Monday, January 6, 2014
Hoppin' Good Whiskey: Charbay
A friend recently asked me if there was a fire or other natural disaster in my whiskey closet such that I could only rescue one whiskey, what would it be? Given that I live in an area prone to earthquakes, this is something I do occasionally ponder, and the answer is a a no-brainer: I would save my Charbay hopped whiskey. My interrogator was somewhat taken aback, but as I explained, it's a unique and wonderful whiskey. It would be a tragedy to lose my peated and sherried malts, my bold ryes and complex bourbons, but the truth is, somewhere out there, there is a replacement for each of those categories. They may not exactly be fungible, but I know where to find great peated malt or great bourbon (hopefully with the help of a hefty insurance check). But there is no substitute for Charbay. There's nothing else I've had that tastes like this stuff, and it tastes really, really good.
Charbay is a small distillery in Napa County, the heart of the California wine country. When I refer to Charbay Whiskey in this context, what I'm really referring to is their series of whiskeys distilled from pilsner. Back in 1999, distiller Marko Karakasevic distilled a batch of pilsner from the now defunct Sonoma Mountain Brewery, owned by the wine making Benzinger family. While all whiskey is made from beer, it's not generally beer you would want to drink. What Charbay did was use a finished beer, hops and all, as the basis for the whiskey. Some additional hops is added as well so technically, this is a flavored whiskey, but it's no Red Stag. The whiskey was aged in 22 new, charred Missouri White Oak barrels at a #3 char.
Charbay's first pilsner release was a cask strength bottling at two years old; they released two barrels which totaled 840 bottles. This was the one that created a cult following for Charbay with people hunting down the bottles anywhere they could find them, even with the $350 sticker price. The hops gave it a bold, funky, marijuana like flavor (hops and cannabis are related). And despite its youth, it had none of the new make or raw wood notes that are so often the hallmarks of young craft whiskeys.
After six years, Karakasevic transferred all but two barrels to stainless steel tanks. A second release of five barrels, Charbay II, came out of the tank in 2007. It had good flavor, but at 55%, the lower abv made it less bold than the first edition. Last fall, the distillery issued Charbay Release III, another ten barrels of the same six year old, which had now been in steel tanks for eight years. This one was released at cask strength and is reviewed below.
There is still some of that 1999 pilsner distillate aging away both in and out of wood. A 13 year old version, Charbay IV, is set for general release this year, and there is one more cask which will hit 15 this year. Karakasevic doesn't know if he'll release it or just drink it with friends. Let's hope he decides to share. Having tasted a 12 year old private bottling for the LA Whiskey Society which stands as one of my favorite whiskeys ever, I'm very excited about the possibility of more aged Charbay pilsners on the market.
The Charbay hopped whiskeys are eye-raisingly expensive. Releases I and II went for around $350. The new Release III hovers around $400, if you can find it. That this is hyper-expensive goes without saying, but I've yet to find something that can match it at any price.
The Bear Republic Whiskeys
In the last few years, Charbay has released a new series of hopped whiskeys made from beer distilled by Bear Republic Distillery in Sonoma County. These include Charbay R5, made from the popular Racer 5 IPA and Charbay S made from Big Bear Black Stout.
There have been three releases of the R5 from two runs, an unaged version, a 22 month old version distilled in 2010 (Lot 610) and a new, 30 month old expression distilled in 2011 (Lot 611). (Charbay Lot number indicate the month and year of distillation so 611 = June 2011).
All of the stout that has been released was distilled in 2011 (Lot 211) but there have been three releases. The first was a bottling for D&M in San Francisco at around 20 months (reviewed below), the second was a bottling for Astor Wines and Ward III in New York also at 20 months, and the third was a general release at 30 months.
Both the R5 and S whiskeys were aged in used French oak barrels that previously held Chardonnay. As with the pilsner releases, Karakasevic expects to release the Bear Republic whiskeys again at 6 and 12 years of age. Unlike the pilsners, the Bear Republic whiskeys have so far gone for under $100.
Today, I review the new pilsner release along with two of the more affordable Bear Republic whiskeys.
Charbay Whiskey Release III (pilsner) 66.2% abv ($400)
The nose has all of that hops and spice that I'm used to from these Charbay releases along with a perfume like quality. The palate is sweet and hoppy with a thick mouthfeel. You get the funky, hoppy character but with less of the marijuana note than I've tasted in some of the other releases. The finish is hoppy and spicy and lasts pretty much forever. This release is sweeter than any of the other Charbay pilsners I've had. It's great, funky stuff, and I like it better than the original Release II, possibly because it's at a higher strength, but I still think it's hard to beat the boldness of the very first release.
This is another really fantastic expression of the pilsner. Unfortunately, it's very expensive and a very limited release. I have yet to see it on the shelf.
Charbay R5, Lot 610A ($70)
The nose is huge and hoppy, though of a quite different character than the pilsner hops. There's almost a dry champagne note to it. The palate is sweet and spicy with more of those wine notes which remind me of a spicy white, like a Gewurztraminer. The hops comes out in finish where it mixes with honey and cinnamon.
R5 has a very different character from the pilsners. It's hoppy, but the hops is less bold, contributing more to a general spiciness. It's still got some of youthful, new make notes, but it's tasty just the same, and it does give a sense of the Charbay style.
Charbay S, Lot S211A (for D&M), 49.5% abv ($70)
This is the D&M bottling, so it's a bit younger than the general release of Charbay S. The nose is hoppy and very beer like, like nosing a stout with lots of rich malt character. The palate is lighter than I would have expected, with hops and spice. The spice on the stout is more akin to baking spices like clove and ginger, similar to some of the notes in a rye whiskey. Toward the end of the palate it has sweet vanilla notes which trail off in to the finish.
The R5 and S are quite similar with the stout being a bit sweeter and a bit more balanced overall. They both have some young whiskey notes and are clearly still developing; it will be interesting to see where they go with more aging.
Since Charbay's first release of hopped whiskey, a few other American distilleries have tried it as well. Just last month, Anchor released a distilled batch of their Christmas Ale, though it was unaged and not labeled as whiskey. I'd love to see more hopped whiskey on the market, but for now, I'll be clutching my Charbays when the big one hits.
Disclaimer: The Charbay III reviewed above was a sample from a bottle that Charbay sent to the LA Whiskey Society. The R5 and S were purchased at retail.