The Art Form Of Distillation
Khristopher Lund reports on the history and creations of the modern day Distiller.
The History –
The capturing of perfume is not only the essence of distillation it is also the origins of its historical motivation. The art form of distillation, from the Latin de stillare meaning to drip or trickle down, began as a method for creating perfumes for the likes of Cleopatra, it then moved to the Persians who added medicinal herbs to the mix and dispensed the beverages as restoratives. The establishments where the restorative soups, broths, and distilled remedies were offered became known as restaurants. The 1700’s and the age of enlightenment brought the “distillatio per descensum” or “the demand by the people for spirits”. The people were thirsty and everywhere the local wild plant life was constantly being experimented with to create distilled beverages for social consumption. This is where our story begins, with the Karakasevic family emerging in this environment to begin their legacy in distillation. As Phylloxera destroyed much of the European vineyards near the turn of the century, more and more creative spirits became available to quench the thirst of the masses. As the distillation process was refined and skilled artisans honed their craft, a level of achievement was created to acknowledge superior ability. The title of Master Distiller is not awarded by a university or other body, it is bestowed only after an existing Master Distiller has taken you in and taught you the breadth of their knowledge, and when they become convinced that you have “mastered” the technique and surpassed your teaching, it is then that you are considered worthy of the title. The old master and apprentice system, a system which was discarded far too casually in modern society. Miles Karakasevic was the 12th generation Karakasevic to earn the title of Master Distiller, and his son and protégé Marko has recently become the 13th generation to achieve Master. How do you tell a story that takes thirteen generations to build - one sip at a time naturally?
The Journey –
Spring Mountain Road begins innocently enough in the quiet residential streets of St. Helena, but quickly it turns up the mountain with a series of switchbacks through the dense forest of redwoods. Up you go past Langtry road climbing towards the sunlight, when you arrive at the small green sign post with a red sun symbol that reads Charbay. A small winding gravel road and a call box gate later and you have arrived at Karakasevic family Winery and Distillery high atop Spring Mountain. It would be a wonderful thing to be able to taste the wines and spirits but the law forbids them from tasting or selling the spirits directly from the distillery, but the wines are well worth the trip, and the education about the art of distillation is excellent. You will be offered a seat at the intimate tasting bar where the current flight of wine and a selection of their fortified creations are poured and discussed.
The Discovery -
2007 Chardonnay Napa Valley – A Chardonnay reminiscent of a rich minerally Chablis with hints of Anjou Pear and Fuji Apple and a core of coconut crème brulee lingering on the finish. Minimal oak leaves a fresh style in place without leaving the wine completely unsupported.
2006 Rose Napa Valley – A meaty rose worthy of big game cabernet hunters looking for some hearty weather and wine pairing. Be man enough to drink pink.
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Napa Valley – Power in balance with the great Oakville appellation. Dense rich fruit with masterful tannin management and savory spices followed by a smooth long finish. I am sorry is there anything else I can get you? At $36 a bottle this is a steal from Oakville.
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap Napa Valley – Stag’s Leap was historically known for dark colors and age worthy acidity but not massive power. Modern extraction strategies plus free run and press juice combinations provide a denser more aromatic expression from this appellation. 2005 was a very approachable vintage in the Napa Valley, and the Charbay is showing a black fruit to balanced oak spice profile in harmony for early drinking pleasure.
Charbay releases a series of ports, which is not unique for a Napa Valley winery to offer as there are many producing them. What sets Charbay apart from the peloton of pedestrian ports is the ability to craft their own signature pot still brandies to specifically accentuate the rich aromas of toffee, chocolate, golden raisins, and dark Maduro tobacco culminating in a velvety texture and endless finish. They have been known to create the wine and brandy from the same vineyard, creating a truly site specific port.
The Effort –
We could go on literally for days with 23 distinctive offerings, but we have only touched on the still and fortified wines. The line of spirits from Charbay are worthy of nationalistic pride in that we may place them amongst the finest acts of distillation in the world, their ability to capture and hold perfumes for generations to discover have no equal. The purity and quality of the whole fruit flavored vodkas and the fact that organic produce is incorporated in every available aspect of preproduction ingredient acquisition all contribute to a very real and site specific creation. Yes there is a bit of the formulaic in the process, but each citrus harvest brings slightly different aromas and flavors to the table, so each bottling will reflect its seasonal variations. I have actually overheard people comment that the Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka tastes too much like actual grapefruit. For the most part people are used to receiving artificial flavorings that resemble the real thing, but are candy-like versions. Reality can be a shock for some. But, funny enough, it was Marko tasting the large scale fruit vodka offerings one night that drove the distillery to launch the vodkas. “Do people really think that this tastes like an orange?” He said with a quizzical look on his face. “Rather than waste your time and energy trying to make something taste like an orange, why don’t you try actually using an orange?” Revolutionary I tell you. And just like a chef would seek out the finest ingredients to receive his efforts well, not just any oranges will do, but organic blood oranges grown for specific flavor, sugar and acid content just the way wine grapes are cultivated specifically for certain winery requirements. After a few experiments the path was clear, find the greatest examples of the most intense high quality natural aroma and flavor and capture it in a bottle. The addition of a secret process colors each flavored vodka with its’ own natural hue from the original fruit source. Organic Blood Oranges and Meyer Lemons from Lemon Cove California, Texas Rio Star Ruby Red Grapefruits, Willamette Valley Oregon Red Raspberries, Four different Green Teas from China, and Fresh Vanilla beans from Tahiti for the Rum. The Whiskey, a cross somewhere between Louis XIII Cognac and 50 year old Highland Scotch, is rich and refined, ageless in its’ devotion to your lifelong drinking pleasure, and not to be believed. While the line of vodkas and rums are priced with mainstream spirits, the whiskey is a limited production gem of monumental proportions. At $325 a bottle the price can shock the curbside tire kicker, but for the enthusiast of all that is great in the world, that is an easy entry price for world class Whiskey. Some distilleries in Scotland have limited vintage offerings in the thousands of dollars per bottle. But let us not dwell on price, let us celebrate the fact that we are blessed with the knowledge that beauty does exist and it is attainable, and our quest to acquire perfumes for the soul will be rewarded.
As the trend towards in-home entertainment increases, the Charbay web site encourages your capabilities for creating flavors in all colors shapes and sizes along with recipes to slake the thirst of the weary Cosmopolitan drinker.
Upon completion of this article the Karakasevic family, long with a love for Mexico, has completed a three year project to release their first family Blanco Tequila. They have a longitude and latitude indication on the bottle marking the blue agave plantation where 100% of the blue agave juice originated from. The first site specific Tequila to date. And since it was distilled by the family in Mexico it is licensed to proudly display the Tequila moniker.
So trek up Spring Mountain – bring a milk bone for Sunny the Whiskey hound – and discover a legacy in the making.
By: Khristopher Lund
Khristopher is a freelance writer, sommelier, mover & cocktail shaker living in the Napa Valley. For more on Kris check out his blog.