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St. Helena distiller combining whiskey, beer


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&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.

In the past three years, he's run through 15 tankers of Racer 5, each holding 6,000 gallons. Because the distilling process involves a huge loss of water and other components, that means only about 9,000 gallons of the finished whiskey have found their way into a barrel.

Bear Republic brewmaster Rich Norgrove said Karakasevic's family story, particularly the fact that distilling is an art passed down from father to son, held special meaning to him since the brewery likewise is a family owned and run operation.

It was also an obvious way to extend the Bear Republic brand into distilling. He had been considering adding a line of distilled products, but California alcohol licensing makes it difficult to combine the otherwise similar operations.

Karakasevic had the experience, equipment and passion -- and the all-important distilling license -- and Bear Republic had the flagship beer with a built-in national audience and a brewery capable of filling a huge tanker truck. The match seemed perfect, Norgrove said.

"Marko likes to take the process to the next step, extending, refining, and heightening the flavor of the beer," he said.

The brewery will team up with Karakasevic for a separate line of whiskeys as well, including a single malt, an Irish whiskey, a blended whiskey, and a rye, to be sold under its own brand name starting sometime this year. Except for one small batch of whiskey based on the brewery's Red Rocket Ale, Norgrove said, Bear Republic will leave the beer-based whiskeys to Karakasevic's Charbay label.

Karakasevic, 39, is the 13th generation of his family to become a master brewer. The family business traces its line back to at least 1751, in the Balkan nation of Serbia, where they ran a hotel and distillery.

His father left Communist-run Yugoslavia in the 1960s after the government expropriated his business. He studied wine making in Germany and traveled to North America, working in Canada and Michigan before getting a job with a large winery in California that had a small outpost in Napa Valley.

He and his wife eventually sought their own property, settling on a small parcel on the top of Spring Mountain above St. Helena. The property fronts into Napa County, but the back half, including the younger Karakasevic's current home, sit in Sonoma County.

The elder Karakasevic bought a top-of-the-line copper still from France, a model primarily for making cognac, known as a Charentais Alembic Still. He installed the huge still in Ukiah, where he began making brandies based on his own Spring Mountain-made wines.

That's where young Marko began nearly three decades of apprenticeship. His father, like all master distillers, was an exacting and unforgiving teacher, he said.

Masters "expect you to do everything ahead of them, for them, their way exactly . . . it's got to be done my way because that's the only way in the world," he said, laughing at the memory of his strict professional education.

But that rigorous instruction paid off, the younger Karakasevic said, when he presented his father with his masterpiece: the Racer 5-based whiskey.

"He loves it," he said. "It took me 26 years to become master distiller. In 2009, I got the slap on the back . . . a slap on the back, let's smoke some cigars and drink some."

Now Karakasevic is passing his family tradition to a new generation of distillers. His son, Miles, not quite 2, already is learning the basics of the fine art of handling a still.

"He's already turning the knobs, the gas," he said. "I hold him and say, 'turn the knob to 500' . . . and he nails it."