John on Wine: The first meeting of the Mendocino Bourbon Group

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, March 19, 2015

On a lovely Saturday in March, the first gathering of the Mendocino Bourbon Group was held at American Craft Whiskey Distillery in Redwood Valley for a tasting of four whiskeys and a barrel tasting of a new bourbon to be released in October, put on by Jack Crispin Cain and Tamar Kaye.

The Mendocino Bourbon Group was created by Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, who is interested in the art and science of fermentation and distillation, and is a loose assemblage of Tom’s friends and family who share his interest.

A whiskey tasting is different than a wine tasting, because of the alcohol potency of spirits. Crispin and Tamar planned ahead and poured the five samples over two full hours, with breaks for food, distillation room tours, barrel room tours, and lots of time for questions and answers. Pours were just the right size; large enough to appreciate the aromatics and flavor, but small enough to prevent inebriation.

The food was delicious; I enjoyed cheeses, salmon, and a terrific vegetable soup that had Tamar telling us, “if the carnivores among you knew what was in it, you probably wouldn’t try it, but I’m glad you like it, so I’m not telling.”

All of the whiskeys tasted were hand crafted antique double distillation spirits using a copper potstill, following Cognac traditions dating back to the Bronze Age, written down in 1510, and learned by Crispin from working with Hubert Germain-Robin over many years.

Low Gap California Whiskey 2011 Malted Corn & Malted Barley Blended Whiskey, 46 percent alc/vol, distilled Dec. 28, 2011, bottled June 9, 2014 – bright, multi-noted, layered at a very subtle level, with a little bite on the end; the straightforward classic corn whiskey flavor definitely comes through.

Low Gap California Whiskey 2011 Malted Bavarian Hard Wheat Whiskey, 44 percent alc/vol, distilled Sept. 20, 2011, bottled March 17, 2014 – more focused, a little deeper, butterscotch and cereal grain, candied wheat, and is incredibly smooth.

Low Gap California Whiskey 100 Proof Malted Bavarian Hard Wheat Whiskey, 50 percent alc/vol, distilled Sept. 30, 2012, bottled Nov. 20, 2014 – sweet notes on an absolutely dry spirit. Crispin noted a, “sunshiny butterscotch finish.”

Low Gap California Whiskey 2 Year Malted Rye Whiskey, 42.2 percent alc/volume, distilled Oct. 26, 2012, bottled Nov. 20, 2014 – the rye flavors were almost like candy.

To be labeled “bourbon” a spirit must use three of four grains: corn, barley, rye and wheat; one of the grains must account for at least 51 percent of the blend, and it must spend two years at 60 percent alcohol in a standard new oak barrel.

Crispin’s bourbon is malted corn, malted barley and malted rye.

Low Gap Bourbon, barrel sample, 60 percent alc/vol – This was knocked down with rainwater from 70 percent alc/vol to 60 percent, and will be further knocked down with rainwater again to 50 percent, it will sit for a couple of weeks, then be brought down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit for another couple of weeks to cold stabilize, and then it will be bottled for release in October. With more time, this will become mellower, and additional notes will show. Currently, the bourbon is not as aromatic as the finished and bottled whiskeys we sampled, and I am looking forward to revisiting this bourbon after it has had the opportunity to become what it will become.

Jack Crispin Cain pours a barrel sample of his upcoming bourbon for Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. (John Cesano photos)

Jack Crispin Cain pours a barrel sample of his upcoming bourbon for Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. (John Cesano photos)

“I’ve been making whiskey for five years; I consider myself lucky,” Crispin told the group. On a tour of his barrel room, he shared with us, “Our spirits have no methanol, and that is why it tastes so good, medically pure ethanol; no one is looking over the shoulders of the cheap spirits makers, and methanol is why it tastes bad.”

The Mendocino Bourbon Group listens raptly as Jack Crispin Cain talks about the past, present and future of his American Craft Whiskey Distillery during a barrel room visit. (John Cesano)

The Mendocino Bourbon Group listens raptly as Jack Crispin Cain talks about the past, present and future of his American Craft Whiskey Distillery during a barrel room visit. (John Cesano)

The barrel room is well packed with future spirits, and there are plans to increase the size of the barrel room 400 to 500 percent. “More stills, more barrels, more cases,” promised Crispin.

My favorite tastes of the day were the 2011 Bavarian Wheat and the Rye Whiskeys. When the store opened up, I bought a bottle of the Russell Henry barrel aged dark Gin – which I haven’t yet tasted, and a bottle of Crispin’s Rose Liqueur– which I have, often.

The new Ukiah restaurant Ritual features several of Crispin’s spirits on their cocktail menu, so tasting his whiskeys, vodkas, gins, and (later this year) his bourbon is as easy as finding parking downtown. I would recommend sampling his spirits straight, before allowing them to be blended with other ingredients for a cocktail, to appreciate how clean the spirits are. Handcrafted, artisanal, attention to the minutest detail, beverages; each has clean discernable aroma and flavor notes typically lacking in larger mass-produced alcohol endeavors. With an appreciation for how great the spirits are, your cocktails will be ever so much yummier.

Crispin and Tamar will also be pouring their line up Father’s Day weekend, and serving up homemade ice cream flavored with Crispin’s Absinthe, and early bird $30 tickets to visit and taste at American Craft Whiskey Distillery, Germain-Robin Brandy (it is Cognac in all but where it is made) Distillery, Barra of Mendocino, Girasole Vineyards, Testa Vineyards, Graziano Family of Wines, Frey Vineyards, Silversmith Vineyards, Brown Family Vineyards, Giuseppe Wines, and Neese Vineyards are available online through http://www.ATasteOfRedwoodValley.com – there will also be a winemaker dinner at Barra of Mendocino on Friday, June 19 with all of Redwood Valley’s wine and spirits producers, including Crispin and Tamar’s American Craft Whiskey Distillery, pouring at the evening event.

John On Wine – The Spirits of Christmas

This piece was originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014

If Santa needed any additional Christmas cheer this Christmas Eve, he would have to look no farther than Redwood Valley.

Here in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley, Jack Crispin Cain is distilling some of the best spirits I have ever tasted, with his wife and partner Tamar Kaye. and sons, Devin Cain and Crispin D. Cain, under a variety of names for their various products; Greenway Distillers, American Craft Whiskey Distillers, and Tamar Distillery.

Founders of Greenway Distillery, Crispin Cain and Tamar Kaye. (Photo courtesy of Greenway Distillery)

Founders of Greenway Distillery, Crispin Cain and Tamar Kaye. (Photo courtesy of Greenway Distillery)

F. Paul Pacult’s Spirits Journal Magazine came out with their “Top 75 5Star Spirits” list, and Jack Crispin Cain’s Absinthe made the list.

Earlier this year, in Emma Janzen’s piece for Serious Eats, 10 Absinthes You Should Be Drinking, Janzen wrote, “Some scholars say absinthe made with a wine or grape base will taste naturally superior to those made with neutral grains or beets, and … Germain-Robin Absinthe Superieure from Greenway Distillers ($50 for 375 mL) makes a strong case for the argument.

The producers start by making a house wine from honey and apples from an old family recipe, which they then distill into the base for the blanche absinthe. Botanical-wise, they replaced many of the usual woody and earthy herbs with “sweet, friendly flavors” like lavender, lemon verbena, and lemon balm. The final results are outside the box in the best of ways; heavy pear brandy aromas introduce the flavor, which ends up tasting effortlessly light-bodied. An opening of subtle wood and tobacco shift into a breezy, bright smack of mint at mid-palate, then cools off into a clean, fresh finish.”

St. John Frizel wrote up the Low Gap Wheat Whiskey that Crispin crafts at his American Craft Whiskey Distillery for Men’s Journal magazine, describing the flavors as smooth and round, having been crafted using cognac pot stills.

In a tasting of spirits at the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America gathering this year, Double Gold medals were awarded to both Crispin’s Russell Henry London Dry Gin and his DSP CA 162 Straight Vodka.

My friend Margaret Pedroni described Crispin’s Rose Liqueur best, “sex in a glass.” The floral rose aromas and flavors are rich yet lively.

This summer, I enjoyed both the best martinis and the best gin and tonics made with Russell Henry Gin. An exciting new addition to the line-up is Russell Henry Dark Gin, a barrel aged gin that spent its time in two new bourbon barrels and a 350 liter Cognac barrel.

Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey. Low Gap 100 Proof Bavarian Wheat Whiskey, Low Gap Single Barrel #1, and Low Gap Malted Rye (Clear) Whiskey. Knocking back a shot of this would be such a waste, when sipping and savoring each delicious drop of liquid is called for.

Crispin started with DSP CA 162 “Straight” Vodka and it is perfect. Then, when it seemed the last thing the world needed was another flavored vodka, he offered up DSP CA 162 Vodka Citrus Reticulata var. Sunshine (tangerines and tangelos), DSP CA 162 Vodka Citrus Medica var. Sarcodactylis (Buddha’s-hand citrons), and DSP CA 162 Vodka Citrus Hystrix (Malaysian limes and their leaves), and, lo and behold, it turns out that the world is a better place for these three gorgeous flavored vodkas.

Each of Crispin’s spirited offerings is like candy; clean, specific, clear, flavor notes. There is a joy, a delightful happiness, that cuts through the mundane and ordinary, and makes you be still, appreciating the extraordinary brilliance of the art of distillation done spectacularly.

Germain-Robin Brandy is at the heart of Crispin’s spirit distillations. I first tasted Germain-Robin Brandy, which is really a cognac, but has to be called brandy as it is made in Mendocino county and not Cognac, France, in a head to head to head blind taste off with Hennessy XO and Courvoisier XO back in 1997 or so, and was blown away by how much better the Germain-Robin was at $100 than a pair of famous $200 Cognacs.

Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale started Germain-Robin, crafted and sold several brandies, including their top of the line XO, and were quickly heralded as one of the top cognac producers in the world by several publications. Today, in addition to cognac styled brandy, Germain-Robin produces Grappa, an apple brandy reminiscent of a Calvados, an eau de vie-esque brandy of pears, and a solera blending of infusions and exotica called Crème de Poette.

Crispin worked with Germain-Robin’s brandy makers and benefited from their knowledge. Today, co-located with the Germain-Robin brandy distillery, Crispin has access to the finest cognac pot stills and other craft method tools and takes advantage of the opportunity to use them. The result is sublime.

To purchase the best cognac quality brandy, whiskey, vodka, gin, absinthe, and assorted concoctions, visit the distilleries’ storeroom at 3001 S. State #35 in Ukiah, but be sure to call (707) 486-7899 for a reservation.


John On Wine ­ – Spirits, dinners, passports, festivals, and a movie

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, April 24, 2014, written by John Cesano

John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

Jack Crispin Cain is the man behind Greenway Distillers, Inc. and American Craft Whiskey Distillery, co-located with Germain-Robin in Redwood Valley. Cain invited me to taste two new Low Gap whiskeys. Crispin also creates Crispin’s Rose Liqueur, Absinthe Superiure, Fluid Dynamics Barrel Aged Cocktails, Russell Henry Gins, and DSP CA 162 Straight Vodka.

Very much a family affair, Cain’s two sons Devin and Crispin Dylan were working on the next lime vodka when I arrived for a private tasting, and wife Tamar is involved in growing the roses for the Rose Liqueur and the herbs for the Absinthe. Tamar will also be the editor of a book due this fall, “Rural Cocktails of Mendocino County” that will be collaboratively written by Brian and Kate Riehl, as well as Jack Crispin Cain, and feature cocktails built around Cain’s spirits.

First up for tasting was a new Low Cap 2 Year Bavarian Hard Wheat Whiskey made from malted wheat and aged in used Port, Cognac, and Minnesota barrels. The color was natural, from the barrels, and not the darker color you find from whiskeys produced with caramel flavor and color additives. The new Whiskey has a natural perfume of butterscotch and cereal grain, candied wheat, and is incredibly smooth.

Cain’s 2010 Low Gap Whiskey earned a 5 star review and a 100 point rating. Reviewers will need to add another star and a few more points to their rating systems. The flavors of all of Cain’s spirits are pure, clean, with delicate identifiable notes. Cain explained that by using no artificial flavorings, only real fruit and other pure ingredients, and careful distilling techniques with direct fire and a copper onion shaped still, fermentation enzymes and yeasts leaving no sugars, and a host of other refined decisions, the quality of his spirits, already high, will continue to improve and then be maintained indefinitely.

I also tasted a 2011 blended Corn and Barley Whiskey, running 43 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). The flavors are not as direct as the Bavarian Hard Wheat Whiskey, but more layered at a very subtle level with a little bite on the end; the classic corn whiskey flavor definitely comes through.

I tasted four vodkas from Cain’s DSP CA 162 label. The unflavored vodka has a super clean taste with light wheat notes. The lime vodka, made from an infusion of Malaysian lime and leaf was delightful for the pure candied lime note. The tangerine was a touch lighter in the mouth, delicate, and again showed candied fruit ­ this time tangerine. The citron vodka was bright and round with intensely concentrated sweet fruit.

Cain poured a barrel aged gin, 47 percent ABV, not yet released but gorgeous with a taste between gin and whiskey. The gin was aged in two new Bourbon barrels and one used Cognac barrel. There is a natural sweetness from both the cereal and the oak. Look for this to be bottled and sold as “Russell Henry Dark Gin” toward the end of the year, hopefully before Christmas. Spirits are often blended to make a tasty cocktail. I find that every spirit Cain makes is already cocktail delicious, sipping sweetly straight.


I attended a Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush featuring the wines of Yorkville Cellars last night. For a recap of the meal, visit my online wine blog http://www.JohnOnWine.com where I will post a stand-alone story with every bite and sip getting its due.


This weekend, I am attending Passport to Dry Creek Valley, the sold-out event in Sonoma County. Together with my girlfriend, June, I will be an appreciative guest of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley. The event is sold out. This event always sells out. Next week, my wine column will be a recap of the travels by June and myself through the Dry Creek Valley.


For those who want a Passport experience, Hopland Passport in Mendocino County is two weekends away, on May 3 and 4, and a $45 ticket online in advance (tickets are $55 if you procrastinate) will allow Passport holders to visit 17 winery tasting rooms — tasting fees waived — to taste wines paired with scrumptious food offerings at each stop. For $2.65 per winery attendees will enjoy wine and food tastes with many tasting rooms hosting live music or fun tours, and with some wineries offering their best sale prices of the year, as well as 30 prizes given away in drawings. Hopland Passport is a must attend wine event. For tickets, go to http://www.DestinationHopland.com/store.


Individual events at this year’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival are selling out. If you love Pinot Noir, then this is a series of events, a festival, for you. Dinners, tastings and more on May 16 and 17. Tickets available at http://www.avwines.com/anderson-valley-pinot-noir-festival.


If you have Netflix, I highly recommend the movie SOMM, a documentary following candidates attempting to become Master Sommeliers. The single-minded devotion to a subject, to a goal is impressive, as is the sheer narcissism of most of the candidates. Not always attractive, this glimpse into the highest levels of wine geekdom is nonetheless educational and entertaining.





John on Wine –

Spotlight Winery Distillery: American Whiskey and Greenway Distilleries

John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

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 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.


Barrel of aborted alien fetuses

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.

Occilation Overthruster - Early Model

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,045 other followers