Saturday, February 12, 2011

Charbay Winery and Distillery

In January 2010 I had the pleasure to taste Charbay-II (thanks Adam) and I got aware of a winery on the hills between Sonoma and Napa Valley in the wine country just north of San Francisco, California.

Charbay is NOT on the main road

After a somewhat longish ride on small hilly roads, in dense forest, I finally found Charbay. It quickly realisedt that Charbay had it's distilling facilities in Ukiah, a bit north of the winery, but the old stills were displayed outside

A still, a boiler and a condenser

The stills will look familiar to those who are acquainted with Cognac. Alembic style!. Now, for a person who has seen quite a lot of scottish distilleries, the unusual about Charbay is not how the whisky is distilled, or the look of the stills. To see traditional potstills outside Scotland is actual a somewhat rare sight, but this is still quite similar to setups seen Scotland, which is the motherland of whisky, if not yours, it's mine. This doesn't mean good whisk(e)y can't be produced outside Scotland or on different still designs and setups.

Charbay is a good example. I had the honour of meeting Charbay's Marko Karakasevic. Charbay was founded by his father, who began distilling in California in 1983 and is 12th generation from a family of European distillers. Marko is 13th generation. Having a winery, and a distillery making wine and fruit based spirits, Marko turned to whiskey, as he was also a fan of the great new wave of american microbrew. He thought..why not turn these great ale and beers into whisky. Now this is quite unusual. The beer used is bottle-ready beer from a Northern Californian microbrewery. Marko uses several kind of beers and ales. Pilsner, IPA's and Stouts.

The Charbay I tasted in 2010 was release II

Charbay II at Ardbeggeddon 11

Charbay II is made from a pilsner, matured for approx. 6 years in casks, then 3 additional years in stainless steel tanks. Now I don't have any particular tasting notes for this whiskey, I tried it during a social event, amongst a "few" other drams, so my approach was not being scientific :-)

I remember liking it though, liking it so much I spend a few hours searching out this winery !

Aging a whiskey on stainless steel tanks is also unusual. Well maybe aging isn't the correct term to use, but I could have said marrying or mellowing. 

If you think nothing happens outside a barrel go google Old Bottle Effect or those Eau-de-vie's (or was it grappas?) that has been "matured" in glass (or was it also stainless steel). Anyway.

Marko want's the character of the beer/ale used to be a dominating factor of the final whiskey or spirit. He uses french oak that has previous held Chardonnay. He wants the oak to mellow and age the spirit, but not influence it to a greater extend, like bourbons.

It's hard to find Charbay II outside californian specialist shops. 

Marko and a wee still used to make brandy for fortified wines

I also had the honour of trying a wee sample of a couple of Marko's next projects. An IPA based whiskey, still maturing. This was a just one year old. The initial nose had the expected "youthness" to some degree, but the palate really surprised. What a pleasant explosion of flavours. Using the most expensive wash in the industry pays off it seems. I quickly noted down liquorice, tea, wood and roasted barley as the dominant tasting notes. I remember Marko looking at me like I was a bit weird when I mentioned tea, but I can calm him with the fact that it's not the first time I had that look :-), I often find things others wonder where the *censored* I got that from

A selection of Charbay's products

Visiting Charbay and talking to Marko was a very exciting experience. Marko has decided to do things his own way, and very different than others. So far his whiskey's has been produced only in very very small quantities. It is high quality, well matured whiskey. There's a lot of American microdistilleries coming up these years. I've tasted quite a lot of products I felt weren't really bottle ready, together with Anchor's Old Potrero Hotalings Whiskey 14yo, Charbay are the only superb products I have tried. The rest I would rate promising, but I have far from tasted everything :-)

Oh, afterwards I drived around Napa Valley. I tried a few wines I liked, something that usually happens once in 5 years. I should have brought a designated driver...

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