Handmade Vodka in Carneros

Hanson tasting room opens at Ceja Vineyards.

Photos Steven Krause

A few years ago, one member of a Sonoma Valley winemaking family explained why he was dipping his corporate toe into the boutique spirits pond.

“Do you know what my pre-tax profit margin is on a $20 bottle of wine?” he asked. “It’s less than $2. Do you know what the profit margin is on a $40 bottle of botanical gin? Comparably huge!”

That may help explain the explosion of craft distilleries across the country. In 2010 there were 560 federal Distilled Spirits Permits; in 2016 the number jumped to 1,825, and it continues to grow.

The exponential spurt in spirits distillers doesn’t mean everyone is getting rich on fat profit margins—the competition is getting fierce—but it does mean a new appetite has awakened in American consumers for more hand-crafted, locally produced and innovative booze.

Enter Scott Hanson, his three sons and one daughter who are bent on disrupting the already disruptive artisan spirits market with a Sonoma-based handmade vodka that checks off every box in the boutique booze desirability list: certified organic, gluten-free, non-GMO and real-fruit infusion. Plus, it’s made from premium grapes.

You can, of course, make vodka from practically any fermentable fruit or vegetable, but in both the European Union and Russia, evolving standards require that beverages called “vodka” be made from fermented potatoes or cereal grains.

No such rules apply in the U.S., and Scott Hanson uses grapes both because he can—this is, after all, Wine Country—and because two of his sons, Chris and Brandon, convinced him it was a good idea.

As family lore goes, Chris Hanson, an accomplished impressionistic painter, was studying in London when he became enamored of the cognac distilling process used in France. His brother Brandon, meanwhile, was living in Los Angeles, doing film and TV work in the daytime and tending bar at night. The bar business led him to the creative side of cocktails and experimentation with fruit and vegetable infusions.

Together, they swung the needle on the family’s focus that, for decades, had been on art. The Hanson Gallery of Fine Art has been a Sausalito fixture for more than 30 years, featuring exhibitions ranging from Picasso to Calder to Christo, and some of Scott’s own sculptures. Scott’s wife, Judy, still runs that business, although Scott says he has divested most of the chain of galleries he owned across the country. Leading a vodka-making family is now a full-time enterprise and a major investment that is sandwiched into the winery and brewery property owned by the Ceja family on Burndale Road at the edge of Carneros.

The Ceja property comes with multiple benefits, including access to grapes, crushing facilities and the Ceja’s winemaking expertise, but a three-year effort to secure county permission for a vodka tasting room was stymied when the county refused to allow a third tasting room on property that already hosted both beer and wine tastings.

So Scott Hanson made the Cejas a deal “too good to refuse,” buying their brewery along with its prized permit, and in June the Hanson of Sonoma distillery tasting room opened.

And that is no small deal. The distillery employs a sophisticated collection of copper plumbing, including a “helmet pot still,” so named for the copper “helmet” affixed to the pot and reminiscent of French cognac stills. The heated vapors pass from the pot still into a series of two copper columns with a total of 50 distillery chambers. Scott Hanson refers to the system as the still equivalent of a Ferrari, with a commensurate cost.

But what comes out of the still’s condenser seems to be worth the expense. After experimenting with 155 different batches, “a ton of blind tasting,” consulting with expert mixologist Tony Conigliaro, and a three-person panel of final judges in Las Vegas, the final mix was chosen. It was a blend of French colombard, chardonnay and chenin blanc, harvested early for higher acidity, put through a special filtering system and initially bottled with hand-drawn labels and blue masking tape for submission to the brand’s first tasting competition, an international event incorporating 20 countries. Hanson of Sonoma, literally fresh out of the gate, won Best Vodka in Show.

The ribbons have flowed ever since, and the vodka is now available in five organic flavors—the original unflavored, along with cucumber, ginger, mandarin and habañero. The fruit and vegetable infusions are all prepared on-site, by hand, from locally sourced growers (with the exception of ginger, which comes from Hawaii because the Hansons couldn’t find organic ginger in California).

There are also seasonal variations, including boysenberry and espresso, and Brandon, who manages the infusions, says every season results in slight variations of taste depending on the produce available. “There’s a general formula,” he explains, “but there is seasonality, and every habañero batch is a little bit different.”

Since vodka is the ultimate mixer, the Hanson tasting room provides a smorgasbord of cocktail recipes, including the cucumber gimlet, the Hanson
Sonoma Mule, a “kicking” bloody Mary made with habañero vodka, a lemon drop, a cucumber screwdriver, and a whole lot more.

Tours and tastings are now available, and walk-in traffic is welcomed.

“Before the tasting room,” says Scott, “we never had the opportunity to invite people in, to educate them, show them what we’re doing. Now we can.”

If you want that experience, drop on by. The tasting room, at 22985 Burndale Road, next to Ceja Vineyards, is open seven days a week from 11 to 5. Tastings and tours are priced from $15 to $35. For more information call 707.343.1805 or go to hansonofsonoma.com.

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