According to 13th-generation distiller Marko Karakasevic, there were only two fruit-flavored vodkas on the market in 1998: Absolut Citron and Stoli Ohranj. Today, he says, there are more than 200, and he credits his own flavored vodkas with helping trigger the explosion. The man's got hubris.
He also has some exceptional products. Following in his father's footsteps, he initially created a Meyer-lemon and a blood-orange product - from fresh fruit, he emphasizes, not essences - and from those the Charbay label was born. Made at 80 proof for mixing in cocktails, Blood Orange is the more palatable of the two for straight sipping, and it revitalizes the once-faddish Cosmopolitan. The Meyer Lemon makes a killer Bloody Mary (try it with a skewered serrano chile from which you can take small, cautious bites) and a lovely Meyer Lemon Drop.
The burly and ebullient Marko had to convince his father to market the un-flavored vodka, which was, after all, the base for the flavored product. Produced in their Mendocino County, California facility from Midwestern corn, wheat, and rye, it is distilled in a classic, copper French Alambic Charentais pot and is not charcoal-filtered. Yet, claims Marko, "you can drink it all day long with a twist of lemon and a little Pellegrino, and you're fine the next day." I make no such claims, but can attest to a fragrant, almost floral, aroma (from the corn, I'm told) and a beautifully silky mouth feel. Tasted against Chopin, a Polish, potato-based vodka, the Charbay seemed smoother and more complex. Key Lime and Texas Ruby Red grapefruit are the other Charbay vodka flavors, also designed for blending in cocktails, and the family is about to release Oregon Red Raspberry and Green Tea flavors in 70-proof bottlings for sipping on the rocks.
But, distilling fools that they are, vodka is far from the only product produced by Charbay: Grappa di Marko, Ruby Port, Nostalgie Black Walnut Liqueur, and Calvad'or California Apple Brandy (soon to be released) are also among the offerings. Unfortunately, not all of them are available in Texas. The Charbay Tropical Islands Cane Rum, triple distilled from sugarcane syrup sourced in Jamaica and Hawaii, soon will be available locally, however, and it will be worth seeking out at Medusa Lounge and La Cantera. This one we compared to Bacardi Silver and, again, no contest; the Charbay is appealingly herbal-floral with an agave-like pepper note. Marko's Tahitian Vanilla Rum is even smoother on the palate, with a restrained vanilla character suggesting accompaniment with flambéed shrimp - both cooking and sipping.
But the best spirit of the tasting was the brand-new Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey, a single-malt equivalent that will retail for, get this, around $350 a bottle when it reaches San Antonio later in the year - in extremely limited quantities. Herbal, floral, spicy ... it's utterly extraordinary. Let's hear it for hubris. •