He was at a friend’s house, watching football in 1989, and thought nobody knew where he was. But apparently master distiller Hubert Germain-Robin had been calling around looking for this young winemaker, who had been recommended by some vintners who supplied wine for brandy making. Cellphones were not yet a ‘thing’, so the call came in on his friend’s landline.
“His phone rings, and he says, ‘Hey it’s for you.’ And I say, ‘No way, it can’t be for me,’” said Cain. “And he says, ‘No, really, I think it’s a job offer.’ And I said, ‘You gotta be kidding.’ I get on the phone and say, ‘Who the heck is this really?’.”
“You know, and I’ve had a few cans of beer,” Cain said. “And it’s this nice woman from Germain-Robin Brandies who’s been calling around looking for me, and wants to know if I’ll come interview to be Hubert’s assistant, and would I show up at 9am for the interview?”
The “nice woman” was thoroughly taken aback at the barrage of four-letter words that came her way but somehow managed to call back. This time, Cain’s friend convinced him it was not a prank call, and he really was being asked to interview tomorrow to become assistant to the innovative brandy maker Hubert Germain-Robin.
“I don’t think she got over that call for quite a few years,” said Cain. “But I sobered up quick and went to the subsequent interview.”
For years thereafter, he got up early in the morning and worked long, backbreaking hours, which he balanced with university classes.
“It was just the two of us in production and he had very exacting standards for quality, which I could understand why,” said Cain. “I had a long drive to get to the distillery, which was up in the mountains west of Ukiah back then, and I lived 18 miles out [in] Redwood Valley. So, to be there at 3:45 in the morning to catch the overnight run, to finish that, and start the day run was an awesome responsibility.”
The Charentais stills ran more or less continuously, even though they were fed in batches. Each successive charge would get preheated by the hot vapours of the previous batch, saving energy and keeping the still in almost constant use.
Cain learned methods of handling wines in flame-fired pot stills that create flavour compounds other stills do not, and to tailor each eau de vie to the amount of time each was expected to age. And he learned to ‘bring up’ the barrels – a technique common to brandy production called élevage – to bring the most flavour out of the spirit and the cask through traditional methods: monitoring regularly, slow reduction, and blending.
The techniques he learned then inform the way he makes whisky now on the same Charentais alembics. Cain’s Mendocino Spirits flies under the radar, subletting the facilities at Alambic Inc., where Germain-Robin brandies once were made.
“I approach the fermentation of grains and malt from a wine-making perspective rather than a beer-making perspective, and I continue to distil in the style of Cognac on old Cognac stills,” said Cain. “I believe it makes a huge difference in the final product.”
Cain starts with a higher specific gravity than most distillers, and instead of fermenting for a few days, his fermentations continue for two-and-a-half to six weeks, until every usable bit of starch, gluten, and sugar have been consumed by the yeast. The resultant wash is sour to the point of undrinkable but lays down a foundation for maturation.
“What happens in fermentation is acidity develops, and that acidity is really essential to what is happening in the still for me. Those complex organic molecules that are acids, or attach themselves to acids and fatty acids … go through changes when they’re in hot copper,” said Cain. “You can put a liquid into the still that is so sour it is not palatable whatsoever, and by the time I am done with it, something that was murky and sour … comes out the other end … clearer than rainwater and slightly sweet.”
Tamar Distillery, named for Cain’s wife, releases a variety of brands. Mendocino Spirits releases Captain Fletcher’s Rye Malt Whiskey, Mendocino Spirits Straight Bourbon, and Mendocino Spirits Straight Bourbon. Its Low Gap Whiskeys include Rye Malt Whiskey (in five-year-old and eight-year-old), Bourbon, and Barrel Strength Corn Whiskey, while the Russel Henry Gins are Malaysian Lime Gin, Dark Gin, and Hawaiian Ginger. The distillery also produces Fluid Dynamics bottled cocktails.
Captain Fletcher’s Private Reserve 8 Years Old Rye Malt Whiskey is distilled from 100 per cent malted rye and aged in Limousin oak. This nuanced whisky carries a nose of nougat, caramel, and cedar. Soft and viscous on entry, it is rich with notes dried fruit, chocolate, and cloves, with a long, pleasant, warming finish. And it displays that most elusive and intangible note common to Cognacs and highly aged whiskies: rancio.
With limited production and limited distribution, Mendocino Spirits flies under the radar. Bottles are available on its website (mendocinospirits.com) and at the distillery by appointment. Upcoming releases for 2023 include a seven-year-old spirit whisky, and a bourbon with wheat and rye.