“Was anyone else distilling beer?”
Marko Karakasevic repeats my question, thinking about it, before responding.
“Commercially no. I’m sure somebody in Germany or Japan might have been doing it. But there were no other hop-flavored whiskeys out there. We were the first.”Being that craft whiskey really only started getting any sort of notoriety in America in the mid-aughts, it’s easy to think that big names like Stranahan’s (Denver, 2005), Tuthilltown (Gardiner, NY; 2005), and Balcones (Waco, TX; 2008) were the first on the scene. But a few distilleries were so far ahead of the game that it oddly has made them a bit undiscussed and underappreciated.
Charbay is arguably the first craft whiskey maker in America, and certainly the most unique, yet it remains largely unknown to mainstream bourbon drinkers. Still, a rabid cult following has developed around it over the last two decades and the California distillery’s earliest bottlings are becoming more and more revered — and coveted — as time goes by.
“The single most legendary American craft whiskey ever created,” claims David Othenin-Girard, the spirits buyer for K&L Wine Merchants in Los Angeles. “The quality of the spirit is paramount and we still don’t know exactly how Marko did it.”
His story starts with an immigrant, Milorad “Miles” Karakasevic, from Novi Sad, in what was then Yugoslavia, who bounced around North America starting in the 1960s, making wine in Michigan and Napa Valley, before landing in Ukiah, California, in Mendocino County, in the early-1980s. By 1983 he had opened his own winery, Domaine Karakash, and soon was producing Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and distilling cognac-style brandies. It was well-regarded in the area, but largely unknown nationally.
When Miles’ son Marko, who would be the family’s 13th generation distiller, officially joined what was now known as Charbay in 1995, he was itching to make his family’s first whiskey. But he didn’t want it to taste like what the heritage Kentucky and Tennessee brands were already producing — thinking their massive factory-produced spirits akin to the flavorless lagers coming from the big beer brands in St. Louis and Milwaukee.
“I took inspiration from all the local microbreweries that were in the midst of revolutionizing the once-bland beer industry,” he recalls. “You have to use beer to make whiskey, so why not use the most delicious beer possible for chrissakes?”
Karakasevic contract-brewed 20,000 gallons of bottle-ready pilsner at Benziger Family Winery’s microbrewery, Sonoma Mountain Brewing Co., then spent three-and-half weeks, twenty-four hours a day, double-distilling the beer on his copper alembic pot still. Being that it was already carbonated, it was a challenge to safely eliminate all the CO2. After he had made his cuts, he had 1,000 gallons that went into 22 new charred oak barrels. Not a fan of over-aged whiskey — “liquid lumber” he calls it — he aged it for just two years and bottled his two best-tasting barrels at a full-proof 64.7 percent ABV, for what he called Charbay Double Barrel Whiskey.
“I was quite happy with what occurred,” Karakasevic says, claiming the flavors of the pilsner were now ten times more concentrated, with aromas of pine and citrus (yet no lingering bitterness) coming from the beer’s Czech Saaz hops and a palate both bready and a bit spicy. “There was no other whiskey on the market tasting like that. Period.”
Though Karakasevic had inadvertently created a new style of whiskey — “hop flavored whiskey” according to TTB labeling standards — the 840 gold-painted bottles of $350 whiskey were a tough sell. As mentioned, craft whiskey wasn’t really yet a thing, and drinkers of the era were reticent enough to buy, say, $45 bottles of Blanton’s Bourbon back in 2001. This was an era when flavored vodka was still red hot and Karakasevic also had a good one — a meyer lemon number made from 100% fresh fruit. When he’d travel the country flogging his vodka, however, he’d also taste receptive audiences on his oddball whiskey. Eventually, he started reeling in some early adopters.
“I got turned on to Charbay by L.A. Whisk(e)y Society back when there was just one bottling of the whiskey, maybe two,” says Steve Ury, an attorney well-known for his whiskey blogging. Ury loved how Charbay had both a funkiness and maturity that made it taste like “liquid weed” and the esteemed private tasting group he was a part of worshipped Charbay so much they would eventually buy an entire half-barrel of 12-year-old distillate in 2011. While Othenin-Girard thought it a “work of mad genius” calling the whiskey “massive, over the top, intense, and awe inspiring.”
Yet, if it slowly was gaining a reputation amongst the whiskey cognoscenti in the Los Angeles area, it was not exactly flying off shelves.
“My whiskey sold slowly and that was fine,” Karakasevic recalls, noting how then, as now, Charbay is a family operation with no marketing or advertising budget. “We didn’t have much to sell. And we didn’t need to sell it to survive.”
When Sonoma Mountain Brewing went out of business almost immediately thereafter, Karakasevic next decided to distill his absolute favorite beer, Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, sourcing a 6,000-gallon, 16-wheel tanker truck full of it. The resultant Charbay R5, first released in 2010, would expand the brand’s cult reach with its mix of fruity, floral, dank, and spicy notes. He also eventually produced Whiskey S — distilled from Bear Republic’s Big Bear Stout and aged in used French oak barrels — while, every few years, releasing older and older bottlings of that original pilsner distillate — with a 13-and-a-half-year-old Release IV in 2013 and a 16-year-old Release V in the fall of 2016, selling the final 72 bottles remaining for $675.
“To me, it’s way more valuable than cult bourbon,” says Ury, who once claimed his Charbay was the one whiskey he would save if a natural disaster struck. “George T. Stagg, Weller and Pappy [Van Winkle] are great, but there’s tons of other bourbons that have similar flavor profiles. There is simply nothing like Charbay, especially those original pilsner bottles.”
In this wild era where bourbon obsessives will eagerly pay 600 bucks for one of 50,000 or so yearly bottles of the aforementioned Stagg, you would think the fact Charbay remains extremely limited and very expensive would be a positive. Those two attributes are typically catnip to American whiskey collectors, but maybe the atypical flavor profile continues to scare so many off. It shouldn’t.
“Marko not only created a completely idiosyncratic style, but also it’s wildly delicious, intense and bombastic,” believes Othenin-Girard, who tells me that new R5 releases “do pretty well” at K&L these days.
Some of the biggest fans of Charbay are the creative forces behind Wolves Whiskey, an ultra-hip, Hollywood-based label launched by fashion mavens Jon Buscemi and James Bond in 2019. Wanting to dip their toes into the whiskey industry, they could have done what everyone else does and sourced the same bourbon that is made in a big factory in Indiana called MGP. Being that Wolves Whiskey comes in lavish, Italian sheep-skin labeled bottles and is released online like sneaker drops, it would have made perfect sense to consider the liquid secondary. But, after being introduced to the “wacky shit” (Buscemi’s words) being distilled by Karakasevic, they knew they had no choice but to source some Charbay and let him blend it into what would become their initial release, called First Run.
“A lot of what MGP makes is excellent juice,” says Jeremy Joseph, the company CEO. “That said, there’s nothing like what Marko does.”
And maybe this flashy association with Wolves will be what finally nudges Charbay, and Karakasevic, into the whiskey mainstream. Lately, I’ve noticed older bottlings of Charbay steadily rising in value: if you can find it, Release I sells for around $5,000 these days and other coveted bottlings have begun appearing on online auction sites. Charbay has become the rare word-of-mouth sensation in the whiskey business whose desirability is driven, not by online hype, but because of pure flavor.
“So many craft distillers are trying to do something ‘different,’” says Othenin-Girard. “But they forget to make it delicious.”
Aaron Goldfarb is the author of Hacking Whiskey: Smoking, Blending, Fat Washing, and Other Whiskey Experiments.