Hubert found a beautiful still, wood-fired when assembled in the 1930s, in an abandoned distillery near Cognac. He had it refitted at Prulho, who added two coils to the condenser and shipped it to California.
I had a 16-foot flat bed truck. We figured we could put the container on it, and drove it to the Port of Oakland. WRONG. When the crane tried to load it, it almost blew the tires. The importer took the container to his warehouse and put the crates on this flatbed. Here I am on the way out of Oakland.
When we got to the ranch, we didn’t want to rent a forklift to unload it.
So we took the braces off one side of the scaffold, put a beam at the top, attached a block & tackle, backed the truck underneath the beam, and hooked it to the still’s main pot. You can see the preheater on the ground behind the scaffold. Then we drove out from underneath it.
The scaffold slowly and gracefully warped, depositing the pot on the ground like a baby’s kiss. It was a magic moment.
Here’s the pot on the ground. You can see where the scaffold frame bent.
In the summer of 1981, I picked up a hitchhiking Hubert Germain-Robin, whose family had produced cognac since 1781. He told a sad tale of industrialized production, and wanted to return to ancestral methods. He went back to Cognac to look for an old hand-operated still. In June, 1982, I dug the foundation for a small distilling shed up on my ranch. We had zero money: I dug the footings and leveled the site with a mattock and shovel, and poured a slab.
In August, Hubert arrived and helped me put up the shed.
This is me cutting into a stud for a diagonal brace. I found that old metal-cased Craftsman skillsaw in the ranch shop in 1973. I used it for 20 years.
Hubert is holding a center rafter (notice the notch) while I get some nails.
Nailing the rafter.
We used old-fashioned, channel siding and a metal roof, and found old sliding barn doors at a junk-yard.
We’re close to an end of the second distillation of a batch of heavy-solids wine we bought from Fetzer. Sauvignon Blanc (a rarely-used but legal grape in Cognac) has an unusual “savage” (I say “feral”) overtone, especially on the palate. “Untamed” is another word. I was once shown an aged cognac from Sauvignon Blanc which had the same ferality. The photos show Joseph Corley checking to see how close we are to the end of the “seconds”, the chalk label on the tank that we make the fresh brandy into (later moved to barrels), and me smelling one of the best Sauvignon Blancs we’ve made: very clean, very aromatic, and pretty soft for fresh distillate at 71%. We like working with these grapes that are rarely or ever distilled: Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Muscat. They lend unusual complexity to our blends. Some of today’s brandy will end up in the Old Havana.
One of the first bottles of Russell Henry London Dry just before getting its label. It got there from countless hours of creative work: adjusting a unique mix of botanicals, finding the right GNS, making the right cuts on the small cognac still, choosing the bottle/cork/foil, designing and printing the label: the cumulative input of 10 human beings, plus the crew that is running the bottling line. In a way it’s like a birth, all that effort focused into this one glass full of a unique distilled spirit. Here’s footage of the bottling day.
Don Sutcliffe of The Exceptional sent me this. As he says, brilliant. This brand and others like them are what keep distributors running: without them, no trucks, no salespersons, no warehouses, no way of reaching more than a handful of consumers. On the other hand, such brands are like a pervasive dense fog between the consumer and genuinely great craft spirits. What Ralfy says about brands seems obvious but it’s not widely understood.
Almost every great spirit got bastardized when it became commercialized. Los Danzantes has spent huge effort keeping the process absolutely/purely authentic. This is long but worth watching. Their blanco (las Nahuales in the USA) is very, very good.
Karina Abad of Los Danzantes telling me about using using the Hoga pot still (the one we shipped to them) for the second distillation of mezcal from the elegant agave tobalá: more finesse. This has a lot to do with the condensing coil.