Category Archives: California

Wine Is to Brandy as Beer Is to… ______

Fill in the blank: ________ The answer is “whisk(e)y,” but I might be skipping ahead too far.

The real question is: People drink wine and brandy (and specialized kinds of brandy, like cognac), but people don’t drink beer and whisk(e)y. You might think I’m wrong. Did I just say that people don’t drink beer?

The Real Question

Yes. Of course, people drink beer. But people don’t drink the beer from which whisk(e)y is made. So, let’s ask a related question that may be possible to answer:

  • Why Is Good Whisk(e)y Made from Bad Beer?

If we just focus on Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, as far as I know, the beer (wash) from which these are made isn’t even drunk by the people that make the whisk(e)y, much less offered to visitors. Single-malt Scotch whisky is made from malted barley, water and yeast (period). Irish whiskey is made from a combination of malted and un-malted barley (and water and yeast). Even though the Scottish or Irish distilleries don’t sell or offer tastings of their starting product, their finished products turn out well enough….

  • Why isn’t whisk(e)y made from good beer?

I define “good beer” as beer that whisk(e)y producers would be happy for distillery visitors to drink, perhaps good enough that they’d sell it on the open market. I will point out that it’s all the rage to sell “new make” (or “white dog”) spirit, which is simply legal moonshine, so I wondered why no one had extrapolated this process further up the production chain. Whisk(e)y lovers seem to be clamoring for such “insider” experiences.

Yes, Virginia, You Can Make Whisk(e)y from Good Beer

I was very fortunate this Summer to spend time at the Charbay Distillery in St. Helena, CA. Marko, the 13th-generation Master Distiller, is doing just this. He’s making whiskey from Bear Republic Brewing Company‘s Big Bear Black Stout and their Racer 5 IPA. Both are likely to become fine whiskeys. Marko’s direct quote about the distilled stout is: “…green spice, rum tones, and its so smooth i want to bottle it right off the damn pipe.

Back to the moonshine comment above: I’m not a fan. I’ve tried many of these trendy “whisk(e)y” products and mostly they are pretty flavorless. As with anything I write here, this is my opinion. I know that many people like them and I am not disparaging their opinions. Please: If you like something, drink it! You don’t have to justify your preferences to anyone else. To my palate, these products do have more flavor than vodka, which is the closest thing I can compare them to, but it’s clear that — at least for the ones I have tried — they really need lots of time in wood (at least the traditional 2-3 years) to acquire their “whisk(e)y flavors.” Not so with Charbay’s product: According to Marko (see above), his white dog spirit actually has flavor before it has rested in wood for years. It doesn’t need those years of chemical reactions and magic to be palatable.

If you think about it, the distillation process is a way of concentrating flavors and smells by 15-20x, so in your mind, imagine starting with an excellent stout beer or IPA and extracting and concentrating the best flavors. You’d imagine that the finished product would simply rock…and it does.

This isn’t the first time Marko (and his Dad, Miles) has made whiskey from good beer: Marko’s solo project, Doubled & Twisted was distilled from an IPA (rather recently), after Marko and Miles got rave reviews on their first beer distilling collaboration that they produced from Pilsner beer. I was able to taste their Pilsner whiskey at one of the local retailers that carries their products, and it was amazing. You would be blown away at how the hops evolve in distillation. And these flavors are present immediately — as soon as the liquid leaves the still. This whiskey had been aged as well, so it was a deep and complex whiskey, one of the best I have ever had.

California has always attracted pioneers, explorers and dreamers, so it’s only fitting that you’d find a distillery in the middle of the Napa valley wine country that was experimenting with making whiskey from good beer. Honestly…where else?


Posted by on 25-October-2011 in California, Whisky2.0


What’s the Flavor of Yeast?

Yeast is perhaps one of the most overlooked (or perhaps the least spoken about…) ingredients in whisk(e)y distillation. We all know the main contribution of the yeast: Ethanol. I wrote about yeast on my first whisky blog in 2008. But this Summer I learned a lot more about it in the best possible way: Using my nose and mouth.

What Gets Distilled?

If you think about it, the “liquid” that goes into the first still (in Scotch whisky production, the wash still) isn’t a pure liquid. It has dead yeast in it, and lots of other things, including leftover undistilled liquids from previous passes through the wash still. There are unconsumed enzymes from the mashing process, malted barley solids (or in general whisk(e)y terms, grain solids), and the latter contains every kind of biological chemical compound from proteins to amino acids to fats to DNA to complex carbohydrates to trace minerals absorbed from the soil into the plant when it grew.

Then you cook that mixture to boil/extract the alcohol and whatever comes along for the ride. That’s distillation, and it’s not nearly as simple as “extract pure alcohol” — chemical analysis of single-malt Scotch whisky has identified over 600 chemicals in the distillate! That’s a good thing, too, because pure Ethanol has no flavor to speak of…what’s brilliant is that many chemicals that we associate with various smells or tastes are alcohol-soluble. Good stuff comes along for the ride, and gets refined during aging.

The spirit still will further concentrate the esters and other chemicals which are the source of the pleasant flavors, smells and textures of whisk(e)y.

So: What Did I Learn?

I was privileged to participate in a side-by-side tasting of two identical unaged California Bourbon whiskeys made with identical ingredients in identical proportions. The only difference was that each recipe used a different kind of yeast. One of the Bourbons was noticeably smoother in texture, almost buttery, with a “flatter” flavor profile. The other was much “sharper” and had (for lack of a better term) a “watery” texture, at least compared to the first one. The two samples were at the same ABV, which was over 60%, and they were roughly equivalent in that department. Both were clearly corn-based because that came out in the smell of the whiskey.

The lesson was that yeast has a heck of a lot of influence on the final product. I now have a much higher appreciation of yeast’s “unsung” contributions to the flavor of whisk(e)y.

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Posted by on 23-September-2011 in California, United States, Whisky2.0



Charbay particulars:

Location: 4001 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA‎
Post code: 94574-9773
Region: United States
Since: 1972

Note: Yes, there is a distillery in the Napa Valley.


Posted by on 21-May-2009 in California, United States



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