Sunday, October 7, 2012

Charbay S & R5: Younger Affordable Hops Freak

Charbay "S" gleams.
Whisky distilled from fully hopped finished beer. It's an oddly compelling idea. The luxury polish of a finely crafted beer as the starting point of a distillate is incredibly indulgent - well nigh hedonistic. But does the hops play nice? It does, according to such rave reviews as Stffen Bräuner (@Macdeffe)'s review of the hyper-rare 40 bottle issue of Charbay LAWS Edition 1 69.1% abv:

"A fantastic whisky. It's spectacular complex with unusual flavours, layered on a background of a solid whiskey in itself.
Rating 91
I really like this dram. IPA is also my favourite beer style. Who thought this could be part of a whiskey in a succesful way ?"

Charbay is primarily known as a winery and a distillery of flavored vodkas, fruit spirits, and a bevy of other boozy contrivances of effusive creativity. The whisky making operation where Marko Karakasevic produces whiskey from finished beer is up in Ukiah - hours to the North of the St. Helena Napa Valley location of the rest of Charbay. It's like a distant satellite - way out in left field. The early editions of Charbay's beer whisky were all rare, quite mature, and notoriously expensive (they all seemed to be in the $350 range). Recently, however, there have been a couple of editions that are much younger and much lower priced. These are the "R5" and "S" editions. "R5" stands for "Racer 5 IPA" from Bear Republic and "S" stands for Big Black Bear Stout from Bear Republic Brewing Co. They are each aged for less than two years and run in the $65-$80 price range for 750 ml. and are each bottled at 49.5% abv. (99 proof).

There has been some controversy to go with the love. For example on Sku' Recent Eats post titled: "The Three Most Underrated Distilleries" Steve Urey (Sku) raved about Charbay:

"Charbay. Despite the booming craft distillery movement in the US (my complete distillery list is still regularly updated), the American microdistillery movement has yet to produce a recognized stand-out. Charbay is sort of an oddball even among the innovative craft distillers. Marko Karakasevic produces whiskey from finished beer, which includes hops, and releases it in small quantities. Many whiskey fans may get turned off by the high prices that Charbay whiskeys go for, but there is simply nothing else like those hoppy whiskeys, and while I might grumble about the $350 price tag, Charbay makes truly unique American whiskey."

Tim Read presented a dissenting opinion in the comments sections - particularly in reference to these current lower priced releases (R5 & S):

"Charbay: While I certainly love the original batch of the hop flavored whiskey in its three different releases, the "S" release is not good (and based on what I've seen, there's little hope that R5 is much different - very young with minimal wood influence)... and then you've got Doubled & Twisted white whiskeys. I think the original $300 releases have set a tone that the rest of the output has not necessarily been on par with.

I'd say they're more unknown than underrated. S will be in the range of a lot of people who will try it and shake their heads at the people (like me) who raved about the other releases."

I hadn't tried the monster Charbay I & II releases (the $350 ones that were blowing people away) let alone the monster LAWS limited release. R5 and S were to my first experience with Charbay. They were not, however, my first experience with whisky made from fully finished hopped beer aged for less than 2 years, however. In Europe where whisky must be made from 100% grain and aged for 3 years in order to legally be called whisky, spirits made from finished beer cannot be whisky at all because of the hops content. Instead they are "Bierbrand" or "Eau de vie de bièr". These tend to be sold as white dog, but some are barrel aged for a year or two. I had been given a sample of a notable example: Adnam's Spirit of Broadside by Billy Abbott of London's remarkable The Whisky Exchange. Adnam's Spirit of Broadside is an amber colored richly flavored whisky (yes, I know it's not legally so in its host country - but whisky it truly is). Nutty, richly hopped, full of rich malt flavors. I was ready to go with Charbay.

Cole Emde of Drink IPA

However, I'm not very up on my beer. I used to be a major Stout and Porter enthusiast decades ago. But this India Pale Ale (IPA) thing is relatively new and I don't know my way around it particularly well, so I enlisted the help of an IPA specialist: IPA blogger Cole Emde (@idrinkipa) creator of the "Drink IPA" blog. If you drink IPA you should check it out. Cole has reviewed, oh about 85 or 90 IPAs. His reviews are concise but dense and to the point. I had attended an event where Cole had presented a lecture and a master tasting culminating in his own home brews. I could tell he would be able to orient me on the flavor signature of Racer5 IPA for a head to head tasting of Charbay R5 and Racer5 IPA. I wanted an IPA specialist for more than just expertise about beer, however. IPA freaks are hop heads. Hops, with its skunky pine aromatic fruity bitter power motivates people like the aromas and flavors of peat do for peat heads in the whisky world. Recognition of what drives hops mania is the key to understanding Charbay whisky.

Charbay R5 and Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA

Racer 5 IPA

The whisky from a pour generously provided by a bartender at Ward III in Tribeca. Tasted with Bear Republic Racer 5 sourced from World of Beer NYC @38 &1st

Racer 5 west coast IPA was freshness dated 6/20/12 and tasted on 9/26/12 - a week under 3 months. That's not peak freshness, but the IPA certainly didn't taste stale.

The IPA is gold (pale) with orange amber tints. The whisky is rich gold with amber glints.

Nose: The IPA is richly redolent of stone fruits (nectarine, peach, and apricot) with a malty sweetness. The whisky is missing the lighter fruitier volatiles and comes of as a polished rounded, less exciting, version of the same aromas.

On the palate the IPA displays an almost gewertzramer lychee fruit wineyness. Rich herbal hops bitterness blooms at the mid and builds in bite at the finish. On the whole, however, the IPA's palate is not as richly flavored as the nose. The whisky is just the opposite.

Charbay R5 49.5% abv

Nose: Hops, warm malty sugars, stone fruit apricot peach, and chamois musk. It's a lovely nose, although outclassed in fruity freshness and effusion by the beer.

Charbay R5 explodes on the palate. Sweet and richly hopped there is a titanic burst of IPA style hops flavor on entry. Effervescent texture, thickness in the mouth feel. Sweetness of malt sugars. Complex with the interplay of bright fruit, skunky pine, and dense malt. Malt and the turn to bitterness dominate the mid-palate and the hops bitterness builds up over sips. R5 is utterly delicious and delivers a massive hops hit that should delight hops heads. There isn't much oak and the finish is a bit one note, but this skirts very close to 5 star territory for me.


For the record, Cole didn't like the whisky. His palate is accustomed to beer and the Charbay R5's intensity of flavor was too much for him. Let that be a lesson to you. This isn't a casual dram.

Does the "S" deliver the same level of satisfaction?

Charbay S 49.5% Lot S211A

Sourced from Caskers.
Color: light amber old gold with tan glints

Nose: Skunky notes of hops lead the way, muted and caramelized with Mailard toffee aromas, cantaloup melon, candied orange and musk. Big, broad, heavy, sweet & pungent.

Entry is surprisingly thin and lithe after the blunt sweet sap of the nose. It sings with a sweet honeydew melon flavor up front which morphs rapidly into a intense pure essence of honeyed herbal pungent hops. My palate can practically see the sap laden hairs on the guard leaves. Then darker malts take over and the hops turns to bitter wallop. Over repeated sips the dark heavy malt and bitterness come to dominate. It's a sweet powerful flavor - one that is very original and new. However, the darker balance here doesn't suit me. The R5 sings with brighter more fruity acid aromatic pine notes to counterbalance the heavier malt and dense bitters. The S's fruit is a heavy sweet overripe melon that melds to a heavy sweet malt and dark bitter bloom. Like the R5 it's too young to have tannins or oak perfume so there's nothing to lighten or divert. I find the S to have extraordinary flavors for a few sips. I don't find myself relishing the whole glass. Recommended for hops heads. But R5 is preferred here.


I'm well aware that S and R5 are under two years old and are "Eau de vie de bièr" and not true whiskies in the European sense, but both succeed, as does Adnams, by delivering the rich hops and malt flavors of top notch beer with the flavor intensity of a distilled beverage. I haven't tried the mature Charbays that move the experts to flights of rapture, but I suspect that they have the complexity of wood and some additional concentration of flavors going on. That shouldn't be considered a knock on these young Charbays but consumers need to understand that Charbay has mature expensive beer whisky and finely crafted younger "Eau de vie de bièr" and they are not necessarily the same thing. Don't let that stop you from enjoying these finely crafted Eau de vie de bièrs. If you are a hops head this might be all the way up your alley.


  1. Funny thing, I was at a store here in Portland yesterday that had one of those old Charbays at a close-out price of ~$200. Still pretty rich for my blood, but that's how it goes around here.

    1. i'm sure its LOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG gone, but pray tell where?

  2. I'm intensely curious about the mature Charbay I and II expressions but that kind of money is a major deal. This is part of why I might need to join (or start) a club.

  3. The only hopped whiskey I've had was one by Corsair. They called it a palate wrecker when they handed me the sample. They weren't kidding. Sadly, the next two samples I had tasted of hops. (finally killed it with a bunch of cheese from the buffet, hey, I'm from Wisconsin...) I'm curious if these had similar side effects?

    1. Amazing how many different flavor profiles they are creating over at Corsair. I haven't tried their Rasputin hopped whiskies (yet). I didn't try tasting samples after these Charbay hopped whiskies either - but they are powerful flavors and I'd wager one's palate would be ruined for a while - definitely.

  4. I recently opened my bottle of R5 and I have to disagree with the impressions in this article. The flavor is not intense. It's also not really that good. It tastes like somewhat hoppy, flat, high-alcohol beer.

    If the IPA-loving sidekick in this article found the R5's intensity of flavor to be too much for him, I suspect that this due to the alcohol, not the actual flavor. The R5's flavor is nowhere near as intense as a good IPA.

    I'm disappointed in mine. Quite.

    Note to all: My favorite beer would be an intense double IPA. And my favorite whisky would be CS Laphroaig or something along those lines. If those aren't up your alley, then don't put too much stock in my opinion. I'm probably looking for a different level of intensity than you are.

    - Ol' Jas