Ansley Coale, left, and Crispin Cain sip absinthe in Ukiah, Calif.
From ERIC ASIMOV
Thanks to Janie Sheppard
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 just west of this small city in Mendocino County, 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. Mr. 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. Mr. Germain-Robin found an old copper still abandoned in Cognac and shipped it over. Mr. Coale proposed housing it on his land, which he said he had bought in 1973 for $90 an acre.