Turning smoke-tainted grapes into smokey vodka

Michael Kudra tends bar in San Francisco, and at Reuters' request he sampled a vodka that combines the flavor of environmental catastrophe with the taste of innovation.

"Yeah there it is. You get it more now."

This is Smoke Point vodka.

The wildfires that blanketed California's vineyards in with acrid smoke in 2020 ended hopes the grapes a might end up bottled as a Merlot.

"As soon as you see smoke around your vineyard, you need to suspect, especially close to harvest, you need to suspect that there is a possibility for that aroma to get inside the berry."

Nicholas Quille is the operations officer for Crimson Wine Group, which owns Pine Ridge Vineyards Carneros brand in Napa Valley.

Rather than make a wine with an ashtray aroma, or throw it out, he partnered with a distillery, Hangar One Vodka, to turn the wine made from smoke-tainted grapes into hard liquor.

One bartender approves.

"You get that like, almost like that taste of a barbecue from far away, that smell, you know somebody's using coals."

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"Our goal was not to make a smoky vodka at all."

Emily Webster runs sales and marketing for Hangar One.

"Vodka is basically a neutral spirit, but it does retain the character of the base material, so we were hoping to create something that was new in the category of vodka, neutral-ish, so that people could enjoy it while also doing something good for their community."

All proceeds from sales go to the California Fire Foundation, which assists firefighters, their families and communities.

"I hope that we won't need that every other year."

Quille is glad the grapes found their way into a bottle. But with increasingly severe and frequent drought across the Western U.S., wine might become a casualty of climate change.

"If things would have to turn for the worse and those fires become more violent and more frequent, it's definitely an option that needs to be on the table."

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