Domaine Charbay is a unique distillery that has quite the story behind their name. They are not some new craft distillery that just arrived to the scene. Rather, they proudly proclaim they were the 177th distillery in the United States to obtain a distilling license back in 1983. Decades later there are over 2,000 across the nation.
Charbay has produced a little-known “Hops Flavored Whiskey” for quite some time now. It was distilled from ready-to-bottle beer which makes it completely unique. It also doesn’t make it a bourbon. Actually, it’s a little more in-depth why it’s automatically disqualified but the long and short of it is that the beer was made with hops (strike one since that’s not a grain), uses a mixture of new and used charred oak barrels to age it in (strike two) and barrels it at a proof that’s higher than the legal maximum (they go above 125 proof). Fans of the brand don’t care. They were after the distinct flavor of hopped beer that they all knew and loved – only in a concentrated form. For those that enjoyed it, there was nothing else like it in the world.
The Master Distiller at Charbay, Marko Karakasevic, decided on a whim to create a whiskey that is incredibly close to being a bourbon (hence why this is just named “A Whiskey Made From Bourbon Mash”). It’s true, Charbay actually distilled four barrels of this “almost-bourbon” sometime in 2014 in the same alambic pot still that they use to distill their hops-flavored whiskey. I don’t entirely know the reason why they decided to create this style of whiskey since their other Hops-flavored version has sold so well, but they did – and it’s a scorcher. What do I mean by that? The bottle I’m reviewing today comes in at 149.2 proof, enough to make steam come out of your ears and your face to melt off like you just peered into the Ark of the Covenant. How did it get so high being aged in the mild northern California climate? Being put in the barrel at a scorching 136 proof might have something to do with it.
Had they just proofed down the distillate to 125 proof, I think that this whiskey would have met all of the requirements to be a bourbon. The four barrels that were produced were all aged in new charred oak casks (#3 char was specified) and the mash bill contained 53% corn. Strangely, the other 47% of the recipe uses 2-row malted barley (the kind that brewers commonly use). No small (flavoring) grain was used. You’ll see why it might not have needed it in the tasting notes section.
The final thing about this unique bottle is that it was released only as single barrels. I do not know where the other three barrels went (send me a message if you know!), but this one was dedicated to members of the San Francisco Whiskey Bourbon & Scotch Society (SFWBSS) Lisa, Hana and Katie. Apparently SFWBSS dedicates their single barrel selections to different members, which is a great personal touch for a group like that. And now, onto the tasting notes. This was sampled neat in a glencairn.
Nose: The nose on this thing smells like a flat, warm Imperial Stout without a trace of hops. Chocolate biscotti, candied pecans and vanilla latte are all warm, inviting and sweet scents to pick up on. I think I’m going to like this! It is amazingly competent for a distillery that I would still consider craft and one that had previously not had any experience with. The overall aroma profile is malty and if I was smelling it blind I would have guessed it was a high-proofed flavored (or finished) malt whiskey.
Palate: WOW! That proof just punched me right in the mouth! This is some serious heat and I don’t say that lightly. I can only describe what I’m tasting as a reverse Irish Car Bomb where a shot of stout beer gets dropped into a full glass of HAZMAT whiskey. To say I was caught off guard by the proof is an understatement. Good thing my recliner is equipped with a seatbelt. Anyway, this is the most fierce tasting malt experience of my life. It is so beer-like in character and profile, minus the hops. I assume that was kind of the point with what the distiller was going for here. The flavors are bold and hard to decipher only because my tongue is literally melting as I’m searching for flavors. Devil’s Food Cake, Malt-o-Meal cereal, room temperature black coffee, leather, nougat and cinnamon can all be found… at least that’s what I think I’m tasting. Honestly, I might be tripping ala Homer Simpson eating a Guatemalan insanity pepper. Let’s hope I can finish this review before the words I type begin to melt too. The corn does do its part the more I sip this and prevents it from turning into a funky American Single Malt Whiskey. I was debating putting the description of “peppery” in my tasting notes because… that should be obvious. Honestly, this is a drink that most of us will only understand what we tasted by studying the flavors that remain on the finish.
Finish: The aftertaste here is just like finishing a stout beer loaded with adjuncts. It’s almost cake-like. Cheesecake Factory bread (the dark kind) comes to mind because it is also a bit sweet. The heat is still out of control and the lingering spice is like swallowing tiny devils with pitchforks that keep poking your throat all the way down. Opening my mouth when I’m done reveals a puff of smoke escaping. Did I mention the Guatemalan insanity peppers? What an experience!
This bottle is one of the more insane whiskies I’ve ever tasted. Initially, I was unaware of the proof as my sample bottle had a recreation of the label the bottle used on the front but the proof was XXX’ed out. I assumed it was going to be in the 110-115 proof range. But as soon as I drank it, my mouth was set on fire. I couldn’t understand it – it felt like some sort of ghost pepper oil was infused into the liquid. Doing tasting notes on this one was a chore because I literally had to rely on the finish to give me a more accurate representation of what I was tasting. I chose the exact moment I swallowed to decipher what I was getting on the palate. The finish notes were recorded after setting still and thinking about it 10-15 seconds later. That’s not normally how I do my notes.
With all of that being said scoring this one was hard. While I did babble on quite a bit about how hot it was, it was also insanely fun. Kind of like walking on hot coals. The flavors were enjoyable albeit a chore to find. If this had been aged any less than 8 years, I would probably be dead right now. But if they had let this bad boy age another 3 to 4 years, I’m predicting it would be a much tamer animal that would have tasted even better. And for those of you who skip to the end section of my reviews to see the score and my opinion, do yourself a favor and go back through and read the tasting notes. If you just want a one sentence description, refer to my “Reverse Irish Car Bomb” note where I said it’s like dropping a shot of stout beer into a glass of HAZMAT whiskey. If you enjoy dark beers, you’d love this one.
Chances are if you don’t already own a bottle, you’ll never get to experience this. That’s a real bummer because this was so much fun to taste. I try to come up with something insightful to say in these conclusions, but the only thing that’s coming to mind is how I think that the rules of bourbon should be changed a bit. Like I mentioned earlier, this “almost-bourbon” is only really disqualified because the barrel entry proof is too high. But that probably gave it the room it needed to break the mold of the typical flavors and scents tied with that category of spirits. I sometimes feel bored with what bourbon has become these days after experiencing the wild variety of Scotch. Compared to that, bourbon tastes so similar from distillery to distillery. Charbay may have shed some light on how distillers could mix it up a bit. At the very least, distilleries should try to experiment with these high barrel entry proofs and the use of new charred oak just to see if the end result is a great tasting, unique whiskey. And to close this all out, if you’re reading this Charbay, please consider making more of this! I can assure you that 4 barrels was not enough. Let the people experience this for themselves!
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