The other week I sat down on the patio behind Swirl on Castro with Marko Karakasevic and Jenni soon-to-be Karakasevic of Charbay and tasted through their line of products.
Charbay is a family-run winery and distillery in Napa Valley. And boy do these people like to play with the still- in addition to wine, they make flavored vodka, rum, whiskey, walnut liqueur, grappa, pastis, port, and now some aperitifs. It's hard to keep up with them.
The aperitifs are neither eau de vie nor typical liqueurs, but flavored fortified wines. Currently they produce a pomegranate and a green tea flavor, which they like to think of as cocktails-in-a-glass. Importantly for retailers, these can be served at beer and wine-only venues.
We then tasted through the vodka line. When they make vodka at Charbay, really they're making extractions that are added to plain vodka to flavor it. (Most flavored vodkas are vodka plus flavors purchased from flavor companies.) Not only is this unique, they make their extractions using whole fruit- not just the peel or juice. They throw the entire fruit (okay, not the pomegranate, but the citrus) into a leaf shredder and into the tanks, then distill the mixture to extract the flavor components they're looking for. Marko told me he was able to get the Meyer lemon flavor less bitter than before (emphasizing the pith less and peel more). The grapefruit flavor is as bitter as it should be.
The Tahitian vanilla rum is triple pot distilled and made from concentrated sugar cane juice (not molasses) from Hawaii. All rums are made from sugar cane products. Rhum agricole and cachaca are made from sugar cane juice. Most rums are made from molasses (the leftovers after sugar is extracted from sugar cane juice). Ron Zacapa is made from a form of concentrated sugar cane juice without the sugar taken out. The sugar cane juice used by Charbay is flash dehydrated under a vaccuum to remove the water and concentrate the liquid. I want to research how this is different from what Zacapa uses. Project!
I think they should just call their whiskey "weed-lovers-whiskey", because it really tastes like marijuana. This is the second release of the product that was pot distilled from pilsner beer with three kinds of hops (this is probably where the weed aromas come in) and aged six years in new barrels. The first release was after three years in barrels.
Finally, they're going to release a pomegranate dessert wine (they really like the pomegranate over there) that smells like it's going to be ultra-syrupy, but is just pleasantly sweet. A nice way to end a meal, or a tasting session.
To sample the products in person, check out the early happy hour at Tra Vigna in Napa Valley, during the weekly Charbay tasting. Hopefully Jenni and Marko will be there, because they're really fun people with whom to share a drink. Or ten.