We continue our temporary tour through other realms of boozy glory with a rather unusual whiskey. Charbay is a small distillery and winery located in Napa Valley, and amongst whiskey nerds, they are most famous for distilling beer. Now, technically all whiskey is distilled from something called beer and the process for making that beer is similar, but it's usually not hopped beer. With Charbay we're talking about finished, commercial beer, hops and all. In this case, the R5 is distilled from Bear Republic's flagship IPA, Racer 5, then aged in French Oak barrels for 29 months.
The process used by Charbay is apparently mildly controversial in that it's not entirely clear if the whiskey is just pure distillate or if they've actually added hops later in the distillation process. Hops are certainly a volatile ingredient, one that does not respond favorably to heat or time very well. I would not be surprised at all if they did some form of dry hopping after the distillation process is complete (i.e. after the heat is applied), but the details are not actually known.
Racer 5 is made with copious amounts of American C hops (Chinook, Cascade, Columbus, and Centennial), which would leave me to believe the result would be citrusy and floral, with a little bit of hop spice and maybe some herbal character as well. A pretty standard American IPA profile. If it turns out that Charbay is dry hopping (or using some other technique), I would be doubly curious as to what varieties they're using. Not to give away the review, but I really enjoyed this whiskey. While very hoppy, I probably would not have guessed American C hops from what I get out of this whiskey. Could be due to the distillation and aging process, or it could be that they're dry hopping with noble hops or something (possibly all of the above). Not that this means anything, because my hop detection skills aren't that finely tuned. Whatever the case, they're doing something right, as this is some unique and tasty hooch.
This is naturally right up my alley. When I first learned of this concept and saw, for example, Sku's general enthusiasm, I was determined to track down a bottle of this stuff. It's a bit pricey, but I'm glad I took the plunge. Let's take a closer look:
Charbay R5 - Pours a light golden yellow color with moderate legs. Smell has that distinctive new make character to it, but the hops come through strong. More floral up front than I would expect from all the American C hops in Racer 5, but that citrus is peeking in as well. And truth be told, I tend to think of Centennial and Columbus as being more floral than citrusy anyway, so perhaps that's not too surprising. Taste again features new make booze, but the hops save the day. Like the nose, the hops are floral and almost spicy up front, but provide a more citrusy honey-like note towards the finish. Mouthfeel has a nice spiciness to it, a little heat too. Maybe that's just may baby palate talking though, as all whiskey has a little harsh heat for me. Overall, this is a fascinating dram of whiskey here. The hops come through, but not quite in exactly the way I expected. Nevertheless, I enjoy drinking this and am quite happy with the purchase (despite the relatively high price tag). B+
Whiskey Nerd Details: 99 proof, 49.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/8/15. Lot: R5 511A (this was the 2014 release).
Beer Nerd Musings: Aside from several other Charbay variants on the theme, there are a bunch of other spirits that are distilled from drinking beer. There's one called Son's of Liberty that claims it starts as an IPA (not specified whether it's a commercial version or one they make themselves) that is distilled, aged, and then dry hopped with Citra and Sorachi Ace (which are some pretty fantastic choices). This seems to mostly be a small distillery thing, and I do have to wonder how more mature whiskey would react. Sku mentions a 12 year old version of distilled pilsner that was made for the LA Whiskey Society, and according to some reviews, the hop character has faded somewhat (or been overtaken by the oak, or both), even if it's still described as excellent whiskey.
I would be curious to see what other beers would make a good base for this sort of treatment. In terms of hoppy beer, I'd look at something like a Tired Hands or Hill Farmstead IPA. They both have super citrusy, juicy takes on the style (which I suspect is due partially to the yeast they use as well as the use of newer aroma hops). Would that character survive distillation? Or would that bright citrus turn into dank pine in time (nothing wrong with that either, to my mind)? Anchor made a spirit out of their vaunted Christmas beer called White Christmas, where I assume the spices would come through in the finished product.
I suspect the barrels used for this whiskey would not be the best to use for beer. The subtle hop character would get blown away by big, assertive stouts, or would get lost in the mix of a hoppy barleywine and new make whiskey doesn't quite integrate with beer as well as moderately aged stuff. That being said, there's really only one way to find out. I'm clearly not an expert on this stuff.
Well there you have it. Stay tuned for some wine reviews next week... and a couple weeks after that, a triumphant return to beer.