When is a commodity not a commodity? If that sounds like one of our confounded riddles, it’s actually a serious question. And the answer is when it’s vaporware. Vapor-what? Vaporware refers to hardware or software that is being actively promoted but which has yet to be fully developed or finalized as a tangible product. Nebulous and etheric, but potentially about to come into being. But outside of the tech sector yet still close to Silicon Valley, there is another vapor product garnering clouds of interest – and it’s all because of Karl. If you haven’t the foggiest idea what we’re talking about, read on…
No average day in San Francisco is complete without the presence of a character locally known as Karl. Or ‘Karl the Fog’ to be exact.
Karl has both his own Facebook page on which ‘he’ lists his personal interests as ‘hovering, blowing, encompassing, and spreading’ and an active Twitter account that, while not presidential in scope or use of capitalization, has nonetheless attracted passionate followers.(1) Karl is the name lovingly bestowed on the advection fog that rolls in from the Pacific, across the Golden Gate Bridge, to shroud the City by the Bay in grey doom and gloom every day, predictably around teatime. A mainstay of the San Francisco landscape and society, Karl is reliable and dramatic and, in such an uber-entrepreneurial hotspot, it was only a matter of time before someone devised a way to leverage the iconic weather phenomenon, bottle it, and market it to the connoisseur. And thus Fog Point Vodka, the brainchild of Hangar 1, a Californian distillery, was born.
Infused spirits are scarcely news. A quick perusal of the top six picks for specialty vodkas shows that we have eclectic tastes when it comes to our tipples. From bacon to ghost pepper, hemp or black garlic to truffle, vodkas have come a long way from their humble beginnings. And the process of creating them has had to keep pace with the increasing sophistication of their flavor profiles. The hemp vodka, Colorado High, is crafted, for example, by fermenting and distilling a mash of actual hemp – rather than adding it to the spirit later. Blended with snow-melt water, the final product is said to offer a natural sweet nuttiness without the bite of a lower-grade beverage. In Alaska, the Anchorage Distillery is also using natural resources in the pursuit of the perfect vodka. Winner of the 2016 Bronze Medal from the American Distilling Institute, the Glacier Melt Vodka is created from 100% barley and ‘pristine glacier water.’(2) But it is perhaps the distillery’s Ghost Pepper Vodka – with the lingering heat of the bhut joloki (aka ‘ghost pepper’), one of the world’s hottest peppers at over 1 million Scoville heat units – that has set Anchorage Distillery firmly on the map. Or if heat is not your thing, how about mushroomn vodka? Formulated to celebrate the earthy notes of the much lauded French Black Winter Truffle (Tuber melanosporum), the Duckworth Truffle Vodka from Dallas, TX, just might be the savory indulgence you’re looking for. Although the old saying maintains that ‘tasting is believing’ we’re going to just take the word of the manufacturers of our final distillate – Black Garlic Vodka from the British Isle of Wight – and pass on the taster. Famed for its garlic production, this small island off the south coast of England is host to The Garlic Farm, crafters of the small batch spirit ‘permeated by black colour and sweet, liquorice and caramel tones with a gorgeous garlic kick.’(3) No, we’ll pass on that one thanks…
But a vodka made with fog?
We know it seems like a stretch but suspend your disbelief for a few moments while we conjure an image of this beverage. With cocktails fast becoming the beverage of choice for millennials looking for more adventurous drinks than the traditional beers and wines, it was perhaps inevitable that this new tipple would gain traction at home in the Bay Area. Described by the manufacturer as ‘an extraordinarily crisp, pure, and gluten-free sipping vodka with elegant hints of pear, citrus, and honeysuckle,’ Fog Point is crafted from condensed fog water mixed with vodka that has been created from a distillation of a neighboring Napa region Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc and Viognier wine.(4) With a limited edition run of only 5000 units per annum, the price point is significantly higher than most of its competitors, yet the $134 bottles have traditionally sold out within days of release. Far from being a simple butterfly net for Hangar 1 to capture consumers within its own ecosystem, Fog Point, for all its quirkiness, seems to be a product of interest in its own right.
So how does ‘fog harvesting’ work?
For such a high-tech area, the process for ‘netting’ Karl in ‘his’ liquid form is surprisingly low tech. Traditionally used in arid areas, a single or double layer of fine nylon, polypropylene, or polyethylene mesh is supported by posts dug into the ground. Sited on areas of higher ground perpendicular to the prevailing winds, these nets provide a matrix upon which water droplets within the fog can condense. Running down the panels, the droplets tumble into a gutter and are channeled into a storage tank for use in agriculture or even as human drinking water. According to statistics cited by Climate Tech Wiki, water-poor areas such as Yemen or Eritrea make wide use of fog harvesting technology as part of their water collection resources. Indeed, from the 1600 square meters of total collecting surfaces erected in Eritrea, 12,000 liters of water are harvested per day.(5)
But how safe is it?
Again let’s turn to Climate Tech Wiki which claims that water condensed from atmospheric fog ‘is generally clean, does not contain harmful micro-organisms and is immediately suitable for irrigation purposes. In a number of cases, water collected with fog harvesting technology has been shown to meet World Health Organisation standards.’(6)
Well, that is all well and good but it’s not exactly news that the Bay Area – indeed much of California – suffers from bad air quality. So in as much as we like to romanticize and personify ‘Karl,’ could it be that the fog distillate in that $134 bottle of booze might be contaminated? According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Area ‘ranked sixth worst in the nation from 2014 to 2016 in terms of short-term particle pollution in a new “State of the Air 2018” report, [released by] the American Lung Association.’(7) And the poor air quality is closely correlated with a plethora of health risks including increased incidents of asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease.
While coastal areas benefit from offshore breezes, inland counties such as Alameda, Contra Costa, and the San Joaquin Valley reflect significant levels of particulate pollution. In addition, recent wildfires have exacerbated the problem resulting in ‘extremely high levels of particulate matter, levels that were comparable to those you might experience in Beijing,’ according to Jack Broadbent, CEO of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD).(8)
So from a contamination-control perspective we have to ask the question: will this potential for fog pollution impact the purity – and therefore the safety – of the final distilled product?
And that’s a tough question to answer, as there are a few unknown variables. How is the fog condensate processed? How is it stored? What impact does the specific collection site, time, and month have on the quality of the fog water? Is there the potential for a leaching of chemicals from the mesh on which the fog is collected? What is the impact of environmental degradation on the integrity of the mesh over time? All great questions to stir, not shake, into the martini mix.
Oftentimes, when examining the potential for contamination we look to cGMPs, SOPs, HACCP protocols, and to verifying supply chains for reassurance. And we must assume that a company like Hangar 1, which was acquired by parent company Proximo Spirits of New Jersey in 2010, has these in place. But the supply chain dynamics of condensed fog are perhaps a little trickier to regulate that, say, those of barley or ghost peppers. And although most of the data relating to the potability of fog-based water errs on the side of safety, the data points are more frequently associated with collections from remote areas in which industrial pollution is less of a factor than in, say, Northern California. That said, as with most of the flavored spirits, this is clearly an artisanal product intended for a very niche market. As such it is not something that could present a wide scale source of concern in respect of public health.
And given the widespread esteem in which Karl the Fog is held in the City by the Bay -where he recently tweeted ‘I just ate San Francisco. It tastes like dark chocolate sea salt flavored edibles’ – perhaps raising a little toast to him – and of him – is not such a bad idea.
What do you think? Is fog-infused vodka on your list of bar ‘must-haves’? We’d love to read your comments!
- See https://www.facebook.com/Karl-the-Fog-145697385477802/ and https://twitter.com/karlthefog