Distilling vodka from San Francisco's fog

Vodka from fog water
Vodka from fog water 04:39

By the time tonight's partying starts to wind down, will you be IN A FOG? You might be if you've been imbibing the drink Lee Cowan has discovered:

Although you might think that a vodka still would be a great place to ring in the New Year -- it's actually just a giant tease. You can't drink any of it straight right out of the tap, because at this point in the process, it's 190 proof.  

"Oh!  Yep!" cried Cowan.

"It almost evaporates right away," said Caley Shoemaker, the head distiller at Hangar 1 Vodka. "That's why it's called a spirit!"

Hangar 1 gets its name from its home, an old airport hangar at what used to be the Naval Air Station in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco.

You can make vodka out of just about anything that ferments, but here's something you might not know: "Your average bottle of vodka is actually about 60% water," Shoemaker said.

Caley Shoemaker, of Hangar 1, with bottles of Fog Point Vodka, made from water pulled from the air.  CBS News

And the water has a ton of influence on the final flavor.

Water, however, is a pretty coveted commodity in California, having just emerged from several years of drought. So, Shoemaker decided she'd experiment with a more sustainable option, and try to squeeze water out of an icon: San Francisco's famous fog.

"Turned out no one had tried it, which I was kind of surprised about," she said. "With all this fog!"

A quick meteorological lesson: fog is essentially made of tiny, floating water droplets -- and, it turns out, those drops have a flavor. "It's water, so it's very nuanced," she said.

According to Cowan, fog water is kind of like licking a wet rock, but in a good way.

"It almost, like, whispers to the places the fog traveled," Shoemaker said. "I mean it sounds kind of silly, but with all that little bit of salinity and minerality, you can almost, like, taste the journey of the fog."

Still, coaxing that water literally out of thin air does take a bit of engineering.  

Hangar 1 enlisted the help of Chris Fogliatti, who has been wrangling clouds for years. He's a volunteer with a Canadian non-profit called FogQuest, which has been constructing special nets to catch fog in the mountains of Africa, Asia and Latin America since early 2000.

Nets can collect the water from fog at a rate of about 3-4 liters of water per square meter per day. CBS News

His nets can net around 3-4 liters of water per square meter per day -- and FogQuest makes fog collectors as large as 40 square meters.

In one village in Guatemala, there are 35 of those nets set up. Together, they can capture up to 1,800 gallons of fog water a day.

CBS News

Cowan said, "It's a pretty simple process, right?"

"Yeah. It's designed to trap the microscopic droplets in fog, and convert them into larger droplets, which then fall into the trough and are collected," Fogliatti said.

In the Bay Area, it can take up to a day to collect enough fog water to cut just a single bottle of vodka.

Which might be because there's less fog in general, says Todd Dawson, an environmental scientist at UC Berkeley. "The length of time that the fog lingers around on the coast now, has gone down by about three hours every single foggy day," he said.

Dawson says over the last 60+ years there's been about a 35% decrease in the frequency of fog along the coast.

And that, he says, may have a big impact on Northern California's other icon: the coastal redwoods, which depend on fog for both moisture and fertilization. "They also have less rainfall, along with less fog, [which] means less water overall, and in the southern parts of the range, we're actually seeing that those coastal redwoods are really suffering."

The lack of fog, in part, is why Hangar 1's aptly-named Fog Point Vodka is so pricey, retailing at about $125 a bottle.

Fog isn't cheap!

Much of the proceeds will go to fund FogQuest's non-profit work, as well as to the California State Coastal Conservancy.

Bottling San Francisco's fog won't keep it from thinning, but it does remind us that as we enter a New Year, Nature's resources are worth both toasting, and saving.

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