Stephen McCarthy is the godfather of American craft distilling. He started his research in the 1970s and began distilling in 1985, becoming the second person in the country to produce eaux de vie, or fruit brandies. His Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, set a high standard for others to emulate, and still is a leader in quality and craft, and an inspiration to a new generation of small-batch distillers.
“And like a lot of uniquely American innovation epidemics, the craft spirits movement is undisciplined, fast moving, and very mixed in integrity, quality, skill, and sense of direction. Yet, one of the wonderful things about capitalism and Darwin’s principle of natural selection is that the whole thing will take care of itself.
“The skills and knowledge of sommeliers, bartenders, retail trade buyers, and distributors will reject the poorer quality and overpriced products. They will find the people who believe in what they are doing and can be counted on to make top-quality spirits and who act with integrity.
“There are some well-funded heavy-duty new distilleries around the country that are already demonstrating a deft touch with the stills, and impressive marketing savvy. Likewise, there are small, “self-funded” distilleries doing the same. And there are good examples of both big and small who will not make it. The difference is that like music or ballet, talent is required for success. And so is taste.
“It is not an easy business to succeed in, even if you have great products. It’s my observation that one model for small distillers’ success might be how small Oregon wineries have succeeded. The characteristics of both of these artisan-made products—spirits and wines—and the markets they appeal to, are perfect for high-quality distributors with professional sales reps who focus on top-quality products.
“I remember once presenting a somewhat obscure eau de vie I’d made to the buyer for a very good East Coast distributor. He groaned and said, “Well, at least make it expensive.” We did. And that made it worth his while to put in quality effort to sell it to consumers who appreciate the product’s uniqueness.
“So far, there do not seem to be any important impediments to further growth of the small spirits distillers, as long as they know what they are trying to accomplish and make products with integrity and sincerity.
“The industry is young. Stay tuned.”