By Elizabeth Emmons
Charbay Distillery and Winery is a family-run business through and through, and the story behind how it ultimately became to be the “still on the hill” is an interesting one, deeply rooted in history. Charbay was founded in 1983 by Miles and Susan Karakasevic, but the family’s experience in boozy matters goes way back.
Miles is originally from Yugoslavia, and his family has an incredibly long history in the wine-making and distilling business, dating to the 1750s. Miles studied as an enologist (the science/biologist of wine and winemaking) and viticulturist (the study of grapes and their production for wine) in Europe and when he eventually came to America, after a stint in Canada, he worked as an enologist for many wineries until finally he decided he wanted to open his own. Miles and Susan started by making wines, and brandy at the first two of three distilleries in 1983 in Helena, California, where they all currently live and operate.
They raised both of their children in Helena, and their son, Marko, is now the 13th generation of Karakasevics to be in the business. After over 25 years of apprenticeship under Miles, Marko became a master distiller, and was named such by his father after he made and sold his first case of whiskey. Those whiskeys include hop-flavored varieties, such as the R5.
The R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey is one of the more unusual whiskies I have tasted. It has been double distilled over 10 days in a 1,000 gallon Alambic Charentais pot still, coming from Sonoma’s Bear Republic Brewery Racer 5 IPA beer. The beer started out as 7% abv, but after distillation became a 99 proof (49.5% abv) whiskey. It is then aged for 29 months in French oak casks (recall Charbay makes wine too). My tasting came from Lot #3.
The nose is very crisp and bright, smelling of Granny Smith apples and a hint of citrus. The taste follows through on the nose and is summery and light with undertones of kiwi, lemon zest and hard cider. There is a clean spicy herbal undertone that is reminiscent of Ricola. The hop flavour comes out distinctly and tastes like a stereotypical summer beer such as Blue Moon or Hoegaarden. The finish is a light spice on the lips, with the hop flavor becoming more and more apparent and tail end becoming drier and drier.
With a few drops of water, the nose is toned down and a lemony candy aspect becomes more apparent. The mouthfeel is oilier and smoother and the finish is shorter and less spicy. This whiskey with or without water is equally good, it is just different.
While I hate to peg whiskies to the seasons, this is a summer whiskey if there ever were one. The taste and lightness of it suits the warmer months perfectly, and it is easily interchangeable with a beer (never mind the upped alcohol content). I am impressed with the flavor of this whiskey, especially as it does not fall victim to the “flavored whiskey” category which tends to have whiskeys that are aggressively sweet and often cater to a, let’s say, different crowd of drinkers. This is definitely not what this whiskey is about. R5 is a great choice if you love beer want to try something different from a well-respected craft distiller.
A retailer sampling shows a range of $50 to $82 for a 750 ml bottle.