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The secret of this 270 year old spirit brand? Reinvention
Domaine Charbay “It was still a beautiful copper,” says Marko Karakasevic. “And my first job in the distillery was sitting on a bucket with a green washer and cleaning the inside.” Karakasevic was ten years old and literally grew up distilling. His father is Miles Karakasevic, founder of Domaine Charbay in Napa Valley, California. Miles, in turn, grew up distilling. “When I was a boy, I remember people who came to our vineyard in Yugoslavia to buy our wine and brandy and fill their bottles straight from our barrels,” Miles recalled in a 2016 collection of essays, written by Californian writers. Christopher Kimball & the Grateful Dead School of Bartending The Secret History of BourbonMiles studied winemaking in Belgrade and went west in 1962, ending up in Canada and then Michigan, where he worked for various winemakers. In 1970 he and his wife Susan moved west to California, where he worked with several large winemakers. Eventually, the couple bought a 17-hectare vineyard where Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cognac-style brandy were made in a traditional Charentais. Domaine Charbay It is no surprise that the Karakasevic family distills. They do that. But how they managed to continue this tradition through a series of unfortunate events is remarkable. The family has been producing wine and brandy since 1751, and has thus managed to continue the rise and fall of the Habsburgs, the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. This led to World War I, then World War II, followed by Marshal Tito’s separation from Stalin. And now the Covid-19 pandemic. Phew “Tradition” has a vague touch of mold and obsolescence – the idea of continuing the old ways in the face of oppressive modernity. But what if your own tradition is innovation? For example, knowing how to uproot yourself and relocate halfway around the world to keep a family tradition alive. Or to prepare Chardonnay for desserts. In 1987 Miles and Susan launched one of their first innovations, which they called “Dessert Chardonnay”. This was essentially a fortified wine similar to the Pineau des Charentes made in France. They scratched the letters from Chardonnay and Brandy and named them Charbay. A few years later, they came to the conclusion that their original name for their company, Domaine Karakash, was difficult to pronounce and even harder to remember, so they renamed the entire company to Domaine Charbay. It has been known ever since. Growing up in California, Marko worked in his vineyard and distillery for no pay – a danger of growing up in a family with a small business. He later found paid work with several winemakers in the Napa Valley. In a small winery he learned more about the intricacies of fermentation. In a large commercial winery, he worked on pumps and valves and much more. “So I learned mass transfer technology,” he says. In high school, he sustained a shoulder injury while playing soccer that required physical therapy. The healing process fascinated him so much that he left the valley to pursue a career as a physiotherapist. “I loved helping people,” he says. And he liked that it had the potential to be a job that allowed him to travel internationally, post here and there for six months, and then move on. But the new profession did not accept. It turns out that 12 generations of traditions are not that easy to escape. His father asked him to return to the distillery and so he left school after a year and without a degree. “And finally I got paid,” he says. It began around the time Absolut Citron was launched, became a runaway bestseller (thanks to Cosmopolitan and Sex and the City), and sparked a flurry of other flavored vodkas. On his travels, Marko saw how popular these were and suggested that his father make them himself. “My father shot me,” he recalls. “He said, ‘We don’t make vodka in our family.’” But at the time Miles was working on a limoncello made with Meyer lemon extract. Marko asked his father how many people he thought they drink limoncello? And how many drank vodka? The numbers were irrefutable and Marko prevailed. They made and released a Meyer lemon vodka and it picked up speed quickly. Why is there no better way to buy alcohol online? Recreate a Lost American Whiskey When Marko was 14 and working with his family, one of his jobs was to collect black walnuts from the orchard behind their property to make their nocino. (That was a great job, Marko recalls, especially because he was allowed to drive a truck without a license.) In doing so, he learned to make extracts from fresh produce. And those early skills of capturing the essence of the freshly harvested dividends paid off when Charbay expanded its vodka line and brought natural flavors to a largely tasteless spirit. After lemon came blood orange, lime, green tea, ruby-red grapefruit and raspberry vodkas. “We wanted to have something for everyone,” he says. “If they don’t want that, they’ll take it.” Marko expanded to hop whiskey – his family in Yugoslavia had never been a grain distiller, but focused on fruit. Growing up in America, he was very interested in whiskey. He was also interested in beer – he’s been a homebrewer for years. “Why can’t I just take this delicious Czech Pilsner lager that I made and distill it,” he wondered. (Almost all whiskey is made from grain after it’s turned into something called a distilled beer that doesn’t contain bitter hops.) “And my father said, ‘This isn’t American whiskey – it’s not what anyone does. ‘and so he shot me down on it. “But Marko insisted. In 1999 he had the opportunity to buy 24,000 gallons of Czech pils from a brewery. “We double-distilled 24 tankers 24 hours a day for three and a half weeks,” he said. He’s released barrels of whiskey every few years, which has grown deeper and richer over time. These groundbreaking Pilsner whiskeys have caught the attention of semi-cult whiskey fans in search of new flavor profiles that pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle. (“Hot, spicy and clear,” reads a report on the 13 year old publication.) Domaine Charbay and Charbay continued to explore new territory. (“I can spell ‘focus’, but that’s about it, says Marko.) They made a rum from sugar cane syrup that came in from Maui. And when Miles and Susan spent time in Mexico, they were intrigued by tequila. One day a drum of agave syrup suddenly appeared in the distillery to experiment. Charbay later teamed up with the well-known tequila producer Carlos Camarena, produced his own tequila in his La Alteña distillery and jointly imported his tequila tapatio. As with so many other small distilleries, the Covid-19 pandemic pulled the carpet out from under them – they relied on bars to highlight their products and that road to market suddenly evaporated. Marko says it is lucky that they have overcapacity and a new and extensive filling line. That’s why they stepped up contract manufacturing and worked with “around ten” entrepreneurs to create new brands. Their larger customers include Los Angeles-based Wolves Whiskey, which has a limited number of select casks of their old hop whiskey in bottles with Italian leather labels. “It’s exhausting to quickly change the concept to keep the lights on and pay bills,” says Marko. What’s next to stay up to date and make sure the 13th generation of distillers doesn’t turn out to be unhappy? Marko has been closely monitoring the ready-to-drink (RTD) market – pre-made cocktails in cans and bottles. “I still have to pull myself together and finalize the formulas for some RTD because they are now fully accepted,” he says. And he has another big project in the works: keeping the tradition alive by training his two sons. Now five and ten years old. “The 14th generation of Brenners in my family is here and learning,” he says. “You know where the distillate comes from the still.” Read more at The Daily Beast. Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now! Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside delves deeper into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.