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.
“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 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.