Preserving Traditions at the Still, with Ansley Coale
Hubert Germain-Robin & Ansley Coale, 2005 (photo credit)
Earlier this week, we posted Part I of this interview with Ansley Coale, “Ansley Coale on the History of Micro-Distilleries in the U.S.”. What follows is the second half of our chat with Coale, who co-founded Germain-Robin in 1982, and established Craft Distillers in 2003. Cheers!
How did you go about crafting your recipes for the brandies, including the apple, the absinthe and pear liqueur?
By experimentation and experience over time. We’ve been doing the Apple for more than 15 years, GR since 1982. You just try and do it better and better and better. There isn’t any other way of doing it. What you do is an interaction of your own knowledge and over 10 years you get better at getting it right. Same thing with brandies. You just start blending them over many tries. Hubert said to me in 1989 that it was the first time he felt like he knew what he was doing. (8 years later!) That’s a long time. And we still got better at it.
Many of your projects involve preserving things that are on the verge of extinction—the heirloom cultivar plantings for your apple brandy, your cognac distilling methods, and the family-run mezcal distilleries in Oaxaca for the Mezcalero Mezcals. Can you tell us about this?
Sure. Old-hand methods and scarce varietals/cultivars deserve to be preserved. They represent value not just in quality, but also in how things should be done. [They represent] the constant struggle against the ill-consequences of modernization, uniformity and commoditization. I’m a historian. I lived on an island off the coast of Africa, because I could live in the 15th century. There’s couple of guys making boats there using techniques from the 1300’s. There’s a lot there, being in constant physical touch with one’s work. I really believe in that. When the apples were going out of business, they were leaving apples on trees because they couldn’t get enough for them after harvesting. So we offered them $500 a ton. They were getting $230 [because] they weren’t commercial apples. They looked like hell, the way these apples do. There wasn’t a market for it. So we created an apple brandy to support it. We were making a small quantities, but I talked to this guy, that if we could build it to 500 cases of apple brandy, then this would be good for us and we could keep it going, instead of cutting the trees down and planting Chardonnay. We’re going to sell 350 cases of apple brandy this year. We’ll take it as far as we can take it. It was the same thing with Cognac. We were convinced right away. It was a drive. Take apart the commercialization/ industrialization/ commodification of the product. Some guy who works for Hennessey can’t tell you where the grapes came from. He doesn’t care. In Oaxaca with the Mezcals from the Munoz Brothers who own Los Danzantes, it’s a part of their process weaving traditional Mexican culture into the Spanish culture that came into Mexico…Here’s some guy making this unbelievable product. Take as many of these guys as you can, help them make a living out of it, and now their kids are coming back from the U.S. to work there. We pay them more for their product than others do. Otherwise it’d be the last generation. They’re wonderful people. Oaxaca is something like 90% indigenous.
Joe Corely, Master Distiller at Germain-Robin
Why do you opt for double distillation, and what effort does this entail
It’s how cognac is made. It took us two days, 48 hours, to distill less than one barrel of GR on our original still. Crispin’s whiskey is testimony that those stills are the best. We just bought an old cognac still. Double distillation is how you make a cognac. The one we use is 400-gallon still and it’s half the size of a traditional still. The old distilleries would have a row of these medium sized stills instead of larger ones. I just bought another. We have a 310-gallon still, and we bought two more that are 400-gallon stills. I’m selling one to finance buying two more. The smaller the better, but you can’t run 20, 100-gallon stills. The trade off is what’s feasible to operate. The 300-400 stills are getting scarce. No one makes them anymore.
How is the end product different from other similar products on the market?
Simply superior: better grapes/experience in preparing distilling wine/hand-operated stills/air-dried oak in barrels (the way to experience oak in a distilled product is to pour the product into a glass, and pour it out, /. 99% of oak for barrels requires preparing the staves 99% of the oak used for aging is dried in kilns. If you air-dry, It takes 3.5 yrs. to prepare the wood. The air-dried barrels cost us 1100 each. So everybody uses a kiln. Hardly anybody makes barrels by air-drying the oak. That’s gotten very scarce. But it makes an enormous difference. So more experience in distillation and cellaring and blending. It’s paying attention to all these details. We never ask what we can afford, but how we can get it right. By now we’ve been doing it for so long. We know what to do. Someone else who’s starting from zero can’t get it right the first time.
What led to the formation of Craft Distillers?
The need for a separate and larger organization to focus on marketing because of Hangar One. I was in a store in Connecticut, and the guy didn’t want to talk to me, because he wanted to talk about getting more limited production wine. To get attention from the distributors, we needed to get sell the greater volume of Hanger One. In 2009 we did 28,000 cases. We were running out product, but the recession hit. At 70 [70,000 cases], you’re a national brand, but the recession ran us out of cash. We would have been a million cases brand. I set out to create a 10,000cs brand, so distributors would pay attention to us. When Hanger One took off, I didn’t have an organization that was capable of handling the job. Now we have some really good people and a lot of brands. We sold Hanger One in 2010 because we had to. Since that time we’ve used the money to keep Craft Distillers alive. And to build brands.
How many bottles spirits does Germain-Robin produce in a year?
Germain-Robin produces +/- 5500 case equivalents of brandy annually (what would be 66,000 bottles), but only about 60% is bottled. The remaining 25% is in the cellar for aging. The rest goes to fortifying ports, etc. Low Gap? 1500 case equivalents/ 9000 bottle-equivalents. Los Nahuales? Maybe 35,000 bottles. Fluid Dynamics? 12,000 bottles last year. With Mezcal we sell as much as we can get. 35,000 bottles this year. It’s a huge number for Mezcal. We’d sell more if we had it.
What has been your experience going up against corporate distilleries?
Tough. It’s not the distilleries, it’s the domination of the distribution by their marketing companies. Any of us making quantities below 60,000 cases are up against the millions of cases that are being moved around. Some have their own marketing department within the distributor. We operate within the fringe area. You’re up against the 95% that makes this whole thing exist. Very few have figured out how to make money. The wine industry had to figure it out. Mondavi went bankrupt twice. It’s why Peugeot pulled out of US car market. 95 % of our work is trying to persuade distributors to do what we suggest they do to make them money. A lot of distributors have a hard time thinking of what happens two to three years down the road.
You met Hubert while he was hitch-hiking. How did you meet Crispin Cain and the Munoz brothers?
Crispin used to work for us as an assistant to Hubert. He did it twice. He has a strong interest in distillation, has for 20 years. Even when he was working at a winery, his heart was with distilling spirits. He’s an enormously talented man. The Low Gap is the first whiskey he ever made. From day one he’s been making product that’s superior to others on the market. Ron Cooper introduced me to Jaime Munoz in 2004 at Aspen: he was looking for an importer. I spend a lot of time in Oaxaca, tasting. They’re expanding so they’re looking for good small distilleries.
How do you find the artisan distillers behind Mezcalero?
Through Los Danzantes.
What do you personally prefer to drink?
Mezcal. Most of the time I drink mezcal straight up. I don’t drink much of anything else these days. It’s psychotropic. And you can drink a lot of it; it’s amazing how much you can drink with out knowing it the next day. It’s just concentrated agave. Concentrated agave is an amazing thing. You have three mezcals and your mental clarity is enhanced.