Mendocino County is known for wine, waves and wilderness, but lovers of fine brandy, whiskey, gin and other artisan spirits know that some of the best drinkables in the world are made in the county.
The great granddaddy of Mendocino County craft spirits is Germain-Robin brandy. In 1982 Ansley Coale, a local rancher and onetime history professor, and Hubert Germain-Robin, a native of France’s Cognac region founded the Germain-Robin distillery. They met while Hubert and his wife Carole were hitchhiking through California looking for a location to make brandy.
Hubert and Ansley began making brandy in Ansley’s barn near Ukiah, using a small potstill taken from a scary abandoned distillery in Cognac. Hubert relied on ancestral craft distillation methods, but he also innovated by using hyper-modern vinification techniques and by distilling wines made from premium Northern California varietal grapes. This was the first U.S. distillery to make serious use of wine-quality fruit. The brandy Hubert produced, using the highest quality Mendocino County wine grapes, produced spirits with a haunting complexity. Hubert’s first brandies outscored famous cognacs in blind tastings, perhaps an upset to some of the large commercial producers.
Hubert, who has also written bestselling books on brandy production, left the company that bears his name in 2006 to become an independent consultant. While the original still continues to be used, most of the brandy is produced at a larger (though no less authentic) still in nearby Redwood Valley.
Their newest line is the affordable Millard Fillmore brandy, a blend of Germain-Robin’s precious potstill brandy with a very nice brandy distilled in the California’s Central Valley on a continuous still. Germain-Robin also produces celebrated apple brandy and pear liqueur.
Low Gap / Russell Henry / DSP CA 162 / Crispin’s Rose Liqueur
Crispin Cain began working with Hubert Germain-Robin in 1989, left for a few years to work in the wine industry, and then went back to work at the distillery in 1997. After a 2000 back injury, he decided to slow things down, and he and his partner Tamar Kaye began producing Crispin’s Rose Liqueur, using their own roses and a family recipe that includes apples and honey.
Crispin and Tamar
Crispin then branched out to several other spirits, including the critically acclaimed Low Gap craft-method whiskey (Whiskey Advocate’s Artisan Whiskey of the Year), Russell Henry Gin, and a craft-method vodka called DSP CA 162. These handcrafted spirits are produced in small batches using a Cognac-style still at the Germain-Robin distillery. Critic F. Paul Pacult called Russell Henry gin “a new landmark in American gin making.” Crispin and Tamar also created and produce Absinthe Superieure, one of the first modern absinthes allowed by US regulators.
You can taste most of the spirits we’ve mentioned above at the Germain-Robin tasting room at 108 W Clay Street in Ukiah. The distillery in Redwood Valley is usually closed to the public, but is often open to the public during Taste of Redwood Valley events.
One of Hubert Germain-Robin’s consulting projects is Jepson Brandy, produced by Jaxon Keys winery and distillery in Hopland. Founded in 1983, Jepson Brandy is distilled in a beautiful traditional alambic still. Jepson brandies have won (and continue to win) numerous critical accolades.
The Still at Jepson
There’s nothing quite like a fine brandy or a tasty whiskey to warm up a chilly Northern California night. Cheers!