All whiskey is essentially distilled beer, but you wouldn't want to drink the majority of brews that end up in your whiskey bottle. The new Charbay R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey is a bit of a different beast—the whiskey is distilled from Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA.
Charbay has selected a very hop-forward IPA for a whiskey profile unlike any other. The Racer 5 IPA gets double distilled in copper pot stills—it takes about 10 gallons of handcrafted suds to produce a gallon of finished whiskey. The aged version then mellows in French oak casks for 22 months, which the clear is bottled straight from the tap. (Yes, those pricey ingredients make for a pricey final product: the aged goes for $75 and clear sells for $54.) When faced with such a concoction, the only natural approach is to try it side by side with the brew from whence it came—which is exactly what we did.
Racer 5 IPA is wonderful stuff. It's an aggressive brew, with hops up front, hops in the middle, and hops on the back end, and loads of citrus aroma. The taste is bitter hops balanced by a bistcuity maltiness, while the alcohol is well contained—be careful, you might get a little drunker than you'd expect drinking this beer. It's balanced enough that you can actually drink more than one, which is a rarity among hop-bombs.
Charbay R5 Clear Hop-Flavored Whiskey
The unaged expression of this whiskey is bottled at 99 proof. The aroma reminded us of the scent of few sips of beer left in the bottom of a glass that sat out overnight. This whiskey smells of citrus and resiny tropical fruit, hinting at a faint malty sweetness. On tasting, it's incredibly sweet and smooth for a white dog, with a creamy mouthfeel and loads of hoppy tang that wrestle with the fruit for dominance. It's remarkably complex and tasty stuff.
Charbay R5 Aged Hop-Flavored Whiskey
Also bottled at 99 proof, the time spent in oak brings this whiskey a light golden color. The aroma brings the addition of chocolate to the party, with just a hint of oak. The body is more substantial, but the flavor profile is extremely similar to the unaged version, though it adds more chocolate and a finish that is much more dry. The oak adds balance here, but these two whiskeys aren't as different from each other as you might expect.
Overall, these are tasty whiskeys that push the envelope of what distilling can accomplish, perhaps venturing into a new category of spirits. It poses the question: why stop here? Hint: Charbay didn't. Word is they'll be trying out this treatment on a stout whiskey very soon.
This is an incredibly unique style of whiskey—the only thing I can really compare it to is a previous hop-whiskey from Charbay and a more gimmicky Hopquila from New Holland (it's much, much better than the Hopquila, and the price point is more accessible than Charbay's previous attempt). Obviously the price is indicative of the handcrafted, high-quality distilling, but it's also expensive to buy 6,000 gallons of sale-ready beer and distill it down to 590 gallons. However, for most traditional whiskey fans, I do think that it's more of a curiosity than a slam dunk as a spirit.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.
Whiskey samples provided for review consideration.