California Pioneers – Part II

When you look at the Germain Robin warehousethe barrels racked on top of one another like any standard operationit doesn't seem like a vast inventory of more than 1500 casks. It's an impressive sight, but it doesn't look like thousands of barrels. Nevertheless, that's what Ansley and company are sitting on: a veritable treasure trove of old stock that is as extensive as any large producer in America (despite the fact that Germain Robin is tiny). The situation is not unfamiliar, nor is it unprecedented. For years, both Scottish and American whiskey producers found themselves in similar shoes; tons of aging backstock due to slumping sales and lack of consumer interest. Despite the indisputable quality of the Germain Robin brandies, let's not kid ourselves herebrandy isn't, and hasn't been, a popular player in the new spirits market. Those who do distill brandy are definitely making more than they're selling, unlike whisky distillers who currently have the opposite problem.

As a consumer, however, this is exactly when you want to buy in: when the market isn't hot. All those stories you hear about "the good old days" of whisky drinking; buying as much Pappy as you wanted right off the shelfthose days are right now for brandy drinkers. There's never been a better supply of great Armagnac and Cognac at K&L, with 35 and 40 year old expressions hovering around the $120 mark. Germain Robin, however, is on another level when it comes to brandy production. They're using much higher-quality grapes, making base wines that are actually drinkable, and they're not dumping in boise to cover any mistakes or rough edges. They are as pure and polished as brandy gets. Dan Berger of the LA Times famously wrote: "No Cognac is as good as Germain Robin." I wouldn't argue with that statement, but I'd probably offer my own retort: "No Cognac is as dynamic, versatile, or as interesting as Germain Robin." Not only is there no Cognac distiller in France making grape distillates on the level of Germain Robin, there's no Cognac distiller in France coming even close. The boys up in Ukiah aren't even looking across the Atlantic anymore; they're on an entirely new level.

Tasting simply the Germain Robin Craft Method or the Coast Road expression may not convince you of greatness. "There are many Cognacs out there finer than either of those California brandies," one might argue. This is true. The Craft Method and Coast Road are the VS and VSOP of the Germain Robin portfolio, with the XO beingobviouslythe XO. There are numerous Cognacs in stock at K&L that I believe outshine the entry level expressions from Germain Robin, although they're much older. Personally, I'd stack the XO from Germain Robin against any competitor from Cognac, any day of the week. Dollar for Dollar, you won't beat it. Distilled pinot noir wine simply adds another dimension to the blend that ugni blanc isn't capable of. Distilling pinot noir has taken Germain Robin up a notch in the hierarchy of great brandies. Ansley Coale, who you can see above readying samples for my visit yesterday, is now getting ready to raise the ante even higher. He's willing to bet that the new Germain Robin ultra-mature and ultra-rare editions are better than any Cognac, at any age, from any producer—period; and his new portfolio of limited expressions will hopefully prove that point.

And so I made the trip to sample these new (old) expressions and see if they were everything I hoped they would be. Let's take a look at what's coming later this month from Germain Robin:

Germain Robin 30 Year Old $500 - Whereas a number of the other ancient releases will be limited, one-time-only expressions, the 30 year will be a continual 200 bottle per year allocation. The base of the spirit is 1983 distilled pinot noir and a bit of Colombard from 1984; that's about it. It's proofed down to 42% (naturally for the most part) and is entirely unfiltered. The first thing you notice as you take a sip is that the fruit is still the focus. Despite 30+ years in wood, these brandies have maintained their core acidity; almost like you would expect from a 1982 Lafite, or DRC Burgundy. There's oak, but this brandy isn't about the wood; it's about the interconnection between oak maturation and the inherent quality of the spirit. I was blown away immediately just from that realization. There's not much of this stuff either; just a few barrels from each year to pull from. The grace of the palate is tremendous. It's still youthful; there's vigor and life. A vinous character comes through first, before a seamless transition into spice and oak takes over on the finish. There's no caramel flavor though; not a dropunlike you would find in the Cognac counterparts, where the boise dominates the backend. That dry spice finish goes on for minutes. It's so elegant. Hubert's mantra was always: alcohol is there to carry the flavor; if you don't notice it then the brandy is perfect. I'd say this is a perfect brandy by that standard. Spellbinding.

Germain Robin Barrel #351 $600 - 1987 is considered by Ansley and Hubert to be the best vintage for both the fruit and the distillates in the Germain Robin archive. Everything went right that year; both the weather and the distillation process. 120 bottles were filled from this single cask of 1987 Welch Vineyard pinot noir distillate, made from grapes taken purely from the Potter Valley site. It's as close as a spirit can get to expressing vintage and terroir. The first sip reveals a fatter, more supple mouthfeel than the 30 year. The vinous character of the pinot noir coats the palate with more richness, giving more of an assertive Armagnac character. Despite that initial rush, the finish is extremely delicate and focused; possibly due to the higher elevation and higher acidity of that pinot noir. It's lazer-like at the enda beam of soft fruit, round oak, and baking spices that still brings acidity, rather than creamy caramel or dessert-like sweetness. I can't stress enough how much more refined these brandies are in that they do not rely on richness or oak. They contain both elements, but only to balance out the equation. Like fine wines, it's mostly about the quality of the fruit and the skill of the process; too much vanilla and oak means you didn't have good fruit, or you don't know what you're doing. Another big winner.

Germain Robin Augustin's Blend $700 - This is a mystery blend composed by Hubert for Ansley's son (Augustin), put aside for the future in the timeless tradition of Cognac. Hubert would also put special blends aside for his children, as was once done for him. At this point, however, neither Ansley or Hubert remember what exactly was in the blend because it was done off the books for personal use, rather than documented as part of Germain Robin's archive. The only information that is known pertains to the vintages: 1987 & 1988. There are only 60 bottles left in the barrel for public purchase. This brandy is amazing right off the bat. Soft, supple fruit, dainty vanilla and oak spices, then a creaminess that becomes almost ghostly as it slowly fades into a specter of what it once promised. That's not a criticism, though; it's a beautiful anomaly. It's a faint whisper of elegance that really gives you a sense of how special these brandies are. They're delicate by design. A touching tribute to Ansley's son who for some reason is allowing dad to sell the rest of his inheritance! (Augustinbetween me and you, I hope you squirreled away some of this for later. It's outrageously good).

Germain Robin Anno Domini $400 - Previously released in other incarnations, the Anno Domini is a solera-style blend that dates back to 1983 and runs into the late 90s; so you're talking a marriage of spirits from 30 years of age to about 15+. The selling point of the Anno Domini, however, is that the blend contains a bit of brandy distilled from dry-farmed Palomino from the late 80sperhaps the rarest and most treasured gem in the library. The Anno Domini is the type of thing you break out after a fancy dinner. It's a crowd-pleaser on the highest level. Much more intense richness, underlined by a backbone of oak spice and the acidity from the pinot noir. It's the whole show, from beginning to end. Big, undulating waves of pinot noir fruit that come over the palate like a pulsing beat of goodness.

Germain Robin Small Blend #1 $290 - I had to include a photo of the upcoming label for Small Blend #1 because it's exactly what geeky guys like myself want on a package: a clean, classy breakdown of what's inside; with percentages, no less!! Look at what you're dealing with here: 1990 Austin's Ranch pinot noir, 1994 Carneros pinot noir (riper and juicier, for those of you who don't drink pinot), 1983 Hildereth Ranch Colombard (not easy to find in California back then), and some Faibles brandy distilled in 1987 (which I learned is older brandy that has gone underproof, used like a boise to sweeten up a blend). This is the type of brandy you pour for someoneeven someone who doesn't normally drink brandyand they say, "WOW!" It's immediately impressive, from the cinnamon red hot spice coming via the oak, to the balance and seamless way these four brandies work together; strengthening each other and filling out any potential flaws. Love it. LOVE it. Only 220 bottles will be released.

Germain Robin Small Blend #2 $300 - I was really looking forward to this one, just based on the specs. 39.8 % 1984 California Gamay Beaujolias (Oh my God!) with 35.2% 1989 Colombard and 25% 1994 pinot noir. A bit higher in proof at 44.5%, that extra lift is apparent on the initial sip. The red-fruited juiciness of the gamay is actually palpable and takes center stage, forcing the other two brandies to supporting roles. The warmth and spice from the Colombard picks up on the mid-palate and the acidity and focus from the pinot noir balances out the backend. It's explosive on the finish though; both sweet and savory. Fun, fun, fun.

Germain Robin Small Blend #3 $285 - This is the smallest of the three blends and also has its own vintage of 1985 distilled gamay, along with 1996 Roederer pinot noir, two 1997 Colombard distillates, and a blend of 1996 muscat, viognier, and riesling. The wine geek in me just shot my load. This is wildly different than the other two blends, more muted and less spicy with the aromatic varietal brandy really coming through. Muscat distillates have a distinct floral and perfumy character (as we recently tasted with the unaged Singani 63) and that's a big part of the backbone for this blend. It's awesome, as that hint of white flowers mixes perfectly with the softness of the Colombard and the supple weight from the pinot noir. This might be my favorite one so far. Just awesome in every way.

There are more old and rare Germain Robin brandies to come besides the few listed above, but they're mostly expanded versions of expressions previously released. There are four new single barrels (including an incredible muscat and a dreamy semillon) as well as a new batch of Old Havana and some Apple XO. I did get a chance to taste these releases as well and I found them all to be exceptional. They're fantastic, but they're not on the level of the brandies above. The seven expressions I've covered so far are not to be missed, even at the high prices being asked. If you think they're too esoteric to sell at those costs, let me share this with you: I've already pre-sold more than 80 bottles just from collectors calling to inquire. They knew about these brandies before I did and they were salivating at the chance to get a bottle or two (or ten). The only reason I haven't already sold more is because Germain Robin has to allocate these bottles fairly amongst all their customers nationwide. When I say this is a big deal, I mean it. K&L might not get much more than the amount I've already promised to some of my best customers.

And, let me tell you, they're worth the cash. Not only is each bottle spectacularly crafted and distilled from fruit of the highest quality with the maximum level of care, they are pieces of California history. These are the oldest American spirits currently available in the United States, and they represent the efforts of two pioneers who let their passion for perfection guide them on one hell of an adventure. The fact that we get to taste these expressionsthat they're even making some of these brandies available to the publicis incredible. I'm looking forward to buying one or two of my own.

I can't say this enough: this is a big deal, folks. I hope those who do splurge for a bottle understand exactly what they're drinking. Hopefully this blog will help!

-David Driscoll


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