In getting to know the story of Portland, Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my favorite videogame of the 1990s, Oregon Trail. It was a famously frustrating game, but there was one lesson that always stuck with me: if you managed to make it out West without dying of dysentery and chose to be a farmer, the potential rewards were massive.
Traditionally, farming and distilling have always been closely intertwined. Nearly every type of booze available today was first developed by farmers who knew how to put the land around them to good use. It’s hard work, and when done with care and skill it can give rise to spirits that not only add color to the human experience, but also convey a hidden character of the land that produced them. Clear Creek Distillery has embraced that philosophy for the past three decades, and the unique spirits that bear its name have come to be known as some of the best in the world—much to the chagrin of the more traditionally-minded European spirit producers they originally sought to emulate.
The Early Days of Clear Creek Distillery
It all started in 1986 when Stephen McCarthy, now a legend of American distilling, began his love affair with eaux de vie (French for “water of life,” typically referring to fruit brandies) as an exchange student in Grenoble, France, near the border of Switzerland. There, he was taught the names and flavors of each specific variety, and grew to adore their strong but compelling characters.
While managing his family’s manufacturing business as an adult, he frequently traveled to the Alsace region of France, known for having one of the most desirable climates for wine and fruit production. Simultaneously, Oregon was beginning to develop a reputation for exactly the same qualities.
American settlers brought the first fruit trees to the Pacific Northwest as part of Lewis and Clark’s expeditions, and they found that the region’s abundance of fresh water, rich volcanic soil, warm days, and cooler nights, combined to form a perfect climate for producing pears, apples, cherries and grapes. By the 1970s, grape and wine production in Oregon was booming—and the French terroir these winemakers were attempting to emulate was also renowned for its fruit brandy.
Alsace, specifically, is known for it’s eau de vie de poire Williams, or Williams pear brandy. Because they’re more or less the same cultivar, Steve became convinced that the juicy Bartlett pears that were growing in his family’s Hood River Valley orchard could produce a brandy that was as equally nuanced and delicious. His first batch in 1985, with its full fruit nose and desert-dry mouthfeel, seemed to prove him right, and thus Clear Creek Distillery was born.
Elevating the Old World
What’s perhaps most impressive about Clear Creek’s portfolio is its diversity. Of their 25 products, eleven are eaux de vie (their specialty), seven are liqueurs, six are traditional Italian grappas, and one is even a single malt whiskey in the style of a peaty Islay scotch. Their flagship product, the Williams Pear Brandy, has been listed by F. Paul Pacult‘s quarterly Spirit Journal as the eighth best spirit in the world overall.
Each batch that comes out of their stills is meant to be as good or better than any of its European counterparts. The way they have been able to achieve that lofty goal is by staying local, relying on the world-class fruit from the farms around them.
As Rachel Inman, Clear Creek’s Operations Manager, puts it, “everything that we make has a European cousin. We started 30 years ago using the Bartletts from the Hood River Valley. Then, we started making apple brandy in the style of Calvados, and then, because we have such great cherries here, we decided to start making the German cherry brandy called Kirschwasser. In Europe, these fruit-based brandies are regional—they’re unique to the area where they’re made. Each village has an orchard and whatever’s growing nearby they decide to distill.
“But here in Oregon, because we have such easy access to some of the best fruit in the world—the pears, the apples, the great cherries that we have, the plums, the grapes for the Grappa—and because we have such great relationships with the farmers that are growing them here, we keep it all local year after year. We think it’s better.” Though Steve McCarthy has retired, the staff at Clear Creek continues to maintain an unshakable connection to the region, producing spirits at a level unmatched nearly anywhere else in the world.
Branching Out, So to Speak
Clear Creek isn’t just about one-upping European spirits—they’ve made a habit over the years of devising some pretty wild new offerings. On the aesthetic side, they developed their own method for pear-in-bottle brandy, which is a truly gorgeous expression of their flagship product.
The process requires some fairly deep agricultural knowledge, as they start by identifying the “king pear,” or the bud that’s likely to grow the largest on each branch. They then tie a clear glass bottle over the bud, and wait for it to mature. Around the end of April, both fruit and bottle are picked and sent to the Portland distillery. Workers clean the whole thing with special brushes, then fill the bottle with their award-winning brandy.
The gorgeous evergreen trees of the area are another of Clear Creek’s inspirations. One of Steve’s early visions for Clear Creek was to recreate an obscure bottle of brandy known as Eau de Vie de Bourgeons de Sapin, which is made by infusing nascent Spruce tree buds in a clear brandy—their version, true to local form, instead uses the buds of the northwestern Douglas Fir. McCarthy’s determination to have the perfect balance of color and flavor led him on a fifteen-year journey to get the product exactly right.
He wrote about it in 2009, saying, “with the help of a new employee, Daniel Ruiz, we finally got flavor, color and aroma to come together at 95.46 proof. We have a beautiful light green, ridiculously aromatic, robust Eau De Vie of Douglas Fir. A product that all conceivable market research would say had absolutely no future is now a modest success in the marketplace, which is pretty good for something made out of a fir tree.” Although Steve’s personal preference for enjoying the eau de vie is to stick to the traditional digestif fashion, the best use of it that Rachel has ever seen was drizzled over ice cream.
An American… Scotch?
Clear Creek has even, in its seemingly infinite creativity, formulated one of America’s few single malt whiskies, McCarthy’s Single Malt. Steve wanted to recreate the flavors of whisky he liked best, most of which come from the Scottish island of Islay. By partnering with local brewing phenomenon Widmer Brothers, he was able to begin importing malted barley from the same Diageo factory where nearly all of the Islay scotch producers, like Laphroaig and Lagavulin, go to get theirs.
Although only aged for 3 years, Oregon’s unique climate and humidity help to make its flavor surprisingly mature, with notes of raw honey, light, sweet smoke, and iodine. The 2008 release received 96 out of 100 points in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, and has generally been regarded by the whiskey industry as an extraordinarily strong product. McCarthy’s Whiskey used to be nearly impossible to find, usually selling out within several days of its release, but over the last few years they’ve managed to produce enough to keep even their thirstiest customers sated.
And while Clear Creek’s eaux de vie and whiskey are the best known of their products, they also make some of the best grappas you’ll ever try. Italian grappas are made by distilling the remnants of grapes left over from making wine, known as pomace—and as we mentioned above, Oregon produces some excellent wine. Clear Creek offers several varieties, including Grappa Moscato, Marc de Gewürztraminer, Grappa of Oregon Pinot Noir, Grappa of Pinot Grigio, and two traditional northern Italian Grappas, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. The latter is truly exceptional spirit, complex with a deep, earthy richness and long finish we won’t soon forget.
Joy in Excellence
Clear Creek offers regular tours at their distillery in Portland, during which the staff eagerly takes visitors around, enthusiastically showing them the stills and explaining the history of the company, all while offering tastes of the different spirits they produce. On a recent visit it was obvious that their team is extremely passionate not only about what they create, but about the hard work it takes to do it and the environment to which their spirits pay homage.
When asked what the best part about working at Clear Creek has been for her, Rachel Inman says, “really it’s the love [people in Portland have] for Clear Creek. Even if they haven’t tried our products before, they always say, ‘It’s such a great company, this must be the best job in the world!’” From what we can tell, the folks at Clear Creek Distillery heartily agree, and it’s that joyful urge to create that makes them such an exciting company to follow.
Photos: Clear Creek Distillery