Interview with Jack Crispin Cain of Greenway Distillers

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In the second part of our “5-7 questions with…..” series:

Jack Crispin Cain is the proprietor of Greenway Distillers operating out of the original Germain Robin distillery in Eukia California as well as being the proprieter of the American Craft Whiskey distillery located out of the Redwood California Germain Robin facility.  Jack is a distiller focusing on the classical elements of alchemy in the form of rose petals, apple brandy, and absinthe.  All of Jacks spirits are true to tradition and all fall distinctly into the realm of the more interesting (IMO) “not bourbon” sciences.  Jack has a long background in the California winery and distilling business and is very knowledgeable not only of his products and process but of those “dark arts” pioneered by those who came before us, particularly in Cognac.  It was an absolute pleasure to speak with Jack and hope to make it out his way to meet up in the near future.

Jack, tell us a little about your background, what brought you into wine making and subsequently spirits?

In 1983 while living in Livermore CA (near Pleasanton) and working at Cooper Lasersonics, I took a second job at Villa Armando Winery. I started out working on the bottling line, and after a few months I was working in the cellar. I love winemaking, I felt really good doing it. By 1985 I moved to Mendocino County with the intent to get more involved with winemaking. By 1986 I was working at Hidden Cellars Winery during crush, and attending college part time where I majored in business with an emphasis in accounting. Though I worked at a number of other wineries including temporary work at Duncan Peak, Parson’s Creek, and Jepson, it was the recurring work at Hidden Cellars, and specifically working with Jeff Hinchliffe (now at Hannah in Sonoma County), that led to working with Hubert Germain-Robin.

I know you worked with the world acclaimed Germain Hubert Robin for quite some time, what was that like and how does what you learned there effect your craft today?

In August 1989, I received a phone call asking me to come interview with Hubert, I began working at GR soon after. I already had a mindset that focused on quality and perfection. Hubert took that goal to another level. Working for Jeff and Hubert gave me an edge. Jeff gave me information that helps me approach fermentation of malts into malt wines. Hubert gave me the information that takes wines to fine spirits. I bring together these experiences to make fine spirits neither Jeff or Hubert ever made. Winemaking informs my fermentation practices to this very day. Working with Hubert was very interesting and very challenging, he was very demanding but the goal is quality!

During the years that have passed I made a personal study of practical alchemy. At home, I distilled many different fruits, and grains. I also distilled herbs to make essential oils. I took the training with Hubert a little farther by doing this, and it opened more doors for me. I have helped others start their own lavender oil production. I have trained a few distillers who are working today. But my experience with Hubert is only matched by a few others.

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You are well known for your rose liquor which is made from a base of apple brandy chaptalized with honey and the blooms of heirloom roses can you tell us a little bit about the conception of that product and where the idea came from?  Did traditional rose water distillations attract you to the idea?

Crispin’s Rose (BTW my Momma named me Crispin Ian Cain, Jack is my legal alias). Crispin’s Rose came about after I was injured at work, blew out my back, and I just had to get back to work. In Feb 2000 I was injured, by August we had solidified the idea and 3 years of development began. During that time from 2000 to 2003 I was periodically meeting with Ansley Coale president of GR. As development progressed Ansley agreed to allow me to lease his stills and start producing. I got the idea from a friend and a book. The original recipe I started with was just not rosey enough, so I set out to find perfection. I started with certain ldeas about the base spirit and roses involved. Those ideas had to come and go, to continue finding what really works. (A part of what I do here is being open to exploration. Sometimes experiments don’t work, recognizing the need to continue experimenting to find what really works both in production and at the retail level as well is key to success.) At the time my wife, Tamar Kaye, and I were managing a 55-acre woodland retreat that also had an extensive garden with nearly 100 different roses, so we had much to choose from. I have never distilled roses, it’s all a maceration. All the color and flavor is completely extracted. After maceration, I place the wet petals in a 30-liter basket press to recover all the liquid.

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Tell us about your Germain Robin Absinthe and your long interest in the spirit?  Is it too made with honey and apples?  Is the recipe unique to your process or one from a bygone era?

I owe a debt of gratitude to a mentor not mentioned yet, Tom Donohue. Tom is an old friend who was a hobby brewer making absinthe in the 1980’s to early 90’s. Tom got married late in life, had a daughter, he passed the recipe to me in 1991. It came from a book with reprints from earlier publications dating back to the 13th to 19 the centuries. The recipe I use is 300 years old. I have made some minor changes, I took out angelica root because it made it way too bitter. Yes, I am using the apple/honey base for the Absinthe, and this is truly a salute to the Belle Epoch when grapes in France were dead and most of the apples from Calvados went into Absinthe production. The recipe may or may not be unique after all the version I have was published in Switzerland and Tom Xeroxed it for me! But it also comes down to the choices made during distillation, deciding when to cut with quality in mind and not economics. This is another thing I got from Hubert, vital information about the judicious use of fire and specific condensation temperatures— these really make all the difference in the end!! I am also very fortunate that Paul Pacult gave my absinthe a 5-star review. I really don’t make enough absinthe, it sells out every time!

As a distiller I’m obviously a still geek and seeing pictures of that gorgeous Hubert Robin Alembic I have to ask what is it like to run?  Does she have any characteristic quirks?

Germain-Robin Cognac Stills- Charentes Alembics. It is an amazing thing to consider the age of these stills. One was made between 1800 and 1810. The original still GR started with has a pot that Hubert said was made in the late 17th century, the other components were newer but still old. They work really well, a little quirky, but it’s like riding a bike, once you get it, once you find your balance you can’t help but use it right. That said, the information and experience I got with Hubert is just indispensable. Anyone can buy a still and start distilling, but the tradition I am a part of includes a distillation method that has not fundamentally changed in more than 500 years. That method produces the finest brandy in the world, Cognac. It is this method that I am employing to make whiskey, and gin, and the apple/honey spirits. I am convinced that these stills and my work can produce superior products, and the critics seem to support that assertion. I will say here that copper stills in particular make the best spirits.

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What are the biggest mistakes you see in the current distilling industry?  What would you tell those who aspire to become distillers, particularly brandy distillers if they were to ask for advice?

The biggest problem is people who start small distilleries with no background at all in production. The production of inferior spirits, lots of it, and hanging on it is the Craft Spirits moniker. An average consumer can encounter these spirits and think that’s what all “Craft Spirits” are. Some are merely rectifiers, and I am attached to production of whiskey from start to finish. I am proud of choices I have made, from the selection of ingredients, clean fermentations, perfect distillations, finding great barrels and keeping them well during ageing. I am not buying spirits made elsewhere to blend into my whiskey. Who knows, I might do this one day, but it will be labeled accordingly.

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Advice: Get clear contracts where appropriate. Be prepared to hang on for 10 to 12 years to reach profitability. Most investors don’t get this concept, that if you start a distillery it is a long-term project. Plan to spend between $2 and $15 million dollars to get there, and maybe more. If you wish to make brandy, do the research, find out what it takes. So many choices along the way, Hubert said it’s only as good as the weakest link. So it pays to make good choices, and find out what a good choice is is the first step. I can’t tell you how many calls and emails I get from winemakers with a bad batch of wine they want to get distilled because they think it will get better. I refuse them, only good wine will make good spirits.

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