Charbay Distillery’s Jenni Karakasevic Talks 40 Years of Innovative Craft Spirit Making

The 12th, 13th, and perhaps 14th generation of distillers at Charbay with their family in front of their barrels and still.

When we launched The Crafty Cask in 2017, the award-winning, family owned and operated Charbay Distillery was one of the first craft makers we partnered with to spread the joy of craft spirits with like-minded tipplers across the US. Charbay is known for its innovative and passionate approach to craft distilling (you name it, they’ve distilled it), so what’s not to love?

In honor of Charbay’s 40th anniversary, we asked Director of Operations and co-owner, Jenni Karakasevic, to share insight on their legendary family craft spirits company with us.

Charbay SipScout Kit has only 100 kits available!

Don’t Miss Our Charbay Spirits Tasting Kit &  Event!

May 18, 2023 at 5 p.m. PT

Lucky for you, Charbay’s prized spirits (including one impossible to find and highly-coveted spirit), will be featured in our May 2023 craft alcohol and spirits subscription box, SipScout!

With only 100 kits available we expect this kit and our May 18th Charbay Spirits Tasting Event with master distiller, Marko Karakasevic,  to sell out…so get your kit now!

Get your Charbay tasting kit now!

A brief history of Charbay Distillery

Rooted in 13 generations of distilling, Charbay Distillery (No. 177 distillery in the US) in Ukiah, California is owned by Master Distiller Marko Karakasevic and his wife Jenni. They took over operations after Marko’s father Miles retired in 2016. After emigrating from Yugoslavia, Miles began distilling wine and brandy in the US, and in 1983 he and his wife started their own winery and distillery. Miles was the first distiller in the US to earn the title of Grand Master Distiller, which is granted to a Distiller who has distilled all four of the major spirits categories: Brandy, Whiskey, Rum and Tequila. Since Tequila must be distilled in Mexico, this is an extremely rare pinnacle for an artisan distiller to reach.

Marko, who turns 50 this year, started learning his craft at the age of 10. He  also earned the title of Master Distiller (granted by a teaching master to an accomplished apprentice who has matched or bettered the skill level of the teacher) with the release of his Light (clear) Whiskey in 2009. . While the history (and list of awards) of this craft spirits company could fill a tome, let’s cover some highlights.

Some key milestones include:

  • 1983: Miles distills Alambic Methode Charentais Brandy, distilled in the classic Cognac style. We should point out that this brandy, aged for 27 years before being released, WILL be in the SipScout tasting kit!
  • 1995: Marko joins Charbay full-time, as the 13th continuous generation distiller in the Karakasevic family.
  • 1998: Charbay releases the first-ever, 100% fresh fruit flavored vodkas (Meyer Lemon and Blood Orange).
  • 1999: Charbay’s Pilsner Whiskey distilled, the first whiskey distilled from bottle-ready beer.
  • 2009-2010: Marko and Jenni get married and Marko earns Master Distiller (with his Doubled & Twisted Light Whiskey “thesis”) and he and Miles distilled a one-time batch of Charbay Tequila with the Camarena family in Mexico. This has been sold out for years, but Marko’s sharing some from his private reserve to include in the 100 exclusive SipScout tasting kits! 
  • 2012: Charbay becomes the exclusive importer of Tequila Tapatío Blanco. Whiskey R5 and ‘S’ are released, distilled from Racer 5 IPA and Big Bear Black Stout beers from Bear Republic Brewing, respectively.
  • 2016: Marko and Jenni take over the reins at Charbay.
  • 2018: Marko’s thesis (in an aged form), Doubled & Twisted whiskey is released. Psssst… this has been our founder Suzanne’s favorite whiskey for years and lives in her favorite decanter! 
  • 2023: Charbay celebrates their 40th anniversary!
  • A conversation with Charbay Distillery’s Jenni Karakasevic

 

Jenni and the Charbay distillery family of founders and owners

Jenni, always the life of the party, was gracious enough to spend some time reminiscing about her almost 20 years working for Charbay Distillery. She and her husband, Grand Master Distiller Marko, are now the proud owners of Charbay Distillery… continuing the family distilling tradition into the 13th generation. 

As a craft spirits company, what would you say is Charbay’s biggest contribution to the craft spirits industry?

JK: At Charbay, we consistently innovate but with that innovation comes the knowledge of 13 generations. So, our innovation is balanced with the knowledge of how to execute the distilling process expertly.

Marko’s dad Miles always said, “We are not cookie cutters. We do things our own way.” So, we’re always pushing the envelope. For instance, way back when Miles created our own Pastis (a French anise liqueur, which he distilled for Susan), and later developed a spirit called Pachanga, which was created from sunchoke root, something that had never been done before. It almost drank like tequila and was really delicious.

Marko also puts his own spin on everything he creates. He focuses on the distillate not the barrel when creating spirits, usually using neutral Chardonnay barrels instead of something that releases a lot of oak.

Charbay was also the first distillery to use fresh fruits (vs additives and flavoring) to flavor vodka and the first to use bottle-ready beer to distill whiskey. The whiskey was so innovative the TTB needed to create a new category for it called hop flavored whiskey, even though it’s not flavored after its distilled. The first clear whiskey post-prohibition was also created by Charbay, which was way before its time.

How would you describe the drinker you create spirits for at Charbay?

JK: (Laughs) Miles and Marko would get a big laugh if they heard that. We don’t work that way. We don’t create spirits for target demographics—that’s not how we roll. Marko creates spirits because he is inspired and excited to create something, not because a particular person will enjoy it. 

It’s really fun watching Marko get inspired. For example, we’ve worked with Bear Republic Brewing for a long time. When he wants to make a new whiskey, he will talk with the brewmaster. They will literally craft the beer a certain way so once distilled it has the flavor profile Marko is looking for. It’s a fun thing to see, and it’s really based on inspiration and inspiration only. 

Marko & Miles tasting and debating their spirits over a barrel

How has the company evolved in recent years?

JK: I joined Charbay in 2004, after Marko and I had been dating a couple of years. They needed help with sales at the time, so I jumped in to help wherever I could. If I had a dollar for every time Miles said, “This is not a business!” They were a family making a living, doing what they love.  Marko and I have updated many processes, but we still do things the old school way, along with going a little rogue – because, like his parents, the artist side of Marko can’t help it!.

The process is still really manual. It’s been one still and one distiller (or two when Miles joins Marko at the still), which is the way it’s always been done in our family. The distilling process runs 24 hours a day for 10 days straight (it takes 10 straight days to distill a tanker of beer). Marko sleeps next to the still, taking 2-hour or 4-hour naps the entire time until it’s done. He uses taste and smell to make the best cuts. No automation, just old-world skills and experience!

 

What do you get when you mix a spirits subscription box with Charbay’s 40th Anniversary?

 

May SipScout kit featuring 6 Charbay Distillery Spirits to celebrate their 40th anniversary

The Crafty Cask’s amazing monthly craft alcohol subscription box, SipScout!

We have been honored to partner with Jenni, her husband Marko, and the rest of the talented folks at Charbay since the early days of The Crafty Cask. They were one of our very first clients and at this point they feel like family. In honor of Charbay’s 40th anniversary, The Crafty Cask will feature an exclusive selection of Charbay’s incredible and innovative craft spirits in our monthly SipScout craft alcohol subscription box.

As with every monthly SipScout kit, we will gather together for a virtual craft tasting event—save the date: May 18—to discuss the tipples featured that month. For our special Charbay craft spirits tasting event, Jenni and Master Distiller Marko will join us to share more insights (and fun stories, trust us – these two are a hoot!) about their craft spirits, their original, 660-gallon, Alambic Pot Still, and more. Don’t miss this one…it’s our most exciting SipScout yet with only 100 kits available due to the exclusive nature of two of the six spirits included! You’ll even get two commemorative Glencairn tasting glasses to sip in style. 

Reserve your May SipScout kit and spot at the Charbay 40th Anniversary Craft Spirits Tasting Event, here

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