Charbay – The American Hop Whiskey

Perched nearly 2000 feet above Napa, a little distillery nicknamed “Still on the Hill” has been quietly making some of the best whiskey in America. Charbay is a name that doesn’t get tossed around a lot, unless you’re Californian and pay top dollar for quality drinks. It’s run by the Karakasevic family, which is on its eighth generation of distillers. Miles, the family patriarch, emigrated from Yugoslavia and founded his little family distillery, Charbay, forgoing the “Karakasevic” family name which rolls off the tongue like thistles and saltwater. The company makes vodka, wine, port, brandy, and quite frankly anything you wouldn’t admit to drinking at a checkpoint, but who cares… this isn’t That’s where Marko comes in. Miles’ son is a bit of an experimenter, and a good one at that. His Charbay Whiskey is arguably the best whiskey in America. Granted it’s quite different than bourbon and rye and is hard compare within those categories. Actually, it’s hard to categorize it anywhere because he did something unusual. He distilled beer. You just scoffed at my ignorance, didn’t you? No, Marko distilled BEER, not a wash similar to beer, but bottles of beer that he popped open and dumped into his still. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. They probably didn’t make him open thousands of bottles, but it was completed beer, hops and all. That’s why Charbay Whiskey is in a class of its own… a hop whiskey.

Among the very small whisk(e)y loving community in southern California, Charbay has a cult following, not because the drinkers or the product are weird (sorry, cultists), but because it’s what we refer to as ‘great s%#t’. Here’s the catch, Marko works his butt off to make it and he knows it’s good, so he charges premium prices. Charbay Whiskey can set you back over $300 if you’re lucky enough to find it. Reviews from those in the know range from solid to raving and even neighborhood local (American football) quarterback Joe Montana has dropped a significant amount of Super Bowl bucks on Marko’s creations (no word on whether he owns cask #16 or not.) Since part of my charter is to recommend where to spend your money, I’m ready to tell you. Here it is: Charbay Whiskey is great, but $300 is a lot of money. We’re talking fine scotch money here. If you’re just a whiskey dabbler and money is tight, pay your light bill. If you insist on trying new things and/or have money to spare, Charbay Whiskey should be at the top of the list because it’s unique and exceptional. They have another younger range called Doubled and Twisted, which per friends’ advice (I haven’t had it) is best enjoyed in a cocktail. I have reviewed the first Release, Charbay Whiskey I, as an A-. It’s mostly gone now but I’ve done a formal review of current release, Charbay Whiskey II at the end of this article. For those outside California, Charbay will find a way to sell you its wares if you contact them.

Marko Karakasevic was kind enough to offer an interview. He called late because he had to save someone caught in a deep ravine near the distillery. Marko believed the angels had already taken their fair share at Charbay.

Here a little cheat sheet:

• Charbay Whiskey I: Aged 2 yrs in New American Oak
• Charbay Whiskey II: Aged 6 yrs in New American Oak then aged 4 yrs. in stainless steel
• Charbay Whiskey III: Aged 12yrs in American Char 3 barrels
• Charbay R5 IPA Whiskey: 2yrs in Chardonnay French Oak
• Charbay Whisky Release S: Big Bear Stout Whisky Aged 2 yrs in French Oak
• R5 Light Whiskey: Aged in stainless steel
• Big Bear Stout Light Whiskey: Aged in stainless steel
• D&T Light Whiskey I: Aged 1 day in French Oak, then aged 2 yrs. in stainless steel
• D&T Light Whiskey II: Aged 4 yrs in French Oak, then aged 2 yrs. in stainless steel

The Interview with Marko Karakasevic, creator of Charbay Whiskey

Andy: So there was no Charbay Whisky… and then there was. How’d it come about?
Marko: I started to brew beer in high school. More and more, I made different beers with different grains, hops, and yeasts. I had yeasts from the winery to use and those made different beers for sure. Prior to brewing beer, I was learning to ferment wine with my dad. I soon learned that whiskey is a distilled beer… jump to 1999 and Dad and I took 20,000 gallons of Pilsner beer and double alembic distilled it. It took 3 ½ weeks 24/7 non-stop to make 20 barrels. All the hop flavors came over, but some were lost due to being lighter than alcohol and vaporized out with the CO2. We barreled in new American Oak because this stuff was so different than any other whiskey, so we wanted a bit of flavor profile that people could associate with. The guys at Bear Republic let me do whatever I want while they are brewing my loads. They’re the nicest guys and are wonderful to work with. I distilled Racer 5 (beer) last year and it is probably coming out early next year.

Andy: 24/7? Had to do that or you just wanted to get it done faster? I’m not a distiller myself so I have no idea.
Marko: Running 24/7 is how I was taught. Your beer or wine won’t oxidize on you, so you don’t have as many heads and tails (first and last of the liquids produced during distillation) to deal with. Plus, if it took 3.5 weeks of 24/7, that would have taken 1.5 months doing one run a day.

Andy: So you take pilsner and make Charbay I, which is possibly the best barley whiskey ever made on American soil. What are the specs and how did it sell?
Marko: It sold out! It was in the barrel for only 24 months, the very least it had to be in the barrel for. I found 2 barrels that I liked, pumped them into a tank, and bottled it un-cut, unfiltered, splinters and all. 129.4 proof. I am very excited about my whiskey program at Charbay. I’ll release some after 24 months, save some for a 110 proof 6 year soak, and then a couple of barrels at full strength after a 12 year soak. The next release, Charbay Whiskey III, will be a 17 case release. 138.2 proof. I’ll be waxing and labeling it next week.

Andy: Soak?
Marko: My slang for barrel aging.

Andy: It had to be aged 2 years to be called whiskey? (In California)
Marko: There are several regulations on each style or “class” of whiskey. Some have minimums, some have type of oak requirements (new or used and char #3). One of more stupid laws in US Whiskey is the one about Tennessee Whiskey: it must be at least 51% corn, charcoal filtered after distillation, aged in new char#3 barrels at least 2 years, then charcoal filtered one more time just to make sure there is no body left and the finish lasts about 0.6 sec.

Andy: Some would say the faster it goes away, the better.
Marko: I am happy that I can distill whatever and however I want. I’m not trying to take over the world, just trying to make the best product I can. My style of distillation is this: the nose will be very nice, the taste will explode with flavor, and the finish will be long and show even more flavors that were not in the front of the taste, be it rum, whiskey, tequila, or brandy. I distill them all and stay true to my style. I think it took about six years or so to sell out (Charbay I) at $350 a bottle. There was no real track record for a California Pilsner Whiskey.

Andy: Charbay I is mostly gone. Is Charbay II still available?
Marko: Charbay Whiskey II was barrel aged for 6 years, then cut to 110 proof and stored in a stainless steel tank for 4 years, then bottled two years ago. It was a five barrel release, about 1,500 bottles or so. I have 19 or 20 cases left in my distillery.

Andy: This is going to drive some people crazy in Scotland because it goes against scripture… your whiskey ages (changes) in stainless steel?
Marko: Oh yes, Scotch does too; everything does, tequila, rum, brandy, wine, beer, vodka.

Andy: Hmm, wine for sure but if scotch aged like wine everyone would be saving it. I think the Scots would say it’s negligible. You?
Marko: I do agree not as much as wine, but it ages in stainless steel, mellows out, and doesn’t get all oaky. I can’t stand over oaked anything. I want to taste what is in the barrel, not the barrel. I don’t buy a bottle of oak extract with hints of grain, smoke, and peat, but it seems that is what is happening these days. Please direct me to a whiskey that you can taste and have the flavors of the beer be the dominant flavors and the oak only accenting and complementing the flavor.

Andy: Okay, without a time machine a perfect check can’t be done. The best we can go with is Marko’s 4 year memory. How would you say Charbay II compared with the whisky prior to the 4 year steel aging?
Marko: After the 6 years of oak aging, I put it into the stainless. It had extracted a ton of oak (in my opinion) and then it was time to let it age and mesh all that oak to all the Pilsner flavors. Did it really require me to do it for 4 years? Not really, I wanted to pull it and not get any more oak. It definitely aged and mellowed out in the tank. When it was time to bottle, it was totally ready. The 12 year version has even more oak, but I think this whiskey has so much body that it can handle 12 years and not have the oak dominate. For me, I like the 18 to 24 month (barrel) soak.

Andy: But you said 2 years is minimum.
Marko: Well, Charbay Whiskey (non-light) is in the “hop flavored” category they created for us back in 1999. It has no age requirement.

Andy: Nice. What products are available now and what is on the horizon (whiskey)?
Marko: The next release of D&T Light Whiskey is from 2005, aged in French Oak for 4 years and then aged in stainless for 2 years, and I’m about to release it. Cask Spirits in SF bought the whole thing and it should be about $85 for a liter, 35 cases, 99 proof. Next is Charbay III, 17 cases, 138.2 proof, distilled in 1999 from Pilsner and pulled out of barrel this October and bottled. Also coming out is the Charbay R5 IPA French Oak Aged Whiskey distilled from Racer 5 IPA beer from the Bear Republic Brewery, aged for 24 months in two year old French Oak barrels that had Rombauer Chardonnay in them. The whiskey will be 99 proof. I also have Big Bear Stout called release “S” to release both in the 24 month French Oak aged. There will be Light Whiskey versions of both.

Andy: The last Doubled & Twisted was barely aged, right?
Marko: The first D&T was barreled in used oak for one day, and pumped out the next, to appease the TTB so I could call it Light Whiskey.

Andy: Are you US only?
Marko: Yep, and

Andy: no plans to share with Europe?
Marko: No connections and it’s a bitch to export. California will suck up a large majority of it, and Manhattan.

Andy: Let’s say a guy in Germany reads this and wants to buy Charbay. What are his best chances?
Marko: I think we can find a store that will ship to him. I know we have shipped to Norway via a shipping company here in the Napa Valley.

Andy: And now for the final question because I run a club and always get asked this type of thing: price?
Marko: the light whiskey and the 24 month olds will be about $55 and $85. Charbay III will be $350.

Andy: $350? A lot of people will be asking why.
Marko: I’ve lost at least 3% due to evaporation per year plus what has been sampled, so the price reflects the lost product, plus the cost of using bottle-ready beer, new barrels, and I actually want to make a profit selling this. I don’t get $350. I have to sell it dirt cheap to my distributor, he makes a $100 on it, then the store makes a $100 on it, plus the government gets about $4 per bottle before it goes out our door, and there is the (California) State Excise tax, and sales tax. I often wonder how much it costs to brew a gallon or 3.785 liters of distillers’ beer out of 2 row barley. I use bottle ready beer that I really like to drink.

Andy: But not peated, right?
Marko: Not peated. Hops? Oh hell yea!

Andy: Desert island, one SCOTCH bottle. What is it?
Marko: I’d be stoked to have a bottle on the island, but I’d probably end up cutting down a tree, boring it out, finding a bottom plate or stone, and a top plate or stone, and making a still to ferment wild fruit and make brandy.

Andy: Aw shucks, so your favorite scotch is a brandy? Fair enough, but don’t say that in Scotland!
Marko: Hey, don’t get me wrong man, if there is grain on the island, I’ll make whiskey. No fruit, root, leaf, or grain is safe around me!

Charbay Whiskey II – Andy Smith/known
• Nose: Fantastic! Red oak, mulling spice candle, nail polish, and new tennis ball can (Penn or Wilson, not sure.)
• Palate: Christmas tree sap, nail polish, isopropyl alcohol, grass, and hops. There’s a lot going on. The finish sort of leans toward the hops. FYI, I don’t like beer at all, and although the hoppy flavor brings beer to mind, it didn’t offend me in the least. Very enjoyable.

{see the scale}
Charbay Whiskey III

This isn’t out yet, but I’ve had an informal preview of what it is likely to be. It surpasses Charbay II in my opinion. Look for it in the coming months.