Remember these names: Hubert Germain-Robin, Ansley Coale and Dan Farber. And this book: American Spirit: An Exploration of the Craft Distilling Revolution.
I’m asking you to remember what I am convinced I shall never forget. The book, by James Rodewald, is compelling from beginning to end and provides a selective but relevant and informative overview of the art of craft spirit making in America. Though I am not typically a cheerleader for American distilleries – with a few very remarkable exceptions, I prefer Scotch malt whisky in every way – this book, consisting for the most part of interviews with the distillers themselves – is a delight to read and may persuade you to sample a few or a dozen American spirits that you might never have tried otherwise. I suggest you go buy the book right now and read it. I’ll wait…
There we go… The chapter that stood out as unique for me was #7, on the Germain-Robin and Osocalis brandy distilleries in California.
After searching through five large liquor stores in my region, I finally found a store that had one bottle from each distiller, both entry-level bottlings costing about $45 each. More searching in more stores in both upstate NY and in MA has turned up nothing. I resist ordering good spirits online, but again, as so often, I am left no alternative.
As I wait for the mail, and before I get to my notes on the entry-level brandies themselves, I’d like to quote a few things Ansley Coale and Dan Farber said to James Rodewald when he was visiting their distilleries in preparation for his book.
Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin:
We keep the varietals, or even individual vineyards, segregated. We vinify them, distill them and age them separately because that gives us the maximum complexity when we blend.…
Another thing we do, we dilute with rainwater. That’s important. Distilled water is flat and dead; rainwater’s alive and beautiful.
He goes on to say how, using that rainwater, each distillate is diluted slowly, 4 or 5 percent at a time, and that the spirit needs “about nine months to recover” from each dilution. And, from there, he says, “the real work begins” – meaning the cellar work, which Coale estimates takes up about 85 percent of his time because it is very important to know exactly what’s going on in each of his fourteen hundred French oak barrels – some new, many used, with a few being 100 year old cognac barrels – at all times.
My point in quoting and relating all this is to show how thorough and thought-out and slow and patient the entire process is if you want to make brandy as good as Germain-Robin makes brandy.
And remember: All this is new. Coale and Hubert Germain-Robin didn’t start making American brandy until the 1980s. Yes, there’s a centuries-old tradition and practice to learn from and to look back on and to use as a guide, but in America the grapes are different, vinification techniques are different, the climate is different, the soil is very different, the whole process is different than in Cognac, France, where there are 100+ year old brandies maturing in casks built in the 17th century stored in chai warehouses much older than that. It’s a truth that needs telling: Germain-Robin and Coale invented great American brandy by themselves only about 35 years ago. When you taste what they’re making, you’ll find that hard to believe.
Daniel Farber of Osocalis
Brandy is the only brown spirit that can beneficially spend time in wood for the time scale of a human life.
If Ansley Coale is California brandy-making’s pioneering practitioner, its vanguard, pinnacle and most articulate advocate, Dan Farber is its fanatical, single-minded, selfless, soulful master. While the Germain-Robin distillery produces many things other than brandy – Hangar One vodka (now sold off to a conglomerate), Low Gap whisky, Fluid Dynamics bottled cocktails, Russell Henry gin, an incredible absinthe and a line of Los Nahuales and other mezcals – all of them winners of many awards – Dan Farber’s Osocalis distillery makes only one thing: Brandy – one apple brandy and two traditional grape-based brandies including the entry-level juice I found in NY and a very highly regarded XO.
The art is to try to get the essence of great fruit, wherever it comes from. We don’t drink grape juice with dinner; we drink wine because of that transformative character that fermentation gives to that grape juice. In the same way, we ferment the fruit and extract from it the entire essence of the fermented wine. Then we put it in barrels for long periods of time to again have it undergo a transformative process and produce something new.
Having learned his craft in Cognac, France and through his friendship with Hubert Germain-Robin, Farber started out to make apple brandy but realized it could take as many as 25 years of maturation in his fine-grained French Limousin forest oak casks before he would consider it good enough for bottling; so, he turned, like Germain-Robin, to grapes. By doing so, however, he was not lowering his standards. It took seven years before he blended and bottled anything for the public – all of it from his own stills and casks, needless to say, unlike so many bottlers of bourbon and rye – and about 16 years before he blended and bottled his first XO. How he can afford to be such a high-minded, no-compromise distiller, I don’t know – but I’m certainly glad he has found a way!
Now, here’s something that, in all my endless hours of reading about Scotch and whisky/whiskey of all kinds, I never came across nor thought of for myself:
Part of the aging process of great brown spirits is the aging of the warehouse. You don’t get as much of that in bourbon because you have this rotation of new barrels in. You get a little bit of it in the rickhouse itself, but it never really gets to permeate the wood or penetrate into the whiskies because you never have that rich development of microflora on the barrels. Here, from the inception, we knew we needed to age the building, the barrels, the whole thing. You’ll never get that kind of character by just throwing spirit in a cask and putting it in a metal building. It’s not to say it’s necessarily bad or good, but if you like it that’s the only way to get it.
By “it” he means finesse and rancio, the first of which requires deep knowledge and precise, patient, unwavering application of very high standards, the best grapes, the best wood and very ancient techniques; and the second of which, rancio, does not even begin to develop until at least 10 years in cask (if the cask is the right cask, made from the right wood, its staves properly dried in open air before it is assembled and filled and stored in the right place in the right old wooden chai warehouse, I suspect). Farber is a man who, like Coale and Germain-Robin, knows his craft thoroughly and profoundly, puts all that he knows (along with all his money and time) into making his brandy, and who finds all the motivation he needs to pursue such a selfless craft in the very thing he is making: Brandy. Who wouldn’t at least want to try a spirit made by a man of such character?
Germain-Robin Craft-Method Brandy 40% ABV
I opened both this bottle and the Osocalis the night I brought them home; at the time, this Germain-Robin struck me as slightly superior despite some real similarities between the two. The color on this is a gorgeous translucent copper. On the nose there is cedar and a fresh fruitiness that is mostly grape (not of the too-fragrant Welches grape juice kind; the components here are primarily colombard, with pinot noir, riesling, zinfandel, all of various ages, but each aged at least six to seven years, blended in); there is a hint of marshmallow, and oak sugars of a far more confectionary kind than one experiences with spirits aged in new white American oak, which seem far less subtle by comparison. In the mouth, one is immediately struck by the rich, refined quality of the drink, by how rounded this is despite it being ever so slightly spirity, by a warming grape-fruitiness and a very long, slow burning, fragrantly flavorful finish. The influence of the limousin oak cask is both ever-present and nuanced – yet there is a slight sharpness that I’m sure more time in such tight-grained casks would tame. Despite its relatively young age and it’s entry level status for this distillery, this is obviously an exercise in soft, fragrant delicacy unlike (though not necessarily better than) anything I have ever experienced in grain-based whiskeys. And for $45 this is absolutely superb.
Osocalis Rare Alambic Brandy, Lot No. IX, 40% ABV
I am pouring the final drams of these brandies from their respective bottles tonight and I will replace them both as soon as possible. However, if I found myself staring at bottles of each, but having only enough cash to pick up one bottle, I would be going home with the Osocalis. Don’t get me wrong, the Germain-Robin is superb and, upon first impressions, it seemed a shade superior to me. The Germain-Robin was “easier” and more rounded at first, while the Osocalis leaned ever-so-slightly to a more monolithic youthfulness. Nonetheless, as the eight or so days I’ve been sampling these fine spirits have gone by, oxidation has blessed the Osocalis, in my opinion, with somewhat finer qualities. Though the color, a pellucid copper, is very similar, the legs here are slightly slower and the mouthfeel just a bit more oily and substantial. On the nose, the Osocalis has become far fruitier, far grapier than the Germain-Robin, though the influence of the limousin wood is less obvious here – making me suspect that the Germain-Robin has some older brandies in the blend. That only makes sense considering Germain-Robin was fired up at least a decade before Osocalis. Still, there is something here, in the fresher, more complex fruitiness and the less obvious influence of the fine-grained French oak, that makes this Osocalis experience one of immense promise – and for some reason I find that more exciting. The Germain-Robin is a better example of the art of blending, perhaps, but the promise contained in this Osocalis is, as I said, immense, and that, too, is of appreciable merit. On the palate, the Osocalis is a jot more flavorful, more intense, but still so well-rounded it could almost be called “smooth”. Yes, there is more youthfulness here, but there is nothing spiritous about it whatsoever. And the finish here is, if anything, even longer, more flavorful, more complex.
For the single malt Scotch drinker, I think the Osocalis may be more than minutely more satisfying because it is (just) more discernibly rich in complexities. But anyone who reads this – and especially you, my good friends and Ethanolics – should run out and buy both of these exquisite bottlings as soon as possible and give them a thorough savoring. You’ll be amazed, I promise – and, if not, well, I’ll gladly take those bottles off your hands!