Step number one in creating a whisk(e)y—whether you're in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Kentucky or even California—is to make beer. The distilling, aging and blending techniques that happen further along may be promoted over that phase by some makers, but the fact remains it is common to all.
And Marko Karakasevic, a master distiller at Charbay Winery & Distillery, has chosen to feature the primary techniques in his fall line up.
The Ukiah, California-based distiller calls out the brewing background in each of three whiskeys labeled as "hop flavored." The collection includes spirits made from a pilsner, an India pale ale and a stout. Each prominently features the flavor of hops.
Charbay is among this country's oldest small distilleries, having been established in 1983, when the 12th generation distiller Miles Karakasevic continued a family tradition that stretches back to the 18th century on the Balkan peninsula. Charbay's first spirits were brandies. Now the Karakasevic family makes vodkas, rum, Tequila, Port-style wine, liqueurs, aperitifs and grappa, as well as whiskey and brandy.
The younger Karakasevic chose a favorite stout from Bear Republic Brewery, in northern California, for its complexity to make the Charbary S Whiskey. (Five malts and many hops go into the brew.)
His pick for a whiskey, dubbed R5, was Racer 5 IPA (hence the name), made by the same brewery. He lauds its "upfront and aromatic" hoppy flavors. Both whiskeys were twice distilled in alembic stills in 2011 and aged in aged in French oak.
The Whiskey Release III was made from a pilsner and is the third part of a continuing release from a batch of 22 barrels distilled in 1999. The 10 barrels for this release were aged for six years in American new white oak, charred to #3 gator skin, and then transferred to neutral cooperage for eight years. It was bottled at barrel proof.
(Cigar pairings on last page)
Charbay S Hop Flavored Whiskey Lot: S 211A (99 proof, or 49.5 percent alcohol by volume; aged 29 months; $140 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep straw color. Very slow, medium-width legs.
NOSE: Fruity and herbal aromas, with the distinct sense of standing in a grain field in late August.
PALATE: Hard candy, lemons and honey burst onto the palate and are followed by the advertised hoppy flavor. A definite taste of the stout comes through. Develops an orange-peel note.
FINISH: Very deep, luxuriant finish in contrast to the fresh flavors that inform the beginning of the experience. Dried fruit and apple meet chocolate
Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey Lot: R 5 511 A (99 proof, or 49.5 percent alcohol by volume; aged 29 months; $79 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Strong yellow color with quick, fat legs.
NOSE: Rich, fruity nose, with pears and tropical fruit, followed by herbs.
PALATE: Tropical fruit proceeds straight to the tongue with mango and passion fruit. Then the beery flavors appear with a rounding malt flavor.
FINISH: A zesty finish—something like pine needles or eucalyptus—layers in with the insistent fruit quality of this whisky.
Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey Release III Barrels 8-15, 17 & 18 (132.4 proof, or 66.2 alcohol by volume; aged six years in oak; $410 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Lush cherry-wood color with tiny legs that seem like they'll never come down.
NOSE: Its huge nose ricochets between voluptuous vanilla/toffee/caramel notes and tropical fruit, pears, cherry and orange.
PALATE: The whiskey explodes into the mouth with a candied sweetness—cocoa, wild cherry, oranges, maple sugar—tempered (or is it accentuated?) by Bourbon-like flavors of vanilla, caramel, nougat and walnuts.
FINISH: If you lay back and let it wash all over you like waves rolling on the shore, its rainbow of flavors all come rushing back on the finish. It's an insistent sleigh ride of a whiskey. And to think it was born of pilsner.
CIGAR PAIRING: Montecristo 75th Aniversario Churchill (Dominican Republic, 7 inches by 54 ring gauge; $18.50; 90 points, Cigar Aficionado, August 2011) Dark and oily with some veins to the wrapper, this sweet, toasty cigar is balanced by some spicy overtones and a dark-roasted coffee finish. With the "S" whiskey, the toast on the cigar immediately turn to rich nuts, while the spice character developed some charming nuances. The whiskey's fruit became rounder out with some savory/meaty character.
Paired against the R5 whiskey, the Montecristo was a tad overwhelming for the subtly of the spirit. While not damaging it, the cigar muted some of the whiskey's more understated fruit notes. On the other hand, the coffee flavors of the cigar became more pronounced.
The marriage with the Release III was a match made in heaven. Both components followed each other step for step in a sexy tango of mutual enticement. The cigar was supremely endowed by the Charbay with a sweetness that enhanced its other attributes. The finish on whiskey seemed to lengthen and suggest another puff to keep the seduction going longer and longer. The cigar took on an exquisite leather quality, not before apparent.