Two Fashion Entrepreneurs Unleash a New Whiskey Brand Made in California
From sneakers to snifters.
- CategoryMakers + Entrepreneurs
- Written byShaun Tolson
Over the past two decades, American whiskey has established itself as a true connoisseur’s spirit. The popularity and demand for high-quality, small-batch bourbon has skyrocketed; and more recently rye whiskey has reemerged as a legitimate category, one that is slowly educating consumers on the country’s rich whiskey history. Regrettably, broad-sweeping enthusiasm for American whiskey more or less ends there. Because of that, some exceptional spirits—like the limited-edition blends from Wolves Whiskey, crafted at the intimate Charbay Distillery in Ukiah, California—are widely overlooked.
Almost a decade ago, Jon Buscemi—a fashion mogul best known for his eponymous sneaker brand—had a come-to-Jesus moment while sipping a mature Willet Family Estate bourbon. That revelatory glass of bourbon introduced him to what a truly exceptional whiskey-drinking experience could be. More recently, Buscemi tasted California Gold—a homemade blend of commercially released bourbons that first emerged and impressed whiskey enthusiasts at a private tasting in the fall of 2016. The quality of that DIY blend convinced Buscemi that he, too, could create a high-quality, sip-worthy whiskey.
“We were looking for something truly different and unique, something handcrafted and authentic, something we couldn’t find anywhere else,” Buscemi says, speaking of the quest that he and his partner, James Bond (founder of the Undefeated fashion brand), took to craft a superlative, game-changing whiskey. For the two fashion entrepreneurs, their journey ended about 55 miles north of downtown Santa Rosa. There they met Marko Karakasevic, a 13th-generation distiller, and tasted the whiskey (made from bottle-ready beer) that Karakasevic distilled inside a vintage copper alembic pot still, one that his family had imported from Cognac, France more than 20 years ago.
“I don’t know what he planned for them,” Buscemi says of the barrels of whiskey that Karakasevic had laid down to age almost a decade ago, “but I’m glad we found them.”
Wolves Whiskey’s first release—aptly named First Run—was limited to fewer than 900 bottles and was distributed during the spring of 2019. Its blend was comprised of a whiskey distilled from stout beer that was aged for eight years in French oak, a whiskey distilled from a pilsner that was aged for five years in new American oak, and a rye whiskey sourced from MGP, a massive contract distillery in Indiana.
More recently, the brand unveiled 1,338 bottles of Winter Run, a whiskey that utilized the same three components found in First Run but added a single-malt whiskey that was aged in second-fill French oak casks for nine years. “With First Run, it was more about an introduction,” Buscemi says. “Most people have not had whiskey distilled from finished beer, and the flavors are unusual the first time around.” Winter Run, by contrast, is Buscemi’s and Bond’s opportunity to build off that initial introduction.
Medium-bodied and exceptionally smooth, Winter Run is defined by complexity. Notes of caramel, clove, and cardamom mingle with hints of anise and black pepper on the nose, while prevalent flavors of chocolatey hops (delivered from the finished stout) round out the whiskey on the palate. The Wolves Whiskey team, by contrast, picks out honeysuckle and vanilla notes on the nose; and it finds toasted almonds and orange marmalade on the palate. The end result—regardless of the specific scents smelled or flavors tasted—is a spirit with remarkable depth. It is a kaleidoscope of tastes and aromas poured inside a glass.
All bottles of both First Run and Winter Run have been sold; however, additional releases of Wolves Whiskey expressions are tentatively planned for 2020, including a Spring Run. While the specific timing for each of those unveilings has yet to be finalized, those yearning for a bottle can join an allocation list offered through the brand’s website. Additionally, a limited number of bottles are likely to be sold on Flaviar, as was the case when the brand released its first two whiskies in 2019.
When asked how his team’s background in fashion contributed to the creation of a unique whiskey brand, Buscemi focused on his commitment to a distinctive way of life. “Everything we do is about culture and lifestyle,” he says. “We try to represent where we’ve been and where we’d like to go, so it’s a bit aspirational as well.”
Buscemi is also quick to refute the idea that his notoriety in the fashion world has had any bearing on the positive reception that Wolves Whiskey’s releases have garnered thus far. “In some ways our collective background has helped us create this product, but I wouldn’t say it’s legitimized us,” he says. “We felt we could add to the conversation in whiskey, and I think the quality of our releases is what legitimizes us.”
Midcentury San Diego from the lens of the famed architectural photographer.