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Dec 01, 2011
Still the One: Germain-Robin distills cognacs some experts say are the world's best - Four Seasons Magazine

Cognac, that elixir against cold winter nights, has long been the sacrosanct province of the French. But for the past three decades a small group of mavericks at the Germain-Robin distillery in Mendocino, California, have been breaking all the rules of traditional cognac production, using ancient French techniques, no less. To this they’ve added a dash of Yankee know-how to become one of the world’s most respected names in fine brandies—even achieving entrée to the White House. President Ronald Reagan, introduced to the product by his Sacramento wine dealer, ended up serving the Select Barrel XO in the White House, as has every president since.

The distillery, a tin-sided building in a tiny hollow seven miles north of Ukiah, the Mendocino county seat, looks like the realm of mad scientists, dominated as it is by an aged, bulbous brass contraption of rivets and twisted tubes right out of a Jules Vern novel that bubbles away furiously. Behind a table littered with eccentrically shaped bottles and test tubes, century-old oak barrels have been covered in cobwebs by spiders that descended commando-like from the cavernous ceiling. Thousands of silk threads drift ghost-like into the darkness. 

“They all came off the rafters at once…maybe it’s the heat,” said Joe Corley, a hulking man with long white hair and a salt-and-pepper beard who is also Germain-Robin’s chief distiller. His colleague, Crispin Cain, nods sagely and scoops up some of the warm ooze from the still with a smudged wine glass and hands it to me. Glancing over at the ancient oak barrels, I light on one with a brass plaque that says “The White House.” OK, if our Commanders in Chief are stockpiling the stuff coming out of this rig the least I can do, for national security purposes, of course, is to…

The hot concoction smells like vanilla. It tastes like bourbon, but bourbon so sweet, hearty and warm you’d want to serve it to Santa Claus. “We’re making corn whiskey,” says Corley before taking a sip himself. “Still a little bitter. But it’s better than it was two hours ago. We’ll put it through the still again.”

Joe Corley of Germain-Robin

We’re standing in the middle of Mendocino County, one of California’s prime viticultural regions, and these guys want to take on Kentucky’s bourbon dynasties! But why not? They’ve already taken on France’s cognac grandees, and, according to many experts, they’ve won. “There is no cognac as good as Germain-Robin brandy,” wrote the renowned wine critic Dan Berger in the Los Angeles Times. “The world’s best liquor,” gushed the Robb Report

But for these guys, the victory is more personal.

“When we took our brandies for blind taste tests in Cognac, the old guys would look at us kind of strangely but the younger guys got really excited and start asking us a lot of questions, “ recalled Corley. “Our product always won.” It was a homecoming, of sorts. Corley is carrying on a tradition that goes back nine generations in Cognac, and was brought to this country by serendipity in 1981 when Ansley Coale, a Berkeley Classics professor, pulled over to pick up a young French hitchhiker, Hubert Germain-Robin. Germain-Robin’s family had been making cognac for two centuries, but had sold out to a big conglomerate. “He told me he wanted to make cognac the way it’s not made in France anymore and I was a frustrated academic with 2,000 acres of land I’d just bought for farming,” recalls Coale. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.

Germain-Robert went back to Cognac, located a disused century-old brass still in an old barn, which he shipped to Ukiah along with his family’s ancient oak barrels. Subsequently they found and imported four more vintage stills.

“These kinds of stills haven’t been used since the 1950’s—they’re very labor intensive—it takes two days just to produce a single barrel, but the quality is very different,” Coale tells me.

Breaking away from traditional French brandy making, which prescribes lower acidic grapes such as ugni blanc, Germain-Robin chose local varietals, including pinot noir. Like most of California, Mendocino produces grapes with a higher sugar content than those grown in France, resulting in more full-bodied, fruitier brandies. They also use filtered rainwater captured from the distillery roof to lower the alcohol percentage, which rounds out the brandies’ flavors. The painstaking process results in a mere 30,000 bottles of brandy being produced annually, priced between $40 to $180. (major French distillers count their annual production in tens of millions of bottles). The flagship 15 year-old XO, with its lingering full-symphony pinot noir finish, sells for around $120.

To me, they seem well worth the price. Germain-Robin cognacs are so smooth—the result of the stills’ unusually long necks and coils, which draw out the grapes’ essence like smoke through a hookah—that they dissolve in the mouth, leaving a rich Armagnac-like aftertaste.

Germain-Robin is not resting on its cognac (or even bourbon) laurels. Currently in the works are absinthe, that long-banned green liquor celebrated by fin-de-siècle artists; pre-mixed brandy Manhattans; grappa; and a brandy-gooseberry concoction that tastes like vaporized candy and is called The Saint Nick. I hope it comes down my chimney in December.

Tastings at the distillery are by appointment only. Call 1-800 782-8145. To find out where to buy Germain-Robin products, visit

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