Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal by John Cesano
Walking into Germain-Robin’s distillery during June’s A Taste of Redwood Valley event, the aroma of apple and pear fruit, as brandy distilled, perfumed the air in a way different than the gorgeous aroma of a winery’s barrel room – richer and more pungent – these were aromas so big they penetrate beyond mere smell sense, but touch your soul.
On that day in June I met Crispin Cain.
Crispin runs the American Whiskey Distillery, Craft Distillers, and Greenway Distillery, all distilleries within a distillery, co-located at Germain-Robin. Passionately answering all questions and proud of his products, Crispin poured his pre-prohibition styled clear malted rye whiskeys. Gins, absinthe, and rose liqueur.
Crispin applies the handcrafted cognac method, improved by Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale in Mendocino County, to distilling his whiskey and the result is breathtaking.
From the craft distillers website, “Whiskies are spirits distilled from grain: barley, rye, corn, wheat. The grains are prepared in various ways, including malting and drying, to convert starches into sugars. Water is added to create a mash,’ which is fermented to convert the sugars into alcohol. Distillation can be on either potstills or column stills.”
I tasted the 2010 single barrel malted wheat, 84 proof and single barrel #1-100 proof whiskeys.
I bought a bottle of Crispin’s Russell Henry London Dry Gin, distilled from wheat. It tasted of sweet candied juniper berries, with notes of lemon peel, cardamom, and iris.
Crispin also served up a bowl of Absinthe ice cream, homemade using the Germain-Robin Absinthe Superieure, which is made by Crispin.
That 20 minute visit led to a subsequent longer visit with Crispin where he gave me a tour, tasting, and did his best to expand on the frighteningly rudimentary knowledge of distilling I had gleaned from television’s Moonshiners, aired on the Discovery Channel.
Crispin told me he jumped at the chance to interview with Hubert to be his assistant, and worked in that capacity from 1989-92, moving to Redwood Valley winery Gabrielli in 1993 and 94, before coming back for most of 1995 through 2000. A back injury in February 2000 set Crispin back “really bad” and unable to work, he went through his savings until with just $500 and an idea, he convinced Ansley to let him come in to Germain-Robin and set about making what would become Crispin’s Rose Liqueur.
“It took until 2003, three years, to get what we have now,” explained Crispin, as he poured a taste of his rose liquor for me. Not perfumy, not sugary sweet, but an intense infusion of old David Austin and Don Juan rose petals in an apple honey mead brandy, with underlying notes of raspberry and chocolate.
When I told my friend Margaret Pedroni that I had tasted Crispin’s Rose Liqueur and was undone by it, she described it as “sex in a glass,” which is the perfect description. Both the dictionary definitions of “lovely” and “delicious” feature a picture of a Crispin’s Rose Liquor bottle.
“I intended the Rose and Absinthe to be a part-time job,” Crispin said, before adding, “this is where my passion is.”
Today, the role of distiller consumes Crispin full time, and his wife and children also work in the business.
Making whiskeys, liqueurs, gins, vodkas, absinthe, and more, Crispin engages in a blend of science and art that to me seemed a little like the potion and concoction making of a wizard or magician.
Happening upon a vat of gnarled Buddhas Hand citron fruit, used for flavoring a vodka to be released this fall, did nothing to dispel the impression. The tools of his trade, the cognac stills, one as old as 1830, round copper pot stills, and many windowed column stills, further lend a mad scientist feel to his endeavors.
The math and methodology of cognac style distillation was a little more complex than what the television show hillbillies go on about. A first distillation of grain mash results in the brouillis, which Crispin hesitated to show me because it is somewhat off-putting, a blue blend of alcohol and water with sugars and fats not wholly resolved. The brouillis reduces the original mash volume to just 25 -30 percent, and that is reduced in a second distillation in a separate still to just 25 percent again. Barely over 8 percent of the original mash volume is left, but this is the heart of the heart, with barely 3/10ths of one percent sugar left. Cutting the high proof spirit with collected rainwater can lower stratospheric alcohol levels. Move the spirit to a barrel, perhaps new oak, for a year or more, and we’re talking some amazing whiskey.
While most whiskey is colored by the oak barrel it is held in, Crispin has some clear whiskeys. Crispin’s Low Gap Clear Wheat Whiskey was named the Whisky Advocate’s 2012 Artisan Whiskey of the Year and his absolutely clear malted rye whiskey spent just 204 minutes in a used neutral barrel so it could legally be called whiskey. These are incredibly smooth and flavorful spirits.
Crispin took me through his whiskey barrel room, where some of his spirits are aging and picking up color. A great variety of barrels were assembled; Bourbon, Limousine, Cognac, and Minnesota were well represented. Crispin shared that his dairyman grandfather got barrels from the same barrel maker in Minnesota for his (illicit) distillations of grains, fruit juices, honey, and whey; the dairy smells, butter and cheese, hid the smell of whey fermentation and distillation.
For the second time, we tasted two finished whiskeys that have graduated from barrel to bottle, Low Gap Single Barrel No. 1, an incredible 100 percent malted wheat whiskey running at 100 proof, and Low Gap Single Barrel No. 2, that made me say “yum” and running at 84 proof. These are drier whiskeys with very little sweetness, but amazing for their cleanness or clarity of flavor.
Crispin pulled a sample of 94 proof gin that was being barrel aged. It blended the bright flavors of gin with the color and weight that comes from time in a barrel. Barrel color for a gin was unusual for me, but really no more unusual than clear or uncolored whiskeys.
Another barrel sample, of rye whiskey, was smooth and oh so tasty, the rye flavors were almost like candy. Crispin opened a container of the rye malt and it was wonderful to smell the aroma both before and after distillation. Crispin’s rye whiskeys were far and away the best rye whiskey I’ve tasted.
Promised future tastes include a candy cap mushroom liqueur, barrel aged seven years, in apple honey spirits.
Visiting with Crispin and tasting through his spirits is worth the price of any A Taste of Redwood Valley event. The next ATORV event will be their big holiday weekend sale, the weekend before Thanksgiving, Nov. 23-24, 2013. Look to this column for ticket information as we get into the fall season.
For more information about Crispin’s many spirits, or to try to schedule a tasting appointment, call (707) 468-4661.
John Cesano writes about wine and reposts his columns to JohnOnWine.com