After three decades of work, Marko Karakasevic finally has found a way to combine his favorite beverage, beer, with his family's three-century-old business, making distilled spirits.
Karakasevic's Charbay distillery in St. Helena is most famous for its high-end brandy and vodka, but he lately has been collaborating with Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing Co. to craft a line of whiskeys that capture the hop punch and malt complexity of brews from this star of the growing craft beer market.
He started with Bear Republic's flagship Racer 5, a classic West Coast India Pale Ale: rich, golden and highly hoppy. The whiskey is known as "R5" in honor of the source beer, and it has much of the same smooth mouthfeel and intense hop bitterness and aroma.
"The beer world is freaking out," he said. "There are a lot of Racer 5 fanatics out there and it is really exciting. They are totally down for buying a bottle of whiskey that's made from their favorite beer."
Next up is the general release of a whiskey based on the brewery's Big Bear Black Stout, which promises a complex roasted malt that Karakasevic says will exceed even fine scotches.
"Stout whiskey potentially will become one of the most complex whiskeys on the planet. . . . It would come out so much more complex than any scotch possible because of the limitation of regulations" that scotch producers must follow in preparing the base of their spirits, he said.
An advance version of the Big Bear-based product, known as "S whiskey," already is available at D&amp;M Wine and Liquor in San Francisco. The store bought a full barrel, about 400 bottles, last year. Manager Kyle Nadeau said they've already sold about three-quarters of the whiskey.
The attraction for Nadeau was the unusually complex malty flavor, with a chocolate edge, in S Whiskey.
"Marko has definitely built up a reputation of doing things that nobody else is doing, but doing it extremely well," he said.
While a beer-based liquor is unusual, the idea is not really that odd. Whiskey and beer are made from the same basic ingredients: grains, water and yeast. The difference is that beer brewers use hops for flavor and aroma; distillers do not.
Karakasevic was an avid home beer brewer as a young man, and he finally asked his father, Charbay founder Miles Karakasevic, why he couldn't use the hoppy finished beer he was making and distill that, instead of using the bland unhopped raw material favored by most distillers.
"Nobody does it; it's too expensive," he recalls his father saying. "And it is."
Where the raw material for most whiskeys might be priced in terms of cents per gallon, the beer Karakasevic is using today is measured in dollars per gallon. As a result, the whiskey is not cheap at retail: $49 to $69 per bottle at most retailers, depending on which of several variations you buy. More highly-aged and exotic variants can run to three figures per bottle.
His experiments with distilling beer have evolved in the past decade using small batches left orphaned by defunct breweries. When it came time to scale up to full production, he settled on Bear Republic, based on both its high quality and its strategic location in Healdsburg and Cloverdale, just a short tanker ride up Highway 101 to his still in Ukiah.