Charbay Release V and some thoughts on innovation

Words by WhiskyPilgrim 

‘Innovation’. It’s one of those words that triggers a raise of the eyebrows and curl of the lip from even the least cynical of long-in-the-tooth whisk(e)y drinkers. Possibly behind only ‘craft’ in the category of ‘press release buzzwords one can take with a large pinch of sodium chloride’.

I am definitively not amongst the least cynical of sippers. My office maintains a ‘cynicism jar’ (an old Bruichladdich tin, as it happens) and I sometimes feel life would be simpler were they to cut out the middle man and pay my salary directly into it. I also have a tendency to focus on the more affordable and readily available end of the aqua vitae spectrum when it comes to my scribblings. So today represents an adjustment to normality, as I’ll be taking a look at an innovative whiskey from a ‘craft distillery’, costing a cool $675 a bottle and of which only 72 bottles have ever been – and will ever be – released. Charbay Release V.

Just over 16 years ago, in California’s Napa Valley, Miles and Marko Karakasevic decided to distil 20,000 gallons of bottle-ready Pilsner, as opposed to the hop-free wash more traditionally converted into whisky. This spirit was poured into new American White Oak casks, and left to mature; released at separate intervals as the years ticked by and the angels became ever more greedy. This release, the fifth, is the last barrel of that spirit. Sixteen years old and an eye-watering 141.2 proof (70.6%ABV in real money).

As with all things rare and interesting, demand was high. Immensely so, despite the price tag. Our ‘in’ was a picture of bottles of Release III that one of the BBS Founding Fathers had posted on social media. This had led to contact from the chaps at Charbay, and a place on the waiting list. Some time later they got back in touch: did @london_liquor fancy one? Obviously the answer was ‘absolutely,’ but $675 is a hefty whack of cash. Not to mention the costs involved in having it shipped over to the right side of the Atlantic.

I can boast very few good ideas in my relatively short existence, so I’m going to stick my hand up and claim credit for this one. I suggested to @london_liquor that amidst the ranks of the BBS there would be a good number of people who would happily attend an event to sample this most Unicorny of Unicorns. I could certainly think of one member who would be champing at the bit. Needless to say, once the group had been offered the opportunity, places were bagged in no time. A date was set for the group tasting, with a Skype link to Marko arranged so that he could talk us through the whiskey. It was going to be amazing.

I couldn’t make it.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. I could have made it, but in a fit of ill-advised familial altruism I had decided to also nab a place at the tasting for my cousin. Since he couldn’t make it, our samples were put somewhere suitable until such time as we could taste them together. After an agonising two months, my chance finally came last Friday evening. Journey was made, bottles were opened, samples were poured, whiskey was tasted.

But let’s back up a bit and consider those irritating words from the first paragraph.

‘Craft’, we can dispense with straight away. It has become simply a euphemism for ‘small’, which is patently nonsense. The Master Distillers at the likes of Four Roses and Buffalo Trace – or Glenfiddich and Laphroaig if you want to talk Scotch – are every bit as committed, dedicated and skilled as their contemporaries at institutions of a lesser scale. In many cases more so, in fact. If I were to start distilling in my garden shed it would be obscene to suggest that my product was automatically superior purely because of scale. Which is the obvious inference that marketeers pressing the ‘craft’ button are expecting you to draw. If you see the word ‘craft’ on a whisk(e)y bottle, read nothing into it. That’s the bottom line. On to the next one.

Which is ‘innovation,’ and here things become tricky, because many distilleries and the people working at them are doing genuinely innovative things. Charbay’s website insists they were the first to distil Pilsner, and I can’t find anything to suggest that they weren’t. Then there’s Westland, playing with five different malts, and their local Garryana Oak, or Waterford in Ireland, with their ‘cathedral’ of barley. Eden Mill are one of the more innovative start-ups in Scotland (and manage to be that without any of Brewdog’s ham-fisted song and dance) – in short, across the world, distilleries are pushing boundaries, trying new things, and creating new flavours. Sometimes those flavours don’t work, and that’s fine – it’s all about experimentation, and in any case, taste is subjective.

But it seems these days that ‘innovation’ has a pretty broad definition. What’s more, ‘innovation’ is occasionally used as the stick with which to bludgeon the unwary consumer. “Want to try the whisky we finished for two weeks in an ‘innovative’ new sort of barrel? That’ll be double the price it’d be if we hadn’t.” “We’ve used an innovative new way of rolling the casks to the bottling hall. One fortune please.” “Our...um...bottle is...er...innovatively blue now. How about it?”

It’s also worth noting that whilst the new innovations/bottle colours are the glitzy shop window products; dazzling on press releases and receiving gushing apotheosis on social media, they’re not what the whisky market is built on. We over-enthusiasts, we chasers of the rare and the interesting, are so tiny a percentage of the customer base as to be almost utterly insignificant. The really great distilleries are those who can make a good entry level product at a genuinely accessible price. Buffalo Trace has not been built on the Antique Collection – I guarantee you that ninety nine whisk(e)y customers out of a hundred have never heard of George T. Stagg in their lives. They would also offer nothing but blank looks were you to casually name drop Pappy Van Winkle. (Even more so if you said ‘PVW’, but I’ll save the acronym rant for another day...)

Charbay are unquestionably a ‘craft distillery’, in the proper sense of the term. They are also incontrovertibly innovative – no problems there. They have made a fascinating – and, incidentally, delicious – product, and they have done it in the best traditions of quality whiskey experimentation. They’ve created something new; something definitively unique, and no corners have been cut doing so. They haven’t just come up with an easy excuse to shoehorn buzzwords into a description.

What’s more, I don’t suspect that the words ‘craft’ or ‘innovative’ will be going anywhere fast. They’re marketing gold, and the companies behind the copywriters certainly aren’t going to change a winning formula because some cocky little know-it-all has bleated on a blog. In honesty, they wouldn’t change things even if the likes of Fred Minnick wrote a book on the subject. After all, they’re crafty folk, and you can’t be crafty without ‘craft’. No, what this is intended to be is a piece of gentle advice to the whisk(e)y enthusiast. (Which, if you’re reading this, you probably are.) Question ‘craft’. Question ‘innovation’. And if it doesn’t stand up to the price tag, then take your money elsewhere. But that’s just my two cents.

Back to the Charbay, and the million dollar question: how did it taste? In short, excellent. 

Charbay Release V. 70.6%ABV

Marko’s description of peachy stone fruit certainly stood up, but what really shouted from the glass were those hops. Definitely on the drier end of the New American Oak spectrum, and with plenty of ‘high notes’ despite the age. Quite possibly that was the hops at work, and the herbal edge provided a fascinating contrast with the old oak furniture base that the wood brought in.

The booze was prominent – no amount of flavour or body can shut out 70.6%ABV, after all, and after a few sips neat I did add a splash of water, which I reckon brought it closer to 55%. I usually find that adding water doesn’t so much change the flavours of high strength whisk(e)y as unclench them, and allow them to fully express themselves – that was certainly the case here. Plenty of liveliness, vibrancy and spice, and still those hops buzzed about amongst the deeper suggestion of dried apricots and spiced peaches. The tannins weren’t too aggressive either – certainly hadn’t passed its sell-by-date in the barrel – and the mouthfeel was actually pretty creamy.

Finish was astoundingly long, with perhaps a hint of char, if only the merest touch. Not as voluptuous as a bourbon, nor as lean and spicy as a rye. But after all, this is a Single Malt technically speaking, being 100% barley, albeit one with the addition of hops. Which wouldn’t pass muster in Scotland, but who cares? Their loss.

I think what impressed me most about the Charbay Release V was the influence of the hops, even at such advanced age. I had wondered whether, like smoke in a long-aged peated Islay, they might have receded with maturity. Since I haven’t tried the earlier releases I can’t actually comment in that regard – but they must have been truly ferocious a few years ago. The point is that this innovation worked. It put the signature on a truly unique whiskey, justified the experiment and created a flavour as delicious as it was idiosyncratic. It took my cousin and I well over an hour to make our way through our respective double measures, and when they had disappeared, we wished there were a few drops more. But there weren’t, so we moved on to a Scotch. Aberlour A’Bunadh, since you’re asking.

In any case, as far as Charbay’s pilsner experiment is concerned, mission accomplished. I look forward to whatever they dream up next. (If I can afford any of it.) But am I any less cynical about the word ‘innovation’?

What do you think?