,” she recalls.

The distillers were happy enough to show her the ropes, but they weren’t inclined to consider a college kid, presumably killing time between opportunities, as a serious apprentice. What’s more, making whiskey, traditionally regarded as a man’s drink, was largely considered a man’s work.

“It took us being shorthanded,” she says, before anyone decided to give her any distilling responsibilities. And the rest is whiskey history.

For Shoemaker, distilling proved the perfect way to tap into the reserves of her liberal arts and arts education. Much like a good photo, “distilling is fantastic because there are so many factors that can inform the final products,” she says. The temperature of the stills, the freshness of the ingredients, the quality of the barrel used for aging. (“Barrel aging is kind of a roll of the dice,” she confides, with the air of a wizened old pro.)

Her education in whiskey distilling encompassed everything from sourcing ingredients to learning how the chemistry behind distilling affects the beverage’s texture and taste. Although she had never considered herself scientifically inclined, she found herself drawing on chemistry basics from her DU natural sciences classes to understand the mysteries of the process.

Shoemaker also delved into the business side of the operation, and her relish for all the nuts and bolts — from policing the stills to building the brand — led to her position at Hangar 1.

Making the transition from unequivocal whiskey to nuanced vodka has opened up new doors for Shoemaker. Not only does vodka have its own distilling challenges, but anyone creating a reputable vodka must anticipate different end uses than their counterparts working with whiskey. “It’s been fun for me to switch over to the cocktail culture,” she says, noting that vodka is the star of many a martini and cosmopolitan.

Vodka lends itself to the fine art of infusing, and that has piqued Shoemaker’s imagination. Hanger 1’s three flavored vodkas — Buddha’s Hand Citron, Mandarin Blossom and Kaffir Lime — each boasts an array of secondary flavors. Buddha’s Hand Citron, for example, includes notes of jasmine, basil and apricot. Kaffir lime, meanwhile, blends notes of wood, white pepper and cucumber.

In dreaming up new fusions for Hangar 1, Shoemaker prowls the farmers’ markets for fresh produce to macerate and then steep in vodka. Tamarind, she’s already decided, is not the best partner for vodka, but she has high hopes for elderberries and has asked a local farmer to hold some for her in the coming weeks.

Although her bachelor’s degree is not even a decade old, Shoemaker is looking at taking on an apprentice to study with — not under, but with — her. “When you try to teach someone,” she says, “they always look at it from a different perspective, and you learn something, too.”

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