Ansley Coale on the History of Micro-Distilleries in the U.S.
Hubert Germain-Robin & Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin, early 80’s
This month we are proud to welcome Craft Distillers to the T. Edward Spirits Portfolio.
Established in 2003 by Ansley Coale– long a pioneer and champion of micro-distilleries– Craft Distillers now includes a number of distilleries that operate alongside Germain-Robin, which was co-founded with Hubert Germain-Robin in 1982 as the first micro-distillery to open in the U.S. since Prohibition. In addition to Germain-Robin, Craft Distillers now includes Low Gap Whiskey, Fluid Dynamics Blended Cocktails and Los Nahuales Mezcal. What follows below is Part I of a two-part interview with Ansley Coale. Cheers!
When you launched Germain-Robin in 1982, what was then the climate for micro-distilleries in the US?
Incredulity. St. George and we were the first since before prohibition. I don’t know anyone who was licensed to be a distiller after 1900. Prohibition was 1919. After 1919 there were no small distilleries, as it was prohibited until 1933. They changed the regulations to allow someone to have a small distillery after 1978. I think that was put through so the big guys didn’t have to go through this onerous problem. When we first talked to the BATF in 1982, they didn’t know what to do. We had to work with them to interpret the regulations so we could open a small distillery. I don’t think it had crossed their minds that anyone wanted to do this.
How were your spirits initially received?
With puzzlement. We first released brandy in 1987. I’d take it out and it was better than Remy Martin VSOP. People would taste it and apart from some liquor storeowners, no one had been tasting products for a long time. A wine tasting just did occur to anyone in spirits. There hadn’t been any comparative tastings, so we carried a bottle of Remy VSOP to compare and it blew their minds. The entirety of their spirits world was branded items. You didn’t talk about them, you just carried them. You just didn’t try to sell anything. If you had a bar with a cigarette machine, you didn’t decide what was in it; the guy who loaded the machine decided what was in it. It was the same with the bar. At the beginning 100% of our sales, except for rare exceptions, were in liquor stores where there was a tradition of people coming in and asking for suggestions. The owners tended to taste a lot of things, and they’d go ‘Wow, this was really good.’ If we made something that was just as good as VSOP we wouldn’t have survived. But ours was better. We did a blind tasting with the press. We put two of our brandies (out of six) up against Delamain Pale & Dry (recognized at the time for being the best standard cognac), Leyrat, Martell Cordon Bleu, and Remy Martin VSOP, and half of the voters put us first. Every time we were on top. But we didn’t start making money ’til 1995. It was tough.
Did you anticipate the changes that would follow, leading up to the current movement?
Yes. We knew that eventually what was happening to coffee and food and beer etc. would happen to spirits. We were just premature. I’m gonna say, I think what opened the door was Hanger One [sold in 2010]. We shipped up to 35,000 cases, and a lot of people looked at us and saw that you could make something better and that you could make money. We had distributors going through 2000 cases a year. It was money to a distributor. We think we had something to do with the market being open to something that it wasn’t open to before, made by individuals that they hadn’t even heard of. We poured for people. During a tasting in L.A., some guy came to taste and said that he [regularly] drank Remy Martin VSOP. And then someone told him that ours was better; it was made by hand. Those people got it right away. People who don’t buy their liquor for how it tastes but for the label on the bottle, they still don’t get it. It’s why we won’t go into China.
What has been your experience with the public’s reception of craft spirits since the 80’s?
Twofold: enthusiastic reception from the hip, and disbelief from those addicted to brand names.
Before meeting Hubert Germain-Robin, did you have any interest and/or experience in the spirits industry?
No. I was about to do something different. I have some land and I was about to plant some grapes. But then I met this guy. He had been told that Delamain was selling 15,000 cases in the U.S. But they’d lied to him. They sold maybe 3,000. It was a small market. We didn’t know that the real work would be in the marketplace. We assumed if we made a good product we could sell it readily. We had no idea.
Can you name any mentors/influences?
None. We figured it out from scratch. No one had ever done this. We had to figure out to put in a still. What hoses to use. There was no one we could ask. Imagine calling up Jack Daniels and asking how to put in a 300 gallon still. They would just laugh. We had to figure it out. We did it all from zero.
How did you first come to source the PN fruit from Roederer?
Looking for good pinot noir. They had a higher yield from their vineyards than they had planned for when planting. When they planted they didn’t want to make an impact on the local industry in Anderson valley. They figured they’d get three tons an acre but with modern planting techniques, they got eight tons and didn’t know what to do with it. We were looking for PN and they would turn it into wine for us, which was a huge advantage. It ‘s our best stuff. They’re really good.
How does the quality of the grapes lead to a better product from the still?
Distillation is at heart a purification and concentration of what’s in the still. What you get out is what you put in to it. The origin of brandy distillation anywhere is, what do you do with crappy grapes. In cognac, which is maritime influence, the local wine is no good. The same thing in Armagnac. They have fabulous soils for distillation, high limestone soils, but they have a cool climate. A long time ago, to keep people from using horrible grapes, they put in regulations, which kept them from experimenting. When we got here with no rules we could buy local grapes, so we just started using them. If you were to take a grape from cognac and make wine, versus grapes from Anderson Valley, you’d have a $6 bottle versus $60 bottle. Good distillation wine tends not to be the best, but we made a discovery. We got free run from a bladder press. Good grapes and high-tech winemaking.
Can you tell us about the “old European craft methods” that you employ at Germain Robin?
Distillation entirely by hand/small still/adjustment of cuts and redistillation of heads and tails and seconds as suits each run Old-fashioned cellar methods involve a slow descent to proof using rainwater, use of faibles in blending, using really good barrels made from air-dried oak. If we’re making a barrel of brandy we put 300 gallons of wine in the still, cut the heads, which can be toxic, and at the tail end you get down to 4% alcohol. It tastes vegetal, so you separate those out and keep the middle. We do that 3 times to get enough to run the still for the second run to make brandy. From each wine run, we get 100 gallons of 28% alcohol that we redistill. We have to do three wine runs to have enough for a brandy run. For each of these runs, you make the cuts, by tasting. If you’re on a modern still, you just set it [to make cuts]. But to taste it, to make the run with hand cuts, very few people do that any more even in Cognac. You can change the heat during the run; you can adjust the distillation to the wine that you’re running. The seconds that are left after the brandy run, you can put that back into either the wine or the 2nd distillation, in different proportions and it adds great complexity. It used to take us five months to make 4000 cases. Every day you’d be making heads and tails cuts during the day and again during night. It’s the old fashioned way of doing it. In 1998, we moved the distillery to Fetzer’s old facility (20,000 sq. ft.) and put in a larger still, so now we’re making 5500 cases in about 4 months.
The competition now for spirits from micro-distilleries is pretty fierce. Why do you think your products have been so well received?
They are better quality and we are better at talking about them, plus we have street cred. It’s three things: one is that we’ve been doing it for a long time. When I open my briefcase, I believe that ours is as good or better than anything. I’ve a million quotes from people saying that this is the best they’ve ever tasted. We’re using better materials than anyone else. We know when to pick the grapes, how to turn them into wine, how to distill. I think the more important reason is, you go on most of these small websites and how are they making their gin? You go to our website and we convey accurate info of what we’re going and how we’re doing it. You used to be able to walk into any bar and have the bartender tell you about Hanger One. A bartender now wants to know what he’s putting into the drinks that he’s serving. Other websites aren’t providing that information. Providing that info in a narrative context isn’t easy. The big guys are trying it too. Sam Adams does an amazing job telling folks their beer is made by hand, but it’s not true. Same thing for Tito’s vodka. There’s nothing handmade about it; it might as well be Smirnoff. He’s got photos of him and his dog at the distillery getting people to think he’s making handmade vodka but it’s not true. We know how to talk to the trade about handmade products. If you can’t provide a distributor with info, you’re out of business. Most small-craft products, a lot of people haven’t yet figured how to make money with low-volume high-end products.
For more on Germain-Robin, read here.