Family-Run Distillery Expands

Its Habanero Vodka makes hot bloody Marys.


All images: Kristan Lawson

A family-owned vodka company, distilling aromatic small-batch organic produce-infused spirits in soaring imported copper stills, surrounded by sun-baked golden California chaparral, then sealing those spirits into tall clear bottles whose quaint, intensely informative labels evoke vintage apothecary shops.

Then it's sipped straight or poured into cocktails that include brine or Earl Grey tea or local honey.

What century is this, anyway?

Well — if you heard that one of those infusions was habanero, you'd know: Hanson of Sonoma draws upon yesterday to be all about today.

Stocked at Oakland's Shakewell, Berkeley's Gather and Stella Nonna, Richmond's Brezo, and the Moraga Country Club, Hanson of Sonoma vodkas are made about an hour's drive from Oakland in Sonoma, obviously, where the company's airy, concrete-floored new tasting room is launching this week.

"These guys got me into this business," said dad Scott Hanson, beaming warmly at his sons Brandon and Chris during a tour of the facilities. While studying in London seven years ago, Chris "fell in love with the distilling process," Scott explained. Meanwhile, so did Brandon, who was working in LA as an actor by day and a mixologist by night.

"A lot of creative new things were happening in the beer-brewing industry back then," Scott mused. "But the distilling industry was still very provincial."

And the vodka industry was still very artificial — composed mainly of huge companies competing to mass-produce synthetically flavored spirits. 

"My kids are millennials, so they have a different set of values around food and drinks than past generations. They really care about sourcing: They want to know where all the ingredients come from, how products were made and who made them and how. 

"So we decided to make craft spirits accessible. We decided to make vodkas using wine grapes with real organic fruit infusions. That's an entirely different animal," Scott said.

"We're not your luxury-label nightclub vodka."

With the help of sister Alanna and third brother Darren, Hanson of Sonoma became the first non-GMO spirit produced in the USA, and quickly began racking up prizes and awards.

"We wanted to focus on farmers we could work with who could sell us the best-quality ingredients," Brandon said.

"We were very inspired by what's been done in France's Cognac region," said Chris — who oversees the distilling process, which takes place in a towering fifty-chamber German-made still. While big-name vodka outfits run ingredients nonstop through continuous stills, Hanson of Sonoma crafts small batches over three-day spans. This allows Chris to separate out and discard each batch's lower-quality "heads and tails, and use only the hearts of the distillate," he explained.

To produce the flavored vodkas, fresh produce is infused over long spans. Skinned and seeded cucumbers take about six weeks to infuse; fresh ginger takes as much as three months. 

The habanero version actually entails seven types of fresh peppers — along with lemongrass, "so the flavor's not just hot; it has a lot of body," Brandon said.

Along with the original "plain" vodka, other versions feature hand-peeled, long-macerated Mandarin citrus; boysenberry; and espresso.

"We do everything by taste," Scott explained. "We think of ourselves more as chefs than as scientists."

Hanson of Sonoma's habanero vodka has been popular at Disney resorts — mainly as a key ingredient in Walt Disney's favorite cocktail: the bloody Mary. Stocked at such East Bay retail stores as Safeway in Berkeley and Lafayette; Total Wine in Pleasant Hill; and BevMo in Emeryville, Albany, Lafayette, Pinole, and Walnut Creek,  Hanson of Sonoma vodkas have scored numerous gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the Good Food Awards, and the American Distilling Institute, as well as a whopping 96-point score in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, among other honors. 

Want to try making a hot bloody Mary at home? Hanson of Sonoma suggests squeezing one Meyer lemon through a strainer, then adding 2 ounces of Habanero Vodka; 4 ounces of tomato juice; 2 dashes of Worcestershire sauce; 1 pinch of freshly ground pepper; and 1 pinch of freshly ground celery salt. Fill container with ice; shake gently, and strain. Garnish with celery, pickle, or crispy bacon. 

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