UKIAH - In the oceanic world of distillers and spirits distributors, 200 gallons is a drip of the faucet. But at the original Germain-Robin distillery, a tiny wooden cottage on the side of a mountain west of town, 200 gallons is the entire annual output of one of the best absinthes made in the United States.
To adherents of absinthe's lurid, mythic glamour, the distillery's Absinthe Superieure must seem disappointingly pure in its mellow complexity and lingering, subtle evocation of herbs and botanicals. It's yet another triumph for Germain-Robin, whose brandies are recognized as among the best in the world, rivaling top Cognacs and Armagnacs.
But producing distinctive, world-class brandies and spirits does not guarantee financial success in the precarious world of microdistilling. Paradoxically, Germain-Robin owes its survival to the spirit that hip bartenders and cocktail aficionados love to hate: vodka. Making vodka would never have occurred to Ansley Coale back in 1981.
He was a frustrated history professor who owned 2,000 acres in the hills above Ukiah. One day, he picked up a hitchhiker, Hubert Germain-Robin, a young French tourist whose family had made Cognac for nine generations. Germain-Robin was concerned about the direction of the Cognac industry, which he saw losing its ancient hand-distilling methods as it became more corporate.
Together, they hatched the idea of making brandy using fine wine grapes like pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, rather than the mundane ugni blanc employed in Cognac. Germain-Robin found an old copper still abandoned in Cognac and shipped it over. Coale proposed housing it on his land, which he said he had bought in 1973 for $90 an acre.
Along with Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Ore., and St. George Spirits in Alameda, Germain-Robin was one of a handful of small distilleries in the 1980s that helped to revolutionize American attitudes toward spirits and cocktails. By focusing on quality and small, artisanal production they offered an alternative vision to the industrial production that dominated the spirits business.
But for Germain-Robin, it was not easy being great. Output was small, and by the late 1990s the spirits distribution system had consolidated and a handful of large companies ruled the game. Their priorities were the big sellers, not handmade niche products like Germain-Robin, no matter how remarkable their quality.
"We were making 1,500 to 2,000 cases, but still, distributors didn't have time for us," Coale said as he drove up the winding dirt road to the distillery, an unopened brandy bottle in the cup holder of his Toyota Camry wagon. "By 2001 we needed a 10,000-case brand to stay in business."
Back then, flavored vodkas were sweeping the country. Lance Winters, a distiller at St. George, which faced similar distribution difficulties, decided most of them were horrible. He felt that St. George, which had expertise with eaux de vie, could make better flavored vodkas. Before long, St. George had teamed with Germain-Robin in the new vodka venture, which they called Hangar One. In its second year, Hangar One sold 20,000 cases, Coale said, far beyond expectations, and enough to keep Germain-Robin afloat and make the world safe for 200-gallon batches.
"The whole purpose was a vehicle to carry Germain-Robin, and it's worked for us and for St. George," Coale said.
Business has continued to evolve for Germain-Robin. Germain-Robin left in 2006. He said he wanted to help other small distilleries, and also cited personal conflicts, though he has remained a shareholder and a consultant. His apprentice, Joe Corley, oversees the distilling, as well as a new apple brandy project. And another former apprentice of Germain-Robin, Crispin Cain, has returned.