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 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


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


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.



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