Charbay hits the bull's eye when it comes to distilling alcohol 

There's nothing more country feeling than shooting guns and drinking whiskey out of a barrel.

And where could one find such a combo in these parts? In Mendocino County, of course.

Before the 13th-generation distiller Marko Karakasevic showed me around his operation, we toured a shooting range. It was there that I cradled Beowolf, an AR-15 rifle with bullets as big as my thumbs. Halfway through the clip, my shoulder was left in a knot from the recoil.

I was told this is the usual welcoming ritual for Marko, the master distiller of Charbay in St. Helena.

The Karakasevic lineage and rich history distills down to pure legacy.

Dating back to 1750, Marko's ancestors earned a living in Serbia by making the country's abundant stone fruit into rakia for townsfolk. Rakia is a fruit brandy popular in many countries in the Balkans.

In 1960, Karakasevic's father, Miles, went to school in Geisenheim, Germany, to study viticulture and enology. Eventually, Miles moved to Canada, then the U.S., chasing winemaking jobs until he ended up in Northern California. In 1983, when Marko was 10, his parents started Charbay. After school, Marko would catch the bus to the distillery to help his father run the still, clean and work the bottling line.

In 2005, Marko proved that he had the chops to be master distiller.

He had distilled a light whiskey he called Doubled and Twisted from high-grade IPA beer. His father tasted it, then gave his son the reins of the operation.

Master distiller is not a term that is passed around loosely.

"The definition of becoming a master distiller in my family means that you've got to distill something better than your instructor, which in my family was usually your father," Marko said.

Marko is nothing short of a savant who can distill just about anything.

When his mother had a knack for pastis, the anise-flavored French aperitif, Marko insisted that she stop buying it and instead allow him to make it for her.

"That pastis made a Frenchman cry," he said.

In 2009, after talking booze till sunrise with the great Carlos Camarena of La Altena distillery (think Tapatio, Tequila Ocho and El Tesoro) in Arandas, Jalisco, Mexico, Marko decided to head across the border and give it a shot. When Marko and his father headed south, Charbay became the first American distillery to personally distill tequila in Mexico.

Upon release the following year, Charbay's tequila was an instant sensation, scoring 93 points from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

The tequila was also the first to put GPS coordinates of where the agave was produced on the label, which is now found on an increasing number of bottles.

Charbay is well known for its vodka, which it did not make before Marko became master distiller. His father was never interested in the spirit.

"My father ... said it has no flavor, and he's an artist of flavor," Marko said. "So I began making vodka using a meyer lemon extract and real blood oranges so my dad could no longer say that vodka didn't have flavor." Today, Marko still runs a small operation, with just eight employees. The focus remains on traditional techniques using that wonderful Mendocino water.

Charbay is one of the few distilleries to use a live fire, alembic charentais still. Marko makes 28 products, distilling just about every spirit except gin.

We walked around his barrel room, talking shop and tasting the products.

"Everyone these days is trying to make gold out of sand -- speed time up or slow it down," Marko said. "You can't speed up the aging process. You've got to let spirits find their groove, reveal their flavor through time."

One of my favorites was Marko's rum, made from Hawaiian cane syrup from my hometown of Kihei, Maui. It was bursting with butterscotch flavor. Marko has also set the trend of distilling booze from high-grade beer.

The R5, distilled from Racer 5 IPA and aged in French oak, was floral with pronounced notes of lychee. The S5, distilled from a stout, tastes like peanut butter.

"If you start with awesome, you're gonna end up with an awesome product," Marko said. "You don't hear the guys at Jameson talking about the beer that they distill from. And we're talking about the Irish, those guys drink everything."

Makes perfect sense. After searching the barrel room for nearly an hour, we ended the tour with a last sip from the MHK barrel, distilled for his own son Miles, who he hopes will continue the family legacy and one day earn the title of master distiller.

"This'll pay for college tuition," Marko said.

The future holds a lot of potential.

About The Author

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado is a cocktail enthusiast and sucker for soul and sweet reggae music. A food and drink blogger since 2009, Rhys has sipped his way from Hawaii to Santa Barbara and up the coast to San Francisco, where he's found a glorious wave of craft concoctions and expert drink-makers.
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