The story of Hubert Germain-Robin's chance hitchhike to Mendocino and subsequent founding of Germain-Robin, among America's finest and first modern craft distilleries, has been around long enough to become lore.
The product of a long-standing Cognac-area family who had himself worked many years in the French brandy-making business, Germain-Robin loved the variety of California and soon set about experimenting with a wide range of locally grown grapes in making Germain-Robin brandy.
"One of the main reasons I came over 30 years ago was because I had the complete freedom to distill whatever I wanted," he said.
The Germain-Robin distillery opened in Ukiah in 1982, a partnership between Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale, the man who picked up the hitchhiking Hubert Germain-Robin and his wife Carole way back when. Coale had a sheep farm and acreage and soon the two were shopping for an old copper alambic still.
Germain-Robin experimented with more than 40 types of grapes to see what flavors he could coax from French Colombard, zinfandel, Chenin blanc, petite sirah, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, semillon and palomino, among others. He also tried working with different kinds of yeasts and barrels.
"You're learning along the way," he noted. "It's a never-ending story, getting grapes that are not very exciting or even pleasant just after distillation that at the beginning of the aging process suddenly take on all this character."
Germain-Robin's decades of experience has made him a sought-after consultant to craft artisan distillers and potential distillers around the world, a job he now relishes after stepping away from his namesake brand. He has ongoing projects in China, Cambodia and Mexico.
"I get questions all the time from young people who want to learn about distillation," he added. "It's exciting to be in the spirits business. It's not like selling soap or cars. It takes time and it's something you can be proud of."
Germain-Robin encapsulates his years of experience for all those with questions in a recent book, "Traditional Distillation: Art & Passion," what he terms "an invitation to both the amateur and professional distiller to enter the world of spirits."
The timing couldn't be better. Craft artisan distilleries are popping up all over, the call to distilling similar to the call to cooking, farming or winemaking.
"What's exciting is to see all kinds of people who have been dreaming of becoming distillers and they're starting in their garage," Germain-Robin said, likening it to what he saw happen with the craft beer movement when he first came to California.
Among the leaders of the craft artisan distilling movement was Charbay, based in St. Helena, founded in 1983. Charbay makes many delicious spirits, from brandy to tequila, but became best known about a decade ago for its whole-fruit-flavored vodkas.
St. George Spirits in Alameda opened around the same time, the vision of Jorg Rupf, who created myriad acclaimed Aqua Perfecta eaux de vie. St. George is also where Hangar One vodkas are made, as well as absinthe, whiskey, bourbon, rum, three kinds of gin, a tea liqueur called Qi and the newly released Firelit Coffee Liqueur.
Anchor Distilling, an offshoot of founder Fritz Maytag's Anchor Brewing Company, has also been an important source of innovation since its founding in 1993, releasing small batches of Old Potrero Whiskey, a single-malt straight rye whiskey; and Junipero Gin, a classic dry gin; well before both categories were considered cool once again.