Interview: Charbay master distiller Marko Karakasevic

Distiller California

Photo of Marko Karakasevic courtesy of Charbay

St. Helena rests right in the center of Napa wine country, so it almost seems counterintuitive to start a distillery there, but that’s exactly what Yugoslavia natives Susan and Milorad (Miles) Karakasevic did when they founded Charbay Winery & Distillery in 1983. As they near the three decade mark, it appears that their instincts were right. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a risk considering the Karakasevics had over 230 years of distilling experience behind them. Their Serbian ancestors made the family’s first brandy in 1751. Son Marko is now the family’s master distiller, 13th generation, and he continues to utilize an alembic copper pot still to produce a number of spirits, not just brandy, but also vodka, flavored vodkas, tequila, rum, pastis, black walnut liqueur and whiskey. The winery portion of the business has also yielded Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, ruby port and grappa. Way back in February, we spoke with Marko Karakasevic by phone, and a story that already seemed compelling enough immediately became even more interesting when he started to discuss distilling craft beer.

Was it a given that you’d become a distiller?

Yeah. I started distilling when I was 10 years old, with my dad. I love it. It’s what I do. We’re always pushing the envelope in the world of spirits, making different products. I’ve distilled every type of spirit there is on the planet, fruit for brandies, grains for whiskey, agave, down in Mexico, for tequila, sugar cane for rum. Plus, we’ve distilled sunflower fruits and made the fifth primal spirit in the world, so it’s fun.

How did you get your start in distilling?

In ’99, I started distilling whiskey, because in high school, I made beer, and I was fermenting corn, beer and wine to make beer. We took 20,000 gallons of Pilsner beer from Benziger Winery and microbrewery and we double copper alambic pot distilled 20,000 gallons of Pilsner beer into whiskey. Jump 12 years ahead and we’ve got 110 proof in the bottle. From there, we started distilling IPA, and I’m working with Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg and Cloverdale, so I distilled Racer 5 IPA, bottle ready, hops and all, made whiskey out of it, aging it in French oak, and I’m going to release some, probably this year. It’s probably going to be Charbay IPA Whiskey.

Has anybody ever distilled beer before?

Commercially, in the world, no. I was the first to take bottle ready beer, distill it into a whiskey, age it two years, minimum, in brandy oak, and bottle it.

It’s the most expensive way to make whiskey, because it’s a 17:1 reduction of whatever you distill. To me it makes total sense to use beer you like to drink. It’s a valid concept and it’s true. If you distill junk, then you’re concentrating junk flavors, and you have to rely on the barrel to hide junk flavors…It’s opening up the doors for tremendous amounts of creativity in the world of whiskey. Fortunately, we’re not bound by laws, like in Tennessee…Then we’d have to charcoal filter, which to me means it wasn’t distilled right. One pass through a charcoal filter strips mouththfeel, texture, viscosity, body and flavor of your distilled spirit, and if you’re making Tennessee bourbon, you have to filter before you put it in the barrel, and then you have to charcoal filter it again after you take it out of the barrel. It’s a frustratiting law, but fortunately I don’t live there and don’t have to abide by those laws.

I just got done distilling stout, Bear Republic Stout. It has chocolate, coffee, almost a rum tone to it, malt flavors. Extremely smooth. Really full bodied. It’s exciting. We’re going to release a light whiskey version of that next year. I’m going to let it age for a year. Light whiskey distilled over 160 proof, aged in old or neutral barrels. I put it in a barrel for a day, to appease the PTB, and age it in stainless for a year, let it chill out. I’m going to release it as a clear light whiskey and a French oak aged whiskey, probably 90 proof.

What’s the flavor profile of the IPA?

More malty, and hop spiced, so it’s got that green herbaceous hop spice, fruity floral maltiness and malty flavors.

What led to your relationship with Bear Republic? Why them?

They’re family owned and operated, like us, and I love their beers. I think their beers are fantanstic. Rich, Jr.’s mom still answers the phone at the office. My mom still answers the phone at the office….[They’re] still down with experimenting with different yeasts and mashes…Those guys are super cool, that’s all there is to it, and they can produce 6000 gallons for me at a time. 6000 gallons takes me 8 days, 24 hours a day, to double distill into whiskey.

Why do you use a copper alambic pot still?

That’s what my family’s been using for generations and we own a copper alambic pot still, which allows you as a distiller to focus on the body of the spirit on the first run, and on the second run, it gives you the ability to pack as much flavor as you want into that spirit.

What was your degree in?

I went to UC Davis for one year, because I was working with my mom and dad in the winery and distillery. I wanted to be a physical therapist, because I love helping people. I came back from UC Davis and just went to work. I just turned 13th generation master distiller in my family. I went through a European apprenticeship. There’s no school, you’ve just got to do it. The definition of master distiller in my family is to meet and distill something better than your predecessor. You’ve got to put something new on the market, so five years ago, I started working with light whiskey, making it out of really good drinking IPA. I let it age for four years in stainless to let it mesh. When we sold our first case of Doubled & Twisted Whiskey, he said, “Congratulations, you’re a master distiller.”

Why the name Doubled & Twisted?

Doubled and twisted is an old whiskey term for the best part of the run.

Have you released any distilled beers?

Charbay Whiskey, 12 years old, distilled from Pilsner, from Benziger Winery and Brewery…They don’t own a brewery any more, so nope, not from them anymore. I’ve got such a great relationship from Bear Republic that I’m stoked to work with them.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Thanks for sharing this interview with distiller Marko Karakasevic. Double & Twisted sounds like a fine whiskey.

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