Head to Head: Charbay No. 89 vs No. 83

Distiller: Charbay, Ukiah, Mendocino Co, California, USA (Karakasevic family)20190207_205341.jpg

Note: Samples provided by Charbay Distillery.

Grapes

83: Folle Branche (100%)

89: Pinot Noir (74%), Sauvignon Blanc (26%)

Place of origin

83: Mendocino Co, California, USA

89: California, USA

Age

83: 27 y/o (distilled 1983, released 2010)

89: 24 y/o (distilled 1989, released 2013)

ABV

83: 40%

89: 46%

MSRP

83: $475

89: $240

Appearance

83: Medium copper.

89: Light copper

Nose

83: Leather, Parmesan cheese, cola, lavender, ghost pepper.

89: Leather, woodruff, dried flowers, vanilla custard.

Palate

83: Dry and light bodied. Butterscotch, tarragon, oregano, old oak.

89: Mild. Dried flowers, lemon meringue, oak, crushed coriander seed.

Finish

83: Cola, burn, raisins.

89: Leather, Meyer lemon, burn.

Parting words: The Charbay Distillery is one of the oldest micro-distilleries in the US. It’s best known product is its distinctive line of whiskeys distilled from drinkable ( as opposed to distiller’s) beer sourced from local brewers with hops also usually added after distillation. As one might expect, they’re pretty weird. They are also very expensive, even by micro-distiller standards. The flagship expressions are the 6 y/o Charbay Releases I-V (brewed from a pilsner with hops also added after distillation). Release III sells for $375 per 750 ml bottle at K&L Wine Merchants in Southern California, with IV listed at $500 and V for $650 (the latter two are listed as out of stock). There is also the R5 made from Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA (1 y/o, $75) and Whiskey S made from Bear Republic’s Big Bear Stout (2 y/o, $90). They also produce a line of infused vodkas.

I’ve had a couple of the Releases and I didn’t care for them. Long time readers will know that I’m not a fan of funky hops or young, expensive whiskey, so that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. On November 9, 2018 I saw some folks on Twitter talking about Charbay whiskey and I rattled off a snarky tweet in response: “Charbay is gross, there I said it.” It got a little interaction but I didn’t really think about it much afterwards.

Then on January 13, 2019 I got a response from the distillery asking if I was interested in trying any of their other products since I obviously didn’t like the whiskey. After some back and forth on the tl and in the dms, Jenni of Charbay kindly sent me samples of their two brandies, the Nos. 83 and 89.

No. 83, coincidentally distilled in 1983, was the first thing to ever come out of Charbay’s still. It was distilled twice and aged in Limousin oak for 27 years. It seems to fall into the quirky house style, but I’ll admit that I haven’t had enough 27 y/o brandies to truly make a fair comparison. It’s the most Cognac-like of the two, which should come as no surprise since it’s made from Folle Blanche grapes, one of the historic grape varieties of Cognac. Wood is prominent, but there’s enough herbs and spices to keep No. 83 from being one-dimensional.

No. 89 is a different animal altogether. It was distilled in 1989 from two popular wine grapes, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir brandies are rare but not completely unknown, with fellow Ukiah distiller Germain-Robin producing a celebrated one. Sauvignon Blanc is more rare, but is still not completely unheard of as a source material for brandy. There’s slightly more fruit in 83 than in 89, but there’s still not a lot. What is there is a citric acidity that cuts through the oak to make for an enjoyable special occasion sipper.

I’m not going to do the thing I typically do in the final paragraph of a review and evaluate these on price. These are both special, one of a kind brandies and their prices reflect that. Both are outside of my price-range for any spirits, although I could see myself paying $240 for something exceptional if my wife got a big bonus or promotion or when we become empty-nesters. Nos. 83 and 89 are important pieces of micro-distilling history. If you get a chance to taste them, jump on it! You’ll never taste anything like them again.

One pairing suggestion: If you do pay full price for these bottles or over $50 for a pour in a bar, maybe make a matching donation to your favorite charity or local DSA chapter.

Free Run Cellars XO

Maker: Free Run Cellars, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA (Round Barn)

21752044_10156194634885400_5691982697099914638_n

Grape: Vidal Blanc.

Age: 8 y/o

ABV: 50%

Price: I forgot.

Note: At time of purchase, I received a complimentary tour, tasting, lunch, and discount on purchases. See my visit to Round Barn cellars here.

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Golden raisins, alcohol, oak, Juicy Fruit gum.

Palate: Light bodied and mild. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers.

Finish: Also mild. Alcohol, oak, fruit punch.

Parting words: Free Run was founded by Matt and Christian Moersch, sons of Round Barn founder (and former Tabor Hill winemaker) Rick Moersch. The name is a play on the “free run” juice of the initial grape crush and the brothers being given “free run” of the cellar by their father. Free Run began by specializing in estate, single vineyard wines, but has since branched out. Free Run’s “Epicurean” tasting room in Berrien Springs is more than the traditional “belly up to the bar” set up. It offers a culinary experience for groups (with paired wines of course) but it’s only open seasonally. Free Run’s Union Pier tasting room is more conventional.

At any rate, the label describes this brandy as “Cognac style” which it sort of is, though it would fall on the fruity and mild end of the Cognac spectrum, in spite of the high ABV. While I don’t like it as much as I liked the Free Run grappa (review here), it is an easy-drinking, even refreshing sipper that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend were it more readily available. I’m not sure if it’s made anymore, but if it isn’t I hope it gets put into production again but in bigger bottles and with wider distribuition. Free Run Cellars XO Brandy is recommended.

Huber Starlight Distillery Private Reserve Brandy

Maker: Starlight Distillery, Borden, Indiana, USA (Huber’s Orchard & Winery)wpid-20151029_104412.jpg

Age: NAS

ABV: 40%

Price: $60 (website)

Note: My wife and I received a complimentary tasting and tour and a 10% discount at time of purchase.

Appearance: Medium copper with thick, sticky legs.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, golden raisins, toffee, pinch of clove.

Palate: Full bodied and medium dry. Dried figs, alcohol, vanilla, salted caramel, custard.

Finish: Back to raisins and oak. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not at all. Fades a little too quickly though.

Parting words: Starlight Distillery has been making brandy since 2001 and selling it since 2004. They sell two (grape) brandies, actually. There is the Private Reserve, and the cheaper Starlight Distillery Brandy which they didn’t let me taste.

Master distiller Lisa Wicker: “You don’t want that one, it’s only distilled once.”

Me: “That’s OK. Armagnac is too, right?”

Lisa: [laughs and pours me the reserve]

Having been in the business for so long (by micro distiller standards) means they have the reserves to make a consistently good product and that they do. I emailed Lisa about what sort of cooperage and grapes they use for this product, but I have had no reply as of press time. That’s OK, though. Lisa & Tim are two of the good guys and both very busy individuals.

I hosted a bourbon writer in my house recently and he picked this bottle out of my liquor cabinet as we were sitting down to an after dinner chat and sip. He was very impressed. Since we were on the topic of brandy, I asked him about a brandy micro-distillery that near him in Kentucky that had been getting a lot of press lately. “Their stuff is good,” he said, “but not as good as this.”

So there you have it. This is a very good American brandy at a decent price, one that more than holds its own with brandies big and small. Huber Starlight Distillery Private Reserve Brandy is recommended.

Germain-Robin Alembic Brandy Reserve Vine & Table batch 2012F

Maker: Germain-Robin, Ukiah, California, USAwpid-20150219_171845.jpg

Age: NAS

ABV: 43%

Price: $50

Appearance: Burnt orange with a long, persistent necklace.

Nose: Alcohol, raisins, prunes, mincemeat, black tea.

Palate: Full-bodied and rich. Prune juice, star anise, passito wine, oak.

Finish: Dry and spicy. Fruitcake or mincemeat spices, raisins.

Parting words: Co-founded by a man from a distilling family in Cognac, Germain-Robin is probably the U.S.’s finest producer of brandy. They’ve been in business since 1982 (an eternity in micro-distiller years) and were favorites of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, among others.

This is very much in the style of Cognac but better than most in its price range. As a whiskey drinker primarily, it makes a very pleasant change of pace. I haven’t tried V & T’s other batch, 2012E but I have heard excellent things about it too. Something this tasty at this price is not something I would mix. It’s an excellent value from an excellent maker and an excellent retailer. Germain-Robin Alembic Brandy Reserve Vine & Table batch 2012F is highly recommended.