Charbay are an outfit in northern California who make a wide range of spirits and wines. Among whisky geeks they’re best known for a few releases of rather expensive whiskey made from pilsner beer. While all whisky is in a strict sense distilled from beer Charbay use beer made for commercial release. And what’s further unusual about their whiskey–including the one I am reviewing today–is that it is made from hopped beer. This is, in fact, rather different and I’m curious to see what this whiskey—distilled from Racer IPA—is like, though also somewhat wary. There are two versions of the Charbay R5, which is double-distilled in a pot still, Scotch style–one unaged, and the other aged in French Oak casks. This is the latter.
There is, by the way, some controversy over whether this is in fact distilled from hopped beer (as Charbay claim) or whether hops are added somewhere else in the process. I don’t personally find this to be such an interesting question (only because I’m not that into the ins and outs of American whiskey) but you can read a report here that treats it like the stakes are at Watergate level (to be fair, there’s a lot of other very interesting information there about the production process, if you’re into that sort of thing).
Charbay R5, Lot R5 610A (49.5%; from a sample received in a swap)
Nose: Sweet hops and Bijoli Grill Ice Cream Soda (this is for all zero of my readers who lived in Calcutta in the 1980s; Bijoli Grill was a catering company in Calcutta that made a sweet carbonated drink they called Ice Cream Soda); if you want to know what it smelled like you should really get some of this Charbay. Anyway, this doesn’t smell like whisky at all; if anything this is in eau de vie territory on the border with mezcal. A touch of fennel, some peppermint, both as found as notes in sweet hard candy. Maybe a light hint of smoke (it’s hard to tell under the sweetness). With more time the sweetness does subside some and the wood becomes more apparent. With water the sweet and herbal notes recede a little more and now there’s lime on the nose too.
Palate: Not as sweet as I’d feared from the nose, nor are those notes present in as intense a form. The eau de vie/mezcal thing is still going on but this is far more whisky-like. And the hard candy notes of the nose are more herbal/rooty on the palate (think a whole range of European digestifs). Increasingly briny as well and after a few minutes there’s some sour wood and some pepper. The pepper expands with time and now there’s some lime as well but it just keeps getting more and more sour. Not a whole lot that’s new with water but it does get a little smoother.
Finish: Long. The herbal/rooty thing clings to the roof of my mouth but it’s the sour/salty note that’s most prominent. With water and time the finish is all but identical to that of a sweeter, medium-hopped IPA.
Comment: A really odd duck but I ended up liking it far more than I’d expected I would–though the nose is a bit much for me. I certainly wouldn’t call it whisky and I don’t know how often I’d reach for it; it would work as a digestif, I think and might work in cocktails not as a whisky replacement but as a herbal liqueur replacement. Try before buying, but do try it.
Rating: 82 points.
Thanks to Sku for the sample!