Many aged spirits with serious pedigrees pride themselves on tradition—you'll often hear statements like "this is this same bourbon my great-great-great-great-grandfather made, it was perfect then, and it's still perfect now." However, nestled in the pine trees above St. Helena, California, Charbay Winery & Distillery is incubating a very different approach to integrating generational experience and history with their spirits. Miles and Marko Karakasevic are 12th and 13th generation distillers, but their Hop Flavored Whiskey is anything but conventional.
Instead of the typical "low wash" beer (read: you wouldn't be thrilled quaffing a pint) that distillers brew expressly for their whiskies, this whiskey is distilled in a pot still from 20,000 gallons of high quality pilsner beer that received an extra dose of hops (Nugget, Cascade, and Eroica, in case you're wondering.) Part of a series that began in 1999, the initial release came after three years of aging in new oak. Bottled at cask strength, it allowed the public a taste of the early stages of the aging process. The current release, II, was aged another three years in the oak, and then rested for three years in stainless steel—it's now a fully matured whiskey hitting its stride.
A beautiful clear amber in the glass, you can see some golden glints of the pilsner shining through. The nose is crunchy with burnt caramel and toffee up front—the hops are there but hiding in the background. It's very direct, clean, and focused, like a Japanese-style whisky. On the palate, it starts out dangerously soft (this is a 110-proof whiskey!), with a crisp sweet malty flavor. Then come the hops in earnest, dominating with their hallmark burnt citrusy flavor, but there are also dark berries, tea, and an unmistakable marijuana note. The finish is long and luscious, the flavors fading evenly together, and you're left with a beery glow. It's an absolutely unique and engaging whiskey.
This special offering would be an investment for most of us at $325 a 750-mL bottle, but if you come across a dram at a bar I absolutely encourage you to indulge. Mixing is out of the question, but this would pair well with a dry-aged prime rib to make a feast fit for a king.
Disclosure: We received a small sample bottle from Charbay for review.