E-pistle 2008/04 – Xenomaltology; Charbay (California, USA)

By Lex Kraaijeveld, UK

When it comes to alcoholic drinks, California’s Napa Valley is best known for its wines. Not the first place in the world that comes to mind when you’re looking for a whiskey distillery, but there is one! Charbay distillery is situated in St Helena, Medocino County, two hours north of San Francisco. For more than 20 years they have been distilling a range of spirits (from flavoured vodkas to rum, apple brandy, pastis and grappa) and in 1999 they turned their attention to single malt whiskey.

Charbay uses a 25 gallon Charentais still, a still type that is normally used for distilling cognac, and which you would expect to find especially in France. Use of a Charentais still makes Charbay one of only two distilleries in the world using this type of still for malt whisk(e)y (the other one is located in Australia, and we’ll visit them in a future issue of Xenomaltology).

Charbay distillery is very much a family business. Responsible for the spirits themselves is a father-and-son distilling team: Miles and Marko Karakasevic. Mother-and-daughter team Susan and Lara are involved in the sales and marketing side of the business.

The barley used for Charbay’s single malt is two-row European barley, grown and malted across the border in British Columbia. The spirit is distilled twice, but before distillation takes place, freshly-dried hop flowers are added to the wash. This makes Charbay a truly unique single malt whiskey. Maturation then takes place in newly charred American white oak barrels.

The first Charbay bottling, ‘Double Barrel Release One’, consists of only 840 bottles (from two barrels produced, hence the ‘Double Barrel’). It is a 4 y.o., bottled at cask strength of 64.7% and without chill-filtration. The high price of $325 for a bottle won’t make this single malt easily available to every whisky enthusiast. Still, if you have a chance to taste this whiskey, grab that opportunity, because Charbay’s single malt is a whiskey that refuses to let itself be pushed in one of the usual categories. It has notes of raisins, chocolate, cream, vanilla, biscuits and macaroons. A blackcurrant-fruitiness combines with a hint of pickled gherkins (?). The mouthfeel is luscious and velvety and the finish is quite dry. There is a clear bourbon dimension due to the use of newly-charred barrels, but this is by no means a bourbon. It’s a pretty complex whiskey, which straddles the established categories of the world’s whiskies. ‘Double Barrel Release One’ is now sold out, but ‘Release Two’, taken from five barrels and bottled at 55%, is expected to be released in Spring 2008. Don’t  miss it …..