American Craft Whiskey’s Homegrown Distillery

American Craft Whiskey’s Homegrown Distillery

by Karen Rifkin
Courtesy of The Ukiah Daily Journal

After settling in Mendocino County, in ’89 Crispin Cain began apprenticing as an assistant under the auspices of master distiller Hubert Germain-Robin. He is now president and executive distiller of Tamar Distillery Inc./American Craft Whiskey Distillery Inc. and Greenway Distillers Inc. with his wife and partner, Tamar Kaye, who serves as vice president.

Cain makes apple honey wine at their facility, a process with which he is familiar as his grandfather ran an illicit, family-run still during Prohibition. “The use of honey doubles the alcohol content and makes the wine richer,” he says.

Inside the distillery room in Redwood Valley, the malt wine is pumped into a 750-gallon copper pot still and kept at a very high temperature beginning the distillation process that takes 8-12 hours to complete. Vaporized alcohol moves from the still through copper coiling and passes through a swan-neck-like configuration into a 1500-gallon condenser pot filled with cold water where the vapor is transformed into liquid alcohol.

“Copper is magic,” says Kaye. “It creates a finer product, a smoother taste.” The first distillate (la premier chauffe) is usually about 30 per cent alcohol and enough is saved to fill the still for a second distillation (la bonne chauffe) yielding a 70 per cent spirit, aromatic and flavorful. A spigot on the condenser pot is opened and master distiller Cain carefully selects the heart (l’eau de vie), the purest spirit, the flow between the head and the tail of the condensation pot, is extracted.

Water is added to the spirit and rose petals harvested from decades-old rose bushes are macerated in it, turning it a reddish amber color. The mixture is sweetened to about 7 or 8 per cent, transferred to a tank for six months, strained, bottled and sold as Crispin’s Rose Liqueur. 

Rose Artemisia absinthium, hyssop, lemon balm, fennel, mint and other herbs are processed with the pure distillate to create a second product, Germaine-Robin Absinthe Superieure. Both the liqueur and absinthe are sold under the Greenway Distillers, Inc. label. 

In 2008, a second company was created, Tamar Distillery Inc./ American Craft Whiskey Distillery Inc., and Cain and Kaye began making Low Gap Whiskey, Russell Henry Gin, DSP 162 Vodka and Fluid Dynamic Barrel Aged Cocktails.

“We make four different kinds of whiskey, including bourbon, using the old double distillation method and the stills that Hubert brought with him from France,” says Crispin.

“Very few distilleries are doing what I do in this old fashioned form. I ferment grain mashes and malt wines, in-house, and double distill them in old Cognac pot stills, choosing the finest heart of the second distillation for aging, blending and drinking—with no added bulk spirits made elsewhere—using just the pure stuff made right here in Mendocino County,” says Cain.

Malted syrups—corn, barely, rye and wheat— are thinned with rainwater or filtered water and warmed in a 650-gallon container. The mash is transferred to a larger tank where yeast and enzymes are added, consuming all the starches, sugars and glutens, fermenting it to dryness.

The product is put into a direct fire still and the whiskey distillate is poured into wooden barrels where it is aged for two to twenty years. 

A light sweet smell fills the barrel room and Crispin explains, “There’s an exchange between the wood and the spirit where the spirit picks up the flavor and color of the wood. There’s also evaporation through the staves in the barrel, a certain amount of loss that we want to happen. It concentrates the flavor and color.” That small evaporative loss is called the “angel’s share”.

“Adding water from time to time brings out the flavor of spirit, like a blooming flower,” says Kaye.

Cain taps the barrels at certain intervals, pulling out samples, tasting and taking notes. “The first round of smelling I assess for oakiness, graininess. Has it developed a vanilla or buttery character? Is it fruity?”

The second round he tastes for exceptional flavor and decides if the spirit will continue to be aged or be bottled in the next six to twelve months.

With a little hammer, he taps into a barrel of 100-proof Low Gap 2014 Malted Rye Whiskey, pours the amber whiskey into a wine glass, transfers it to another and twirls the liquid. Just a slight taste—mellow, balanced and tantalizing—is transformative.