Craft distilling is where it’s at, so it was exciting to be able to tour the Half Moon Bay Distillery in my childhood home town. I especially appreciate owner Ulli’s giving us a tour on a Monday afternoon (their regularly schedule tours are Friday-Sunday).
The distillery currently is tucked away in the working part of Princeton, near Pillar Point Harbor. There are two “rooms” downstairs, one has the beautiful German column still and one has the “tasting room.” It’s not fancy, but who cares? We got to sit and have our tour while the still was producing spirits right next to us. Cool.
They currently make and sell a vodka and gin, though they have also distilled some rye whiskey and grappa. Which reminds me: when you drive onto Harvard Ave. if you are coming from the harbor you will see a big building with the HMB Distilling logo on it. That is their FUTURE home. We waited there for a few minutes before we realized that it was not the current location.
I have to say that the information that Ulli provided during the tour was some of the most informative I have heard during a distillery tour. What follows are some of what I learned for those interested in such things.
VODKA: Vodka is distilled to 95% alcohol content (190 proof), and is then “proofed” down to 40%. Because it is distilled to such a high level of purity, the actual source of starch doesn’t matter as much for vodka as for other distilled spirits. So, you can use grains, potatoes, or grapes. HMB Distillery uses wheat and malted barley. This doesn’t affect the “flavor” of the vodka because it is ideally a neutral spirit. But Ulli suggested that it may affect the mouth feel – the viscosity of the spirit when you drink it.
Ulli also said the key is not what you put in the spirit but what you take out. The purer and cleaner the better, and you take out some of the impurities by removing the “heads” of the distillation run — the first part of the distillate that contains nasty stuff you don’t want to drink or even smell. They typically run off 3-4 quarts of heads which they can then use as a cleaner or perhaps nail polish remover. After the “heads” comes the “hearts,” which is what you want to bottle, followed by the “tails” which are also sub par.
To me vodka is a boring spirit to drink, but the Purissima vodka they make is very good vodka, and made some excellent Moscow Mules when we got home.
GIN: Is basically a neutral spirit (vodka) infused with botanicals — notably juniper berries — for flavor. What makes HMB Distillery’s Harvard Avenue gin unique is the particular blend of botanicals they use, which Ulli said accent citrus flavors to make it a sort of “California Style” gin. In addition to juniper berries they include orange and lemon peel, as well as grain of paradise, rose hips, coriander, licorice root, cinnamon and clove.
The method by which they infuse the neutral spirit with these botanicals is “vapor extraction”, which means they put all the botanicals in a bag which the alcohol vapor passes through and picks up the flavor. This is a more subtle way of infusing the spirit than “maceration,” in which the botanicals are soaked in the liquid.
The taste of this gin is as advertised. I will enjoy drinking it straight and trying it in one of my favorite cocktails — the Negroni.