The Californian premium vodka Hangar One has broken into the US premium vodka segment without advertising or lavishing attention on distributors. Anne Brockhoff finds out the secret of its success.

When it comes to vodka, Hangar One is an anomaly. It's not imported. It doesn't advertise or offer deals, discounts or perks to distributors. In fact, it does precious little that a brand supposedly must do to break into the massive US market.  And yet this Californian-produced vodka has managed to boost production to 32,000 cases and expand into 50 states since launching - almost entirely by word of mouth.

"We want people to have an individual experience when they taste it," says Ansley Coale, president of Craft Distillers, which markets Hangar One. "If that connection is organic and natural, then it lubricates the growth of the product."

Hangar One was conceived amid a vodka explosion, with dozens of new brands and extensions rolling out each year. At the same time, Grey Goose and Belvedere had proven consumers would pay US$30 for a 750ml bottle. Coale had long wanted to make a hand-crafted vodka, and, at that price, he could afford to.

It couldn't be just any vodka, though. Coale was a collaborator in Germain-Robin, a Mendocino County distiller specialising in alambic brandies. He wanted to apply the same Old World techniques to vodka - an idea Jörg Rupf at St George Spirits in Alameda Point was also considering.

Coale and Rupf, who is known for award-winning eaux de vie, met to discuss the possibilities in August 2001 and began bottling Hangar One just seven months later. Rupf owns the trademark and oversees production. Craft Distillers, which is backed by a small group of private investors, holds a ten-year evergreen contract to market Hangar One worldwide; it also handles the Germain-Robin and St George portfolios.

Hangar One quickly generated a media buzz with articles in Food & Wine, The Atlantic Monthly and trade publications, and sales soon outstripped supply.

Hangar One's output was strictly allocated in its first three years, mostly because the partners didn't have the cash, space or staff needed to ramp up production. They initially used St George's distillery in the 2,000 square-foot Hanger 1, a World War II-era structure at the old Alameda Naval Air Station. They expanded into a 60,000 square-foot hangar in 2004.

"What interests me is that they have the patience and willingness to do something special in a really hot category," says Vernon Underwood, chairman and CEO of Young's Market Company, which distributes Hangar One on the West Coast. "When you come out with a domestic vodka at US$35 a bottle, you'd better have something special."

Hangar One's mainstay, Straight, is made by pot distilling Viognier wine and then blending the results with wheat vodka from a column still. To create its four flavours, Hangar One infuses wheat vodka with real fruit (Buddha's Hand citron, Fraser River raspberries, Kaffir limes and leaves and Mandarin tangerines and blossoms) before redistilling it in a pot still.

The process is painstaking and expensive, but Terry Coughlin, service and beverage manager at Tabla in New York, fully appreciates the results. "Their flavoured vodkas are very subtle," says Coughlin, "not sweet candy corn vodkas, but really beautifully made."

The Straight, Kaffir Lime and Mandarin Blossom vodkas are distilled all year round, but the rest are seasonal. When stocks are gone, buyers must wait until the next June for raspberry or August for citron. 

Such shortages aren't necessarily a bad thing, says Scott Tallon, spirit brand manager for Winebow Brands International, which distributes Hangar One in New York, New Jersey and Washington DC. "It keeps the mystique," Tallon says. "Every day I have people ask for raspberry. I tell them the raspberries aren't ripe yet. You can't create it if it isn't there."

No other flavours are in the offing, although in February Hangar One introduced its Alchemist Series with about 200 cases of wasabi-flavored vodka. The idea is to keep the brand fresh without siphoning off too many resources from its main marketing objective: getting people to taste Hangar One.

It starts with distributors, particularly those in Hangar One's priority markets (Arizona, Chicago, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, San Francisco and Texas). They then educate retailers, restaurateurs, bartenders and others in the trade, who hopefully recommend it to consumers, as Don DellaGiustina, liquor and beer manager for Table & Vine Fine Wine & Spirits, Northampton, Mass., recently did.

"It's a great vodka for the money, but its name wasn't out there," says DellaGiustina, who highlighted Hangar One in his newsletter. 

Craft employs just two other marketing tools: an atomiser typically filled with Mandarin Blossom that helps create a more complete sensory experience and a View-Master that tells Hangar One's story in 10 frames. It's a low-key, consistent approach that Hangar One and Craft are committed to, and one that is expected to pay off with steady, if slow, growth.

"There's this whole bells-and-whistles approach to selling, especially in vodka," says Don Sutcliffe, national sales and marketing director for Craft Distillers. "We take the exact opposite approach. The product is all about what's in the bottle."