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Thursday
Dec112014

Canadian Whisky: A Primer with Davin de Kergommeaux

Esteemed Canadian whisky historian and critic Davin de Kergommeaux

I've been trying to break into Canadian whisky for the last few months, but I've been side-tracked by numerous other projects, a lackluster interest in the subject from my consumers, and a general apathy from distributors to get me samples of new Canadian items. Canadian whisky is simply not getting the rub from its big brothers Scottish single malt and Kentucky Bourbon right now; at least, not at K&L it isn't. A number of recent experiences, however, have instilled a new passion in me to discover more about our neighbors to the north. One of the most inspiring visits I had in years came when John Hall, the owner of Forty Creek, came by the store this past October to share his products. Not only were the whiskies delicious, but the information that accompanied them also fascinating. I was intrigued. The Forty Creek expressions were exciting in the way that a mature Bordeaux wine is exciting; they were subtle, haunting, and complex.

Over the past few months, I've been reading both a book and a blog written by Davin de Kergommeaux: the man who has become the leading expert on Canadian whisky world-wide. I've been scouring his reviews, hoping to find interesting and unknown products to taste or learn about, while researching the available selection here state-side. With the arrival of a few new Canadian releases imminent, I thought now might be a good time to continue my interview series here on the blog and sit down with Davin to get his thoughts on the new Canadian renaissance. There are many misconceptions about Canadian whisky, reasons that the genre still fails to get the respect it deserves, and Mr. Kergommeaux was more than happy to help put these rumors to rest. I learned a great deal in the thirty minutes we talked; so much that I thought it might be of interest to you readers as well. Check out our conversation below:

David: You’ve become the go-to guy when it comes to Canadian whisky. Whenever anyone I know has a question about the subject they bring your name up. You’re the Canadian whisky reviewer for the Whisky Advocate, and you’re the person I email whenever a customer asks me a question I can’t answer—and I can’t answer most of them because I know very little about the subject. How did you become that guy?

Davin: Well, I started out with single malt Scotch and I was fairly convinced that that was the only good stuff out there. I kept tasting better stuff, and better stuff, but I live in Canada and I was interested in the history of some of the old distilleries we have here. I would drive by old sites like the plant in Corbyville; I saw that from the time I was a little kid. It’s ripped down now, but that was kind of a landmark on our drives to Toronto. So I got to tasting some of this whisky, and it was delicious. If you didn’t know it was Canadian whisky, you’d say it was as good as anything else. It started to grow on me. I never lost my interest in Scotch—I still love it—and I had started to learn more about Bourbon, some of which were amazing. The love of Canadian whisky crept up the same way, and the more I began to taste different types of whiskies, the more I began to enjoy the subtlety of the Canadian expressions. It doesn’t whack you in the face like an Ardbeg, but as the palate develops you’re able to appreciate more nuance.

I think most people know Canadian whisky best from the mixing or well whiskies they see in the bar. Imagine what the reputation of Scotch would be if the only whiskies we knew were J&B and Cutty Sark. They’re both good whiskies in their own right, but they’re not going to inspire the same type of enthusiasm as say a Mortlach or an Ardbeg. So as I kept tasting, I began researching in the library. I thought that I pretty much understood Canadian whisky at that point because of all the stuff I had read online—the disparaging comments from people who didn’t think it was as good as Scotch—but it turned out that what most people thought was wrong. I got deep into the history, digging through the archives, and it turned out that marketing people were the ones filling in the blanks—the folks who wanted you to think that Scotch was better, or that Bourbon was better. They were the ones dictating the reputation of Canadian whisky.

David: What role do you think Prohibition played in the dubious reputation of Canadian whisky?

Davin: Prohibition killed us. It really hurt Canadian whisky. That’s not actually where it got its reputation; being smuggled in over the boarder. Canadian whisky made its reputation during the American Civil War; three generations earlier. In 1865, Canadian whisky was the top-selling whisky in the U.S. and it stayed that way right up until Prohibition. Of course, during Prohibition Canada ended up importing a lot of Irish whisky, which ended up going down to the U.S., but ultimately the main market for Canadian whisky dried up. There was so much misinformation. People said that Canadians spelled whisky without the “e” because of the Scottish influence at the time, but there were no Scots making whisky in Canada. They were all making rum. But all this information was being taken for granted, so I just kept picking away at it. I would spend all this time in these old archives—stinking like must—at places that might only be open one day out of the week. The more I did it, the more I got into it.

David: How do you feel now that there’s a new resurgence of interest in Canadian whisky, yet at the same time producers are trying to pass it off as American rye? That seems almost like a lack of confidence from certain brands in the progeny of the Canadian whisky bloodline.

Davin: I don’t think they have to disguise it. I think that’s a choice that certain brands have made because of the American interest in American-made things. “Made in America” is very important to Americans. Whistle Pig, for example, did not have to disguise the fact their whisky is Canadian, but they chose to. Masterson’s, on the other hand, did not disguise their source; in fact, they bragged about it. They choose to put their whisky into the Canadian category each year at the whisky awards, for example. Whistle Pig does not. Masterson’s is becoming the clear leader now. Whistle Pig has done a brilliant marketing job, but of course the few hundred people who care about disclosure just trash the company for not disclosing their source—which of course creates controversy and 1,000 new customers for Whistle Pig who don’t care about disclosure.

David: Isn’t that funny how publicity works? (laughs)

Davin: People love to harp on the negatives about Canadian whisky; especially in America. They love to make disparaging remarks—Canada is kind of the butt of a lot of jokes, if you didn’t know. Shanken came out the other day and said that Canadian whisky is struggling to retain its prices and market share. But what they’re talking about is a specific slice of the market share—the low-end stuff. What they don’t mention is that there has been an 18% increase in sales of the high-end stuff. So people tend to take little soundbites and put them together to tell the story they want to tell about Canadian whisky. The truth of the matter is this: every distillery in Canada is expanding. They can’t keep up with demand! Hiram Walker used to operate five days a week. Now they work twelve days straight before taking a break. It all depends on how you look at it. But connoisseurs are beginning to see that quality whiskies are coming from Canada, and now we’ve got writers writing about it. Lew Bryson, Dave Broom—they’re all getting on board, so people are eventually going to discover it.

David: That’s what John Hall from Forty Creek told me earlier this year.

Davin: He told me the same. He said to me: “Canada is always five to ten years behind the U.S. Bourbon is big right now, but you watch—five years from now Canadian whisky will be what everyone wants.” And I believe him. Canadian distilleries have been making great whisky for years, but now they have the confidence to talk about them.

David: John Hall really blew my mind when he was here this past Fall. I tasted those Forty Creek expressions and I was in utter shock. I couldn’t believe how good that Confederation Oak was along with the complex process of making it. I, too, think he’s right. It’s only a matter of time, not just because I think that’s the way trends tend to work, but also because of something you touched on earlier about the development of your palate. In the wine world, where I spend most of my time, that’s the natural progression of things. We all start with big, bold Napa wines—high alcohol and bold flavor—but eventually we move towards France and lower alcohol wines with nuance and complexity. Today, I want delicacy, and that’s exactly what I get from well-made Canadian whiskies. They’re more mysterious, and less obvious.

Davin: And we’ve got those big whiskies; the ones that punch you in the mouth. But we’ve got so many more of the delicate ones. It was a big revelation for me when I went out to the Crown Royal facility and toured the Gimli plant. I found out that all the guys who worked there drank a whisky called Canadian 83—a whisky made with used Crown Royal barrels. When they’re done aging Crown Royal, they ship the barrels to Montreal and fill them with spirit—that’s what they use to make the 83. I asked one of the guys about it, who told me: “Crown Royal takes all of the wood out of the barrel and all that’s left behind is the velvet.” There’s a subtlety and an elegance to Canadian whisky that Canadians tend to like. Like you said about French wine—it’s not from Napa. It’s thinner, but ultimately very complex.

David: How is Canadian whisky viewed in Canada? Is there a similar sense of nationalism like Americans feel for American whiskey right now?

Davin: We don’t have the same kind of nationalism here. We tend to look outside our borders for the best. However, Canadian whisky is the second-highest selling spirit in Canada—just behind vodka. In Canada, this little country we have here, we drink more than 30% of what we make. People here are crazy about rye and ginger, or rye and Coke—we call it “rye” up here—everyone loves it. I just did a tour of Newfoundland and every bar I went to had Canadian whisky on the counter. Go through northern Ontario and it’s all Wiser’s. That’s what they drink. So, yes, Canadians love Canadian whisky, but it’s mostly because it’s readily available, they like the way it tastes, and it’s also pretty inexpensive.

David: What do you think the biggest misconceptions are about Canadian whisky that tend to scare away American consumers?

Davin: I think many people believe that Canadian whisky has neutral spirit added to it. It doesn’t. We hear terms like “brown vodka” tossed around, but try something like Wiser’s 18—that’s a whisky made to a high ABV with full wood flavor. Others think that Canadian whisky is artificially flavored. On blogs, for example, people love to harp on the 9.09% rule—it’s very naive. These are the things people talk about when they want to disparage Canadian whisky—artificial flavorings and things like this. People think it’s always light and simple, but it’s not. There are some very robust whiskies in Canada. But ultimately people like to have something they can dismiss because it makes them feel better about the things they like. Some day, however, the right people are going to start talking about Canadian whisky and these folks are all going to jump on board with them.

David: I’d love to start talking more about Canadian whisky! It’s just that we’re very limited down here. Many of the exciting whiskies I read about on your blog aren’t available in California, it seems.

Davin: It’s not because there’s a lack of a push strategy, but rather a lack of a pull. Distributors need to see a long-term plan in order to bring new products to market. Canadian distillers haven’t been very bold about going after these new markets either. That’s why Masterson’s is doing so well. They’re willing to sell only a few cases, if need be, just to break into a new state. Take Hiram Walker, however, and they’re bottling 500 bottles a minute. They’re not interested in doing small orders. I think they’re making a new effort with the Wiser’s range and Lot 40, Pike Creek, etc. There is a new effort being made. Look at Forty Creek. This is a small distillery, so they can afford to do small orders across the border. I think you’ll see this change quickly with other producers.

David: We’ve done very well with the Lot 40 whisky, but ultimately I think it’s because we have it in the rye section, not the Canadian section. But that’s because we don’t really have a Canadian whisky section and that doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t like people who pretend to be something they’re not, so I don’t like selling whisky by trying to pass it off as something else than what it is. In fact, one of the biggest meltdowns I’ve ever had with a customer came after he realized the Lot 40 was Canadian and not from America. It was a spectacle, to say the least. He went from loving it to hating it in a split second.

Davin: You’re always going to have customers with different expectations. I don’t see anything wrong with calling it rye. It’s made from 100% rye! These are the same people who make silly comments about Canadian whisky due to their lack of understanding.

David: But I find my lack of understanding exciting not infuriating! I mean, that's what makes me want to learn more about Canadian whisky. When John Hall told me that all of the different grains are fermented, distilled, and aged separately—that blew my mind! I immediately wanted to know more.

Davin: This is something John does that has been lacking with other Canadian distillers—they haven’t gone out and promoted their product. They’ve been a little bit complacent. That’s part of the reason my book has been so successful: it filled a big hole. You had people begging for this information and there was really nothing there for them. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to get into some of these distilleries. They were completely disinterested in telling their story. Now they’re beginning to realize that telling their story is an important part of selling their whisky, and now there are marketing departments and PR agents. There are great whiskies out there right now—like Crown Royal Monarch, for example. I think that story is finally starting to get around.

David: What is the story with that whisky?

Davin: It’s the 75th anniversary of the release of Crown Royal in Canada. Crown was a whisky that was originally made in celebration of King George and Queen Elizabeth—the mother of the current queen. Sam Bronfman, who made this whisky from a blend of about fifty different whiskies, he put two cases of this on the train the royals were traveling in when they visited. They were well-known as whisky drinkers at the time. Now there’s no evidence the king and queen actually tasted it, but it was a wonderful marketing tool and he ultimately refused to release it into the states. Now, seventy-five years later, they’ve recreated a new version that’s just loaded with what they call “Coffey rye”. They have a Coffey still in Gimli and they make a rye whisky with it—I think Monarch is comprised of about one third of this. It’s the best tasting Canadian whisky I’ve tasted….probably ever. It’s just fantastic.

David: Wow! Those are bold words!

Davin: It’s as good as Forty Creek Confederation Oak. Maybe Centennial 15 from the 1950s is better, but that’s about it.

David: Well, that’s easy to find isn’t it? (laughs)

Davin: Thanks for catching me on that.

David: Well that’s exciting. But this is a product—Crown Royal—that the average American whiskey consumer wouldn’t bat an eye at, if there weren’t people basically shouting this information at them. And even then I’m not sure they’ll care all that much. I certainly don't think of Crown Royal as falling into the "best whisky ever" category.

Davin: I think you’re right. Canadians are not big about talking about themselves, and they’re fairly self-deprecating, as well. But you’re going to see more talk about Crown Royal over the next year, more about Canadian Club—this new rye they have is spectacular. It’s so delicious. It’s at 40%, so it’s meant for the general consumer, but people are going to be pleased. With Campari buying Forty Creek you’re going to see them go global, So it’s coming, David. And you’re at the cutting edge of this industry, so good for you that you’re getting into this now. I think this will eventually be a big part of your business.

David: I hope it will be. I’m really excited about it, so it makes my job more fun when my excitement crosses over into my business. Canadian whisky is something familiar, but at the same time entirely different. It’s like you said earlier: there are people who are afraid of what they don’t understand, so they dismiss it. To me, however, that’s the exciting part. I’m over the moon that there’s a completely new genre of whisky, with mature stocks, that I know absolutely nothing about and can dive right into. It gives me the opportunity to start all over again, be a student, and get excited like I used to get.

Davin: That’s exactly what happened to me! I’ve tasted some brilliantly sublime whiskies in my life, but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy going back to the classics. I think you expressed it better when you talked about old world wines, however. We start with Napa or Australia and we eventually move into the old world.

David: Ultimately, you want to try new things and experience new flavors. I think it’s really about learning how to taste. In that sense, it may be that Canada is five to ten years ahead of the U.S., rather than behind us. They may already have a more evolved palate. We’ll have to see.

Davin: I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Dec102014

Two New 17 Year Old Rye Barrels

Didn’t get that Sazerac 18 you were hoping for in the raffle this year? Don’t worry, these are almost as good (seriously). When I tasted these barrels with my distributor friend Val, I about freaked out. “I’ll take them!!” I said before even knowing the price. Mature, complex, delicious rye whiskey with depth and nuance--and AGE!

“I already sold them,” he replied.

“To whom?” I asked, incredulous, ready to pounce.

“To David OG!” he said laughing.

Thank God!!!! Or should I say, “Thank Dog!” Check out David OG’s notes below. These are super, super exciting. 17 year old LDI/MGP rye barrels that have matured beautifully. Both are at 45%

Taos Lightning 17 Year Old K&L Exclusive Cask #15 Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey $109.99 (1 bottle limit) - This cask from our first purchase at this little distillery in New Mexico is another 17 Year Old Indiana Straight Rye. Bottled at a proof of 45%, it has a completely different profile than #16. Deep dark aromas of cedar and dill remind us instantly that's an LDI product. This one has a lot more sweet oak on the palate, but makes up for it with a peppery dark graininess. Texturally more profound and powerful, the contrast between the two continues through the finish. Tremendously smooth and complex, it's definitely old whisky. While all the edges have softened, the herbal dill and subtle pepper keep you guessing. Hopefully there are more of these great old casks out there somewhere, but for now this is the oldest rye in the store. I still don't get how we snagged them for such a great price -only a few bucks more than their standard 15 year old expression, which is pretty great by the way. The wacky label and unusual l provenance only make it better.

Taos Lightning 17 Year Old K&L Exclusive Cask #16 Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey $109.99 (1 bottle limit) - I have to say, we got lucky with these two casks. How often does a tiny craft distillery have old rye whiskey? Never! Seriously. It's never happened. Maybe we've got some 7 year floating around. Back in the day, High West had some of that old Barton stuff at 16 and 21 years. There was a little older rye coming out a little while back (Willett, BMH, Pepper), but right now it's totally dry. When these guys came in with a few barrels just hanging around my jaw nearly dropped. Apparently, this stuff was picked up a few years back before the proverbial fan started spinning, so we've also avoided the any unwarranted price inflation. These two casks represent two opposite styles we get out of the great distillery in Lawrenceburg. After a few years maturing in Santa Fe's semi-arid continental climate, they've sufficiently mellowed and neither whiskey is a high proof power bomb. Instead, the subtle elegance of age has tempered the intensity we're used to in the younger expressions. Cask #16 shows off a regal bouquet of candied orange peel, soft vanilla, and distant spice. Almost ethereal on the palate, the lightness is striking. It's a whisper of a whisky at first, but with air becomes quite complex with tons to offer. It's significantly lighter in color than the sister, but impressive in that it's so approachable and alive. I'd feel comfortable pouring a glass of this for almost anyone from a geek to a grandma.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Dec102014

Christmas Magic

There were a few fortuitous events that happened to me yesterday, but none more incredible than what went down last night. My wife and I have started walking two miles every evening after dinner, as both a way to get a little extra exercise during these sweet-laden months, as well as see the spectacle of Christmas lights that have gone up throughout our neighborhood. A number of the homes in our area have gone all out, with gigantic life-sized Santas, recorded music being pumped through speakers, and programmed displays that perform on queue. While walking our usual route, a rather dark and unmanned road, we came upon a man who was looking for his pet. He stopped us to ask for help.

"You didn't see a little dog run past you, did you?" he asked frantically.

"No, we've been walking for about ten minutes, coming from that direction though." I said in return.

"From down there?" he asked and pointed.

"Yes," I replied, "but we're going to keep walking for a while, so tell me what the dog looks like and where you live just in case we see it."

The man told us he was search of a small Chihuahua and that he lived a few blocks down on the corner. We told him we'd report back if we came across his little dog. Continuing on down the road, I told my wife I had a feeling we were going to find the animal. "There's something in the air right now," I said. "Things have been going well all day, so it only makes sense that we're going to help this guy now." My wife looked at me rather puzzled, but didn't say anything as we kept on. We still had another mile to go before we circled back.

When we reached the end of the road and prepared to loop around, I decided we should take a different road back; one that would come nearer to where the man said he lived. It ended up being one of the most beautifully-decorated streets in our entire neighborhood. "How have we not walked down this way?" my wife asked incredulously. It was absolutely gorgeous. Every house was decked out in tasteful holiday design with intricate and detailed displays of everything from the nativity to Rudolph. We stopped and looked at each one; my wife taking pictures with her phone and texting them to friends. "It really feels like Christmas on this street," I said. "It's almost like all those Hallmark movies we've been watching." The moon was hazy behind a layer of fog; the air chilly and crisp.

As we neared the end of the street we heard a little bark. I turned my head, looked at one of the driveways, and saw a little Chihuahua staring at us. "Oh my God, there's the dog," I said, crouching down and extending my hand to the scared little creature. Without so much as a hesitation, the animal came right up to me, allowed me to pick it up, and laid down comfortably in my arms as we continued walking towards the man's address. My wife was giddy; unable to wait to see the man's expression when we arrived with his beloved pet. As we approached the house we could see the man and his family standing in the front yard, a couple of them on their phones, likely communicating with other family members about their location. "Hey guys, look what we found," I said as we walked closer to their driveway.

The man came running down, exclaiming, "Oh wow! Where did you find her?!" I handed the Chihuahua over to him, and said she had been hanging out around the corner, looking at all the beautiful Christmas lights on that hidden street. "I've already made two circles around the entire neighborhood," he said. "I didn't think we were going to find her at this point."

"I'm so happy you told us where you lived," I said. "I had a feeling we might find her. I don't know why, or for what reason, but I knew I was going to find that dog tonight."

The man just stared at me and smiled; completely shocked about what had transpired: the fact that he had stopped two strangers on the street, told them his plight, and that doing so had ultimately made all the difference. We shook hands, wished the man's family well, and continued our walk home.

-David Driscoll 

Tuesday
Dec092014

New Beam 11 Year Olds

With the American limited release whiskey season in full swing, the least-anticipated expressions are finally here! Oh wait, I said "least-anticipated." It's true: the Signature Craft editions of Jim Beam Bourbon are never things that get your blood pressure pumping or send your heart racing with excitement. Beam usually casts too wide of a net to get all that geeky. Yet, like with this year's Maker's Mark Cask Strength edition, Beam is showing some signs of revitalization with these two newbies below. They are both huge steps forward in the right direction. I was completely taken aback with their quality. And, because of Beam's size and production levels, you can actually get these.

Like the Maker's Mark Cask Strength, these are also 375ml half bottles. Check them out:

Jim Beam Signature 11 Year “Brown Rice” Straight Bourbon 375ml (1 bottle limit) $44.99- Using brown rice instead of rye as the flavor grain has only enhanced the sweetness of the corn and the intensity of the vanilla. It’s a big bold wave of barrel spice and rich Beam flavor. The finish does have a different sort of note, however; a bit of a grainy, maybe “ricey” character that I can’t quite put my finger on, but integrates beautifully into the wood. I was really impressed with this. A very distinct Bourbon that stands out from the group in terms of sheer balance and deliciousness.

Jim Beam Signature 11 Year "Red Wheat" Straight Bourbon 375ml (1 bottle limit) $44.99- The Beam 11 year old “soft red wheat” is exactly what you expect it to be: like a combination of Beam Signature 12 with Weller 12.  It’s a soft, creamy, deliciously delicate whiskey from Beam—maybe the most exciting Beam I’ve ever tasted just for its incredible crossover potential. It’s not cask strength and it’s not inexpensive, but what it lacks in specs it makes up for in flavor. You might hesitate in buying one, but you won’t regret it once you open the bottle. Good stuff, with that little flurry of baking spices and cinnamon on the finish that Bourbon fans go crazy for. Yet again, the best wheated Pappy/Weller-alternative this year comes from Jim Beam.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Dec082014

California Pioneers – Part III: Hubert Germain-Robin

When I trekked up to visit Germain-Robin distillery this past October, hoping to get more insight into their extended archive of incredible aged brandies, I set up my appointment with the man I've come to know well over the years: Ansley Coale, pictured above to the left. Ansley continues to operate the company today and expand on the original foundation he created with his partner, the man sitting to the right, Hubert Germain-Robin. While Hubert's name is on the bottle, he's been retired from the distillery since my partnership with the company began, so I've never had much of a relationship with him. I met him once at a small gathering in Sonoma, but it was so informal we never had much time to chat. Therefore, my recent visit to the hallowed Ukiah grounds involved a meeting with the current staff members, and not with the man who actually broke the ground himself.

Then, a few weeks ago, an email showed up in my inbox from Hubert. He wanted to know why I had written an article about him (calling him a "pioneer") without ever bothering to actually talk to him about it. "That's a very good question," I wrote back to him. "I wanted to talk to you, but I didn't know how to get a hold of you!" It did seem silly to talk about the incredible legacy of Germain-Robin without ever speaking with Hubert Germain-Robin himself, but ultimately I didn't know the man. Hubert still owns part of the company he helped to build, but is no longer a part of the production team; more involved now with education and consulting than distilling. However, with Hubert now reaching out, I made sure to carve a chunk out of my hectic holiday schedule and rectify this gaping hole in my reporting. When a man like this sends you an email and says, "Let's talk booze," you don't fool around. So without further ado, I give you part three of the California Pioneers trilogy: a conversation with one of the great founding fathers of American craft distillation.

David: You obviously knew how to distill before setting up Germain-Robin in California. What was your background in France and where exactly are you from?

Hubert: I was born a few kilometers from Cognac on my family property and I lived there for first ten years of my life. Eventually we moved to Cognac proper. My family has been distilling in the region for centuries and we have properties in the area. I started working when I was a teenager—on the bottling line and painting the hoops around the barrel, just to make some money—but I was not interested in the product itself back then. It was strong and I didn’t understand it at the time. When I was in my early twenties, however, I did a distillation course at the Bureau Distillation de Cognac where you learn how to distill on two small alembics; one heated with propane and one heated with coal. The teacher was able to spark something in me, an interest that hadn't been there before, and when I left school he found me a place where the distiller had just passed away. It was for Martell style distillation. In the following years I worked at different distilleries as I wanted to learn from the different areas in the region and provide distillates for different companies; to learn the different techniques. I also did courses that involved tasting twice a week, to help learn about the different regional characters and to be able to taste the defects in distillation and the wine-making processes.

David: Did that give you a better appreciation of Cognac; when you were able to taste distillates that were poorly made in comparison?

Hubert: Oh yes, I could understand more about what was going on and what it took to make a successful product. After that I went on to agriculture to learn about growing grapes, in order to get the full spectrum. I actually started working with the finished product before going back to the vineyards. I eventually went back to learn about other types of distillation as well; whisky and so forth. I had the bug for distillation at that point.

David: So how did you end up in the United States?

Hubert: Distillation starts in November and goes until March, which was good because you work hard, you make good money, and then it allows you the rest of the time to travel. That’s how I came to Canada with my wife. We traveled across the country to British Columbia and then went down the west coast. That’s where, as you know, I met my partner Ansley, and we spent a few days on his ranch with his wife, and talked about things. I was looking for a place to start a distillery and he had the place. The location was great—in Mendocino—and it was a good start. There was a diversity of grapes in the region and they had good acidity. The people were nice and helpful, and it didn’t have the snobby atmosphere of Napa. We enjoyed the community. That was in 1981.

David: What were the immediate differences you noticed using the grapes from Mendocino, as compared to ugni blanc in Cognac?

Hubert: It was so different. In Cognac you’ve got only the one grape—the differences all come from microclimate and terroir. Here I had to relearn how to distill almost because you have to adapt to each vineyard and each varietal. You have to try new things—malolactic (fermentation) or no malolactic, different yeasts—and that was unbelievable. The first year we distilled some pinot noir from Redwood Valley, and that surprised me very much. I was very excited about the flavors; everything about the pinot noir—like in the wine: the nobility, the complexity, it’s racy and feminine at the same time. You concentrate those flavors when you distill the wine. And colombard, I knew more about it because I had distilled some in Cognac, but I checked around and found some different types. We had some growing at the top of a hill that I called my yellow colombard, and the one growing down the river I called my green colombard—it never got completely ripe and ended up with intense flavors of hay and honeysuckle after aging. I really liked that—the differences that each location played.

David: And then you had to learn how to blend those different brandies, which must have been an entirely different experience as well.

 

Hubert: The way you build a brandy in California, it’s quite different. You have to revise the proportions of the body, the structure, and the aromatic compounds. It was very different for me, but it was great. Each year I would go back to France and bring samples with me that I would taste with the people at Martell and Courvoisier, for example, as well as restaurateurs, sommeliers, all types of people. Their feedback and impressions surprised me because they did not at all agree on what they liked. When I brought them the samples they didn’t know exactly what this spirit was. The different varietals—palomino, chenin blanc, colombard—it threw them off because their minds are always thinking Cognac.

David: It’s always ugni blanc for them.

Hubert: Yes. All the aspects of the Cognac. Here in California you had to relearn everything. Even the aging process. Whereas in Cognac it’s always limousin oak, here I tried using gaja, eastern european, and oak from all the different forests in the U.S., so it was a challenge. I was working for future generations to help give them a basis of understanding; hopefully they would learn from some of the barrels I had made to know which types they should and should not use, so it’s kind of a treasure. I’ve been lucky enough to distill with no restrictions on my grapes, location, and which wood to use. To have the opportunity to build an inventory like this, it’s exceptional. I’m so thankful for all the people who helped me.

David: It’s an incredible portfolio now. With the new small blends that are being released and the variety of the single barrels—getting to taste those varietals separately—it’s one of the most incredible inventories of American distillates ever; if not the most.

Hubert: Absolutely. It’s exciting, but you have so many parameters and possibilities today with the origin of the oak, the number of yeasts on the market, the decisions in the distillery. It never ends, really. It’s unbelievable. After a certain point, with the revolution in craft distillation, I got to the point where I explored everything I could do over there, so I wanted to take what I had learned and help others start their own distilleries. I had been lucky enough with my opportunities, so maybe I could give back a little bit.

David: Is that what you spend most of your time doing now? Consulting?

Hubert: Yes, I sell alembics, advise people, and teach classes. I work with the American Distilling Institute and UC Davis, so I’m always educating. I just taught a class in Portland a few weeks ago and there were people from Puerto Rico , Texas, and Vermont there. It’s very exciting to see people from all those places getting involved in distilling. Some start in their garage with no money and just a few tanks, and some are very rich and they buy the very best equipment. It’s quite interesting, all the diversity. Some people who come to my class don’t have a clue as to what I’m talking about (laughs). And you have other people who have fifteen years of experience, but want to learn more and take their distilling in a new direction. It’s a great experience and I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of it.

David: You’ve done so many different things in the industry at this point. What are you most proud of from all your various accomplishments?

Hubert: To be able to bring the old methods of distillation to the forefront and to have worked with more specialized grapes and fruits. What I like to teach people is that you can use an alembic still for any type of spirit, and quality-wise it’s the best way to distill. It’s slower and it’s more expensive, but it’s the best way in terms of quality. I like to bring back old recipes and common sense. Too many people in the craft industry—after only two or three years of distillation—consider themselves a master distiller and it’s very scary.

David: (laughs)

Hubert: I have seen and tasted so many products—from judging on various panels—and they are making progress. From ten years ago to now, it’s constantly continued to get better and it’s exciting. But people still make stupid mistakes, like aging in small barrels where the extraction of the oak is very fast and the quality of the wood isn’t very good. They also tend to keep these barrels in the wrong place; near a draft or by their pot still, so I try to bring a little common sense when I am teaching. I try to keep people on the right track and not spend money stupidly. It’s more important to put money into better ingredients, a good still, and high-quality oak. The rest you can manage. I try to focus on the essentials. If you start by doing things right, you can understand why it’s right later on down the line. You can’t go back ten years down the road to clean up early mistakes.

David: And that’s become apparent on the craft market today. There are people who have maybe made mistakes, yet can’t afford not to sell what they’ve produced.

Hubert: Well….(laughs). You can’t be shy in presenting your products. It’s a good way to learn.

David: From the resulting criticism, you mean?

Hubert: Oh yeah. I have one dog who sometimes doesn’t want to smell what’s in the glass. He runs out of the distillery. Then I have another dog who is drinking it out of his bowl at seventy percent alcohol. They both have great noses, but they don’t always agree on what they like (laughs).

David: How do you feel about the fact that some of your own early distillates are on the market right now in these new old and rare releases?

Hubert: The difficult part is that they are like my babies. It’s like a separation from your children. I worry sometimes that they are not quite ready, but that’s part of the process. You have to taste samples from year to year and decide if you are going to keep them for ten years, or as part of a single barrel expression, or blend into an XO. You have to have a passion for the spirit.

David: Are you worried about how they’re being used now that you’re no longer doing the blending?

Hubert: No, no. Not at all. Joe Corley (who does the blending now) was a great assistant for me. He was there every day, he was honest, and I really like him as a person. I think it’s tough to give up control when you’re as passionate as I am about distilling. Again, like when you're talking about your own child, I don't think that anyone—even Ansley and Joewill ever understand how to nurture these brandies the way I once did. It's something that still makes me uneasy to this day. But, of course, that's what every parent will say. Every little decision can jeopardize the quality, the complexity, and the value of the inventory, which is one of the most unique in America. 

David: Which Germain Robin release do you think best speaks to your vision as a distiller?

Hubert: I like the Havana cigar blend very much. I really enjoyed working on that. I smoke cigars sometimes, so to build a blend that goes with them, it takes a long time. I did a special blend for Ashton Cigars, so I did a special VSOP and a barrel to pair with their cigars—at that time there was a craze for them. They wanted something unique and I came up with the Havana blend, which was an incredible learning experience for me. For single barrels, I like the semillon very much. I like the fleshiness and the fatness on the palate. It has a beautiful structure, and it takes time to come around. The first time I distilled it I made three barrels and I used two of them in a blend. The one barrel I had left completely changed after eight years. It was incredible. Of course, I love the pinot noir, too.

David: Do you think the pinot noir is ultimately what defines Germain Robin brandy? Is that what ultimately separates it from Cognac?

Hubert: Cognac isn’t about the grapes, ultimately. It’s more about the soil and the terroir. Here, it’s all about the grapes.

David: Are you still inspired by the differences in California grapes after all these years?

Hubert: There are still more varietals I would love to distill, but never got the chance to. I am going to Peru soon, however, to distill pisco, so it will be another situation to learn about new grapes. It’s always going to interest me, I think. Ultimately, what inspires me is inspiration itself. People change sometimes and they forget what the essence of life is. For me, life was becoming a choice between money and integrity, and I wanted to make sure I was on the right side.

-David Driscoll