By Jessica and Peter Silver, USA
On a recent trip to the Napa Valley, Jessica had asked a neighbor who works for Cliff Lede Winery to recommend some others. When Jessica mentioned that I had an interest in whisky, our friend booked us a tour and wine tasting at Domaine Charbay, which Jessica was planning to keep secret and spring on me as a surprise. She didn’t know that I had tried their first whisky, “Charbay Whisky Release I” back in 2006. Our neighbor noted that we would not be able to taste the spirits, per California law, but Jessica knew that for me as a whisky writer, things might change for us when we got there. Run by Miles Karaksevic, a 12th-generation distiller, and his son Marko, Domaine Charbay (“Charbay” = an amalgam of ‘Chardonnay’ and ‘brandy’, their initial offerings) has branched out into an artisanal enterprise that creates multiple handcrafted spirits, including vodkas, for which they are justly famous, rum and grappa, and will be releasing its first tequilas in the near future.
When we arrived at the top of the mountain for our tour, the first thing we saw was a small collection of pot stills outside the cottage that serves as workshop and sales center. Our guide, Marko’s wife Lara, told us they were alambic pot stills they had accumulated from all over, and that all Charbay spirits are distilled in an Alambic Charentais pot still, as opposed to the more common column still. The tasting room was a rustic space with exposed beams and wood shelves, displaying nearly all of the Charbay offerings, including a live Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar, a black walnut liqueur (more on that later) and nearly a dozen flavored vodkas. Conversation turned to the spirits, and before we knew it, I was being invited to try them. Jessica is a vodka maven, so she was in her element. It was a fortuitous turn of events for us both.
Lara poured me a sample of their newest whisky, the Charbay Whisky Release II. I had sampled it late in 2007, and was looking forward to trying it again, this time, at the source! The first thing I got on the nose was hops, which is not anything I have ever gotten from a whisky before, but in this case, makes perfect sense, since this is a most unusual whisky. This is distilled directly from pilsner beer with Nugget, Eroica and California hops additionally added right before distillation. After the hops, I noted leather, horses, log cabin, fireplace, cinnamon, honey and wood spice. I am sure it has nothing to do with it being ‘pot’ distilled, but to me, there was a clear scent of marijuana. The palate brought more honey, leather and cinnamon, dark chocolate and had coated the tongue with its mouthfeel. With water, grapefruit notes were evident as well. The finish was long and warming and felt deep in the chest, feeling more like a 15-20 y.o. whisky than its actual age of about 9 years old. All of the flavors were well integrated and balanced. The Charbay Whisky retails for $325 a bottle. Miles’ goal was to make something different from any other whisky in the world, and he and Marko have. This unique whisky is not for everyone, but for those who are looking for a new point of view, made by true artisans, it is a wonderful experience.
Miles and Marko use only American corn and rye for their clear vodka, which they distill to 192 proof for purity. They don’t use any filtering agents, but the vodka has a smooth, sweet character with rich body and a full mouthfeel, a clean, grainy finish, and no harsh alcohol smell. Their flavored vodkas are more than mere infusions. The 100% organic fruits themselves are crushed whole, and the flavors extracted in a method they keep highly secret. No trip to a NJ flavor factory for Master Miles, this. We tried several of the vodkas, each with its own personality.
The nose of the Ruby Red Grapefruit vodka was exactly like fully-ripened, juicy red grapefruits. It smelled just like my fingers do after I peel a grapefruit. Flesh, pith, rind and all, it was everything you expect from a grapefruit. Upon tasting, you can almost taste the individual nodules of the grapefruit flesh—it is that nuanced and perfectly balanced. Refreshingly bitter, slightly sweet, sour and earthy, it encompasses all that grapefruit should be.
The Red Raspberry vodka nose has ripe berries, black earth, summer sunshine and is totally evocative of youth, but less raspberry than I expected. The taste is the absolute essence of raspberry flavor profile but without the cloying sweetness you sometimes find in raspberry flavored things. It had a ripeness and warmth about it that made it truly unique. A small amount of water brought more berry to the fore. I would not use this in a complicated cocktail, but alone, to let the berry voice shine.
Miles is a fan of pomegranate, and also makes a pomegranate liqueur. The Pomegranate vodka had a grainy, sweet, ‘red’ nose, with the pure pomegranate really making itself heard. The taste has a wonderful balance that the Karaksevics have mastered so well, just perfectly mixing the sharpness of the alcohol with the sweet tartness of the pomegranate, and a finish of slightly wet grass on a hot day. The Blood Orange vodka had the most complex nose of those that we tried. Sunlight, warmth, roast pork, ginger, orange blossom honey, freshness, an energetic sweetness like chocolate covered orange peel , and perhaps a hint of soy sauce. The tasting presented all of those qualities, with a candy-cocoa burnt sugar taste punctuated by a sharp, pithy bite at the end to balance the sweetness. The texture is thick and the overall result is a perfect, incredibly complex drink that would be a welcome addition to anyone’s spirit collection. We could not get enough of it.
The Green Tea vodka is, to my mind, and Jessica’s, one of the best vodka expressions we have ever had. The nose is a clean, grassy, herbal /floral scent, with hints of jasmine and sage. The taste of the vodka is straightforward: delicate green tea, nuanced, clean, earthy, and ethereal, with the essence of the Japanese “cha” that is so prized. It is simply a masterpiece of construction and skill. There is no cloudiness, nothing murky, just simply pure green tea with a hint of smokiness from the tea itself. Miles and Marko use four green tea varietals to strike this perfect chord and the care and effort is present in every aspect of this masterpiece. It finished clean and strong, with no alcoholic burn at all. We would rate it 100 if we were there to rate them.
All Charbay vodkas are affordable and well worth trying. Most retail for around $32 a bottle. Without question, Jessica and I feel everyone should try to find the Green Tea and Blood Orange vodkas and add them to your cocktail repertoire. On their website, www.charbay.com, you can order them directly or find out where they are available near you as well.
We also had an opportunity to taste some other spirits. We tried the vanilla rum (delicious, with the balance between heat, sweet and fire that the family has perfected and that I was beginning to expect from all their expressions); a green tea liqueur aperitif that was pure poetry (Chinese vegetables, lemon, honey, ginger—would be perfect and refreshing over ice with some club soda); the live Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar that simply sang of wine—oaky grapiness with a hint of syrupy sweetness akin to a balsamic (Jessica bought some of that to bring home); and another masterpiece, the Black Walnut Liqueur. This is just the essence of a black walnut in liquid form—dark, earthy, meaty, sweet, slightly bitter. At over $80 retail, it is not cheap, but would be a wonderful gift or a wise investment for anyone who loves unusual spirits. We loved it.
In such a stunning setting, with our terrific guide Lara, we had such a wonderful time being walked through all the spirits that we never got around to tasting any of the Domaine Charbay wines! Oh well. Now we have an excuse to return. Not that we needed one!