California Pioneers

After hitchhiking across the country in the novel On The Road, Kerouac's Sal Paradise exclaims:

Suddenly I realized I was in California. Warm, palmy air—air you can kiss—and palms. Along the storied Sacramento River on a superhighway; into the hills again; up, down; and suddenly the vast expanse of the bay with the sleepy lights of Frisco festooned across.

That was in the early-1950s, when a post-WWII generation yearned for the West and the possibilities of California. While Kerouac died in 1969, the inspiration left in his wake continued on. In 1981, Ansley Coale picked up a pair of French hitchhikers along Highway 101 just north of San Francisco; a man named Hubert Germain-Robin, and a woman he was travelling with. Hubert was looking for new possibilities in the West. He hailed from a Cognac-producing family in France that was tragically moving away from hands-on, small distillation practices and more towards "high-volume methods," that favored mass-production. Ansley drove, Hubert talked. Hubert and the woman who would later become his wife were eventually invited by Ansley to spend that night at his ranch in Mendocino. There they talked about the possibilities for a new Western style of brandy, and the chance to pioneer a new kind of American spirit.

Ansley Coale on the left with Hubert Germain-Robin

Hubert would return to France, track down an old, abandoned alembic still (which they purchased for scrap copper pricing), and have it shipped to Ansley's ranch in Mendocino County. In the summer of 1982, the two men installed the heavy, hand-hammered copper pot into a small shed built from redwood (the same year that Jorg Rupf brought his copper still over to Alameda to found St. George Distillery). They began to purchase local grape varietals and Hubert experimented with the new local faire. Cognac grapes, typically ugni blanc, are high in acidity and—due the region's incredibly chalky soil—result in mouth-puckering wines that are usually thin and rather course. In Mendocino at that time, however, premium California varietals could be had for pennies on the dollar. They began to invest in fruit. Applying traditional Cognac methodology to the riper grapes from Northern California's best vineyards, they began to distill. At that time, there was no one in the United States making brandy on a pot still; especially from the noble varietals. Of course, you had Gallo and the Christian Brothers running Central Valley leftovers through a column still, but nothing serious; nothing even close to the level of fine Cognac. Ansley and Hubert were making it up as they went along.

I headed over the Golden Gate on an extremely warm Sunday morning. Despite the heat and the burning rays of the intense October sun, the bridge was still shrouded in fog; disappearing right before my eyes as I made my way to the on-ramp. This wasn't anything new. I'd brought friends from Germany to see the Golden Gate numerous times, only to arrive and find there wasn't much to see. You could walk over it, touch it, and say you were there, but there was nothing for you to actually see except for wet, endless grey. As I drove to the center, however, the fog evaporated and suddenly, half way across, the sun came back out and the giant red towers emerged over the haze. I looked back and saw a sparkling vision of Alcatraz, hundreds of sail boats, and the last bit of Coit Tower before I turned to focus on the road once again. This was a classic Bay Area day; the microclimates working in full gear, turning hot to cold and back to hot again in just a matter of seconds.

I pulled into Ukiah around 3:30 PM and pulled off the freeway near the distillery, just north of town on the West side of 101. The sun was already setting over the hills, and the birds were jumping from branch to branch, chirping away while lizards darted around my feet. I hiked a bit into the wilderness until I could no longer hear the sounds of the motorway. Ansley and Hubert originally established the distillery in an old shack on Ansley's ranch, but in 1998 they moved to Fetzer's old warehouse after Brown-Foreman purchased the winery and relocated it to fancier grounds. I had the rest of the evening to get a sense of the areatwo hours north of the bridge; through Marin, then Sonoma. While Healdsburg (where I stopped for lunch) is the epitome of hoity-toity wine country, Ukiah is more working-class. There was a hitchhiker standing next to the off-ramp as I exited towards my rental cottage. A fitting sight considering the story of Germain Robin.

This morning I met Ansley at his office in downtown Ukiah. We talked briefly about a few business issues before jumping in his car and heading north to the distillery. It wasn't just a long-overdue visit that lead me on the road north this October; Germain Robin is planning to release some of the oldest American spirits in history this Fall: 25-30+ year old brandies that are not only the oldest California spirits I know of, they're also the oldest spirits of any kind from America today. Find me a 30+ year old Kentucky Bourbon right now. Find me a 30 year old rye whiskey. Find me anything with 30+ years of age. Please, I need some! We're approaching a historic moment; not only for California distillation, but also for American micro-distillation. We're at the point where the little guys are starting to put out more mature expressions than the big guys. That's crazy.

More than thirty years ago Ansley and Hubert put their first brandies into Limousin oak. Very soon, they'll be ready to release a new portfolio of ultra-mature expressions that offers both single barrel brandies of superb provenance, as well as tremendous blends that utilize brandies from experimental batches; things like 1984 California-grown Gamay, and early dry-farmed Palomino. If you're a spirits geek, the entire line-up is like a dream come true. Small-batches of high-quality, pot-distilled brandies from the early days of California micro-distillation?! From the two men who pioneered serious brandy distillation in the United States?! It's an incredible, overwhelming experience. But if you're a wine geek, it's almost more incredible. There are some old Fetzer riesling distillates from the early 90s, for God's sake!!

I'll break down the whole list tomorrow. I spent the entire morning with Ansley and Joe; working through the brandies, before heading back down 101 towards the city, back over the Golden Gate bridge, and down 19th Avenue towards the Peninsula. There was something in the air the entire drive home; a new energy and a new excitement in my bones that wasn't there last week. We're on the verge of something big right now; something that began more than thirty years ago, but is finally ready to be unleashed. Ansley is ready. The public is ready. California is ready. I don't know if anyone would have appreciated this event two years ago; even six months ago. This is a big deal, man. This is California gold.

-David Driscoll


California Gold – Part II

I'm up in the mountains right now. Out in the sticks; in a cabin with no TV, but thankfully with modern luxuries like wifi. I've got a beat-up copy of Kerouac's On The Road with me that I snagged from my old bedroom while visiting my parents last week. I read this book when I was 19 and I didn't have a clue what was really going on; not even a drop of awareness for what was happening.

Reading it again now, there are some pretty inspiring quotes from this work. Quotes so famous that you can buy framed copies of hand-stitched embroidery, recreating these words in fine thread. Things like:

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

That's a powerful piece of romanticism right there. However, going back (trying to find some inspiration about "the West" before I visit Germain Robin tomorrow) I find that I like the quote that predicates it better. The part where Kerouac says:

"All my New York friends were in the negative, nightmarish position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons."

That I relate to even more, and it's not so bumper stickery. Then there's the one from Kerouac's friend the Major who pines for Europe:

"Ah, if you could just come with me sometime and drink Cinzano and hear the musicians of Bandol, then you'd be living. Then there's Normandy in the summers, the sabots, the fine old Calvados."

I know those people. Kerouac calls the experience: "Straight out of Hemingway, it was."

While "Sal" and his buddies were romanticizing the boozetacular exploits of "Papa" and his manly bravado, picturing themselves in the iconic literary moments of their generation, I'm now romanticizing the saga of 1950's Americana and the dreams of the West that sent many young beatnik hipsters out on the road and into California. It's important to bask in these moments, but it's also important to define them for yourselves. Using history, nostalgia, and pop culture to increase your enjoyment is a fantastic thing. Anthony Bourdain does it on practically every episode and I eat right out of his hand. But we also have to enjoy the moment for what it is: not a recreation of something already done, but the manifestation of something real and temporary.

It would be a shame if everything great today was simply just the realization of what was done before. It would be great if words inspired us to create our own enjoyment, independent of their literal translation. For example, I just sat in a mineral bath that was used by Mark Twain and Jack London. That's pretty damn cool. But it was more cool that I was just in a mineral bath thinking about nothing; just focusing on that moment.

-David Driscoll


California Gold

I worked my ass off today. I worked so goddamn hard that instead of feeling tired, I feel exhilarated (especially after pounding a few pints at the local cantina and watching my Giants knock off DC in 18 innings). This was a hellish week, but I'm going to reward myself by getting the hell out of Dodge and taking a weekend away from this stress.

Monday, however, I'll be making my first visit to an iconic Californian distillery; one of the early pioneers of microdistillation. Of course, you've got Fritz Maytag and Anchor with the whole colonial inspiration. Then there's Jorg Ropf and St. George with the German fruit distillates. But there's another pair of California distillers who took French Cognac philosophy and applied it to the bountiful fruit of the West Coast's most incredible vineyards. They're somewhat overlooked in the early foundations of this important local history.

Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin is getting ready to release some of the oldest and most-incredible brandies that he and Hubert created in the early 1980s and he's invited me up to taste through these blends. I think it will be quite an experience and I look forward to our appointment this Monday. There's a ton of gold in those Ukiah mountains. There's gold in them thar hills.

-David Driscoll


Worth the Wait

The chance to work with Michel Couvreur on a special K&L whisky project was something that David and I had been dreaming of for years. We had heard the stories. This crazy Belgian had moved to Burgundy in the 60s, carved out a wine cellar in the side of a mountain, only to fill it with Scottish single malt whisky instead of pinot noir. He set up camp in Beaune, ordered new-make spirit to be delivered by tanker, and drove down to Jerez himself; selecting his own sherry butts to insure only the finest quality casks for his contracted spirit. Unfortunately, Michel Couvreur passed away last year from pancreatic cancer, thus ending the career of one of the industry's most courageous pioneers. Luckily for us, however, apprentice Jean-Arnaud has taken up the realms after studying under Michel for more than a decade. When we visited the underground cave this past Spring, we were all in total awe. The tunnels of dripping stone go on forever, and the amount of whisky stored in this secret lair is jawdropping. We put our trust completely in Jean-Arnaud and we are so happy we did. We simply asked for a peated version of the incredible "Overaged" sherry expression and the result is a seamless creation that drinks like the best version of Johnnie Black ever, mixed with the most supple and soft expressions of Macallan. It's a lush, creamy, caramel-laden dream of a whisky composed only of malts 12 years and older. There's a bit of peat on the finish, but it's more like Highland Park peat than Islay smoke. I think it's absolutely divine and I'll definitely be drinking it all weekend long.

What exactly it is composed of will remain forever a mystery. That's alright with me, though. I'm just happy to have been a part of it. This is masterfully crafted whisky that truly showcases what's possible with intelligent blending.

Click here to see our visit to Beaune this past Spring. It's pretty amazing. Click below to get a bottle.

Michel Couvreur K&L Exclusive Overaged Peated Malt Whisky $89.99

-David Driscoll


Live Blogging This Hellish Week

Again, this being Whisky Week in the Bay Area (with WhiskyFest tomorrow) all the big names are in town, making the rounds, shaking hands and kissing babies. My old buddy David Blackmore from LVMH just stopped by to keep us up to speed on the latest Ardbeg/GlenMo happenings. Tasting through the lineup again (for the umpteenth time) I just got reminded of why Glenmorangie might be my favorite single malt distillery. The whisky just delivers everything you want at various price points and flavor profiles.

First off was the Lasanta explanation—they've lowered the proof a bit and changed the marriage to both Oloroso and PX sherry casks, rather than just the former. That switch has tamed the funkiness just a bit a sweetened up the finish. It's much more Aberlour now and much less Glendronach. It's such a good deal. Also up for tasting was the forthcoming Taghta—a manzanilla-aged whisky that was picked by the voting public from three possible options (the others being Burgundy and Bordeaux finished whiskies). However, part of the gimmick was that the countries with the highest voter turnout got the largest allocations. We Americans are notorious for our lack of commitment when it comes to civic duty, therefore we get nothing. We didn't vote in the Glenmorangie sweepstakes, hence we get the smallest allocation globally. Expect a mad dash for a tiny, tiny allocation when this shows up. It's elegance in a bottle, plain and simple. Wonderful stuff.

Then a few of us poured a glass of the Signet and the Glenmorangie 18—still the best deals in single malt when it comes to generally drinkable, wonderfully-packaged, high quality whiskies. At $89.99, I still stand behind that slut of an 18 year old. It's just a gigantic slut of a whisky, and it's a wonderful thing; so soft and supple and rich and sweet on the finish. The Signet is still the spicy, yet soothing malt it's always been. Another one of those NAS bottles where you just have to taste it and say, "Yep, that's a $200 bottle of whisky."

I'm sure there will be more cameos to come today. Yesterday, John Hall from Forty Creek poured off the Canadians and I was totally impressed. I know next to nothing about Canadian whiskey, but the higher-end Forty Creek expressions have me totally intrigued. Make sure you taste with him if you're going to WhiskeyFest tomorrow. He's a wealth of information and a really nice guy.

-David Driscoll