What do you get when a distiller from the Cognac region sets up shop in California? You get Germain-Robin Cognac-style California Brandy.
Germain-Robin is a brandy distillery in Ukiah, California. It was founded by Ansley Coale Jr and Hubert Germain-Robin in 1982. (This is the same year Jorg Rupf started St. George Distillery). Ansley is a former ancient history professor turned rancher. Hubert comes from a family who hails from the Cognac region and has been distilling Cognac since the 1700s. Hubert also studied distillation at the Bureau Distillation de Cognac.
They met each other in 1981 when Coale Jr. picked up Hubert – who was travelling with his eventual wife – as hitch-hikers along Highway 101 just north of San Francisco. After getting to know each other better during the drive, Ansley invited the couple to spend the night at his ranch in Mendocino. As they talked, Hubert lamented how Cognac was pulling away from hands-on small distillation practices. The possibilities of Western-style brandy and pioneering a new kind of American spirit came up.
Afterwards, Hubert returned to France to track down an old and abandoned alembic pot still. Luckily, they were able to buy it for cheap. It was shipped to Ansley’s ranch, to be installed by the two men in a small shed. Because California was more of a wine producing region and not a brandy producing region then, the usual high acid Cognac grape of choice (Ugni Blanc) wasn’t available. Instead, they experimented with types of grape not used in Cognac. Some examples are California Pinot Noir, Gamay, Viognier, Colombard, and Palomino.
Not only were they experimenting with different grapes, they also experimented with using other types of wood. The de facto wood used for aging Cognac is Limousin Oak. But, because Hubert wanted to pioneer a new spirit, he ended up learning how to use oak from different parts of America and eastern Europe. He relished the challenge and the fact that there were no restrictions for him.
Thanks to these K&L California Pioneers articles from 2014 (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) from the K&L Spirits Journal for being my major sources for this piece. It’s mentioned in Part 3 that Hubert is no longer active in the distillery, but still has shares. Since then, he’s been consulting, involved in education, and selling alembic stills. In August of 2017, E&J Gallo Winery bought Germain-Robin.
According to the Germain-Robin site, this is their flagship expression. It uses California-grown Colombard grapes. Colombard is one the grapes being used to produce Cognac and Armagnac, but Ugni blanc is the most used. The brandy has been distilled in charentes pot stills and aged in Limousin oak barrels.
Germain-Robin California Alambic Brandy Aged 7 Years – Review
40% ABV. $74.99 from K&L Wines.
On the nose: Upfront are medium aromas of floral & dried fruits. I smell light and shy aromas of rancio and nuts at the end. The fruit notes I get are dried apricots, fresh peaches, nectarines, starfruits, banana liqueur, and plums. The flavor separation between the nuts and rancio aren’t as clear cut as the fruits. I get a mix of leather, mushrooms, walnuts, almonds, and soggy wood.
In the mouth: This is different from the nose in the way that I taste the rancio before the fruits. The fruits aren’t as pronounced and as floral as on the nose. The fruit and rancio tastes aren’t as well layered as on the nose. They’re more mixed up. Sipping this is like eating a fruit salad with some shiitake mushrooms and nuts mixed in it. I get dried apricots, grapes, shiitake mushrooms, walnuts, nectarines, peaches, leather, and soggy wood.
Upon seeing the ABV of the bottle, I was slightly disheartened; I expected a craft distiller to bottle their spirits at a higher ABV than normal. But, I’m glad I still bought this. This is one of the few 40% ABV spirits that I’ve had which doesn’t feel like it. The mouthfeel and weight isn’t like the supermarket 40% ABV Cognacs; this is more full bodied and has pretty good layers.
Aside from the “big 4,” Cognac is such an unknown spirit. My experience with it is still very little when compared to how much I’ve explored whisky and rum. In a blind tasting, I wouldn’t be ashamed to mistake this for a Cognac. Because most Cognac have a lot of distilled Ugni Blanc, I wonder if Colombard grape-based Cognac would taste similar to this. This also makes me wonder what Cognac would be like if new types of grapes were allowed in the AOC.
I like this. It’s good and interesting. Will I buy this again? Not immediately. I’d like to try Germain Robin’s XO and limited -edition bottlings. There are also other American brandies such as Osacalis and Argonaut that I’d like to try first. But, being half a world away makes access to these bottles a lot harder.
Some might find the fact that Germain-Robin not being run by its founders disheartening. However, I think it’s amazing and encouraging to learn that one of California’s – or even America’s – original craft distillers is still operational today.
(7/10 if it were at least $10 cheaper)