Clear Creek Distillery
From the May/June 2011 issue of Northwest Palate
Stephen R. McCarthy started it all. In 1985 he began the Pacific Northwest’s first modern craft distillery to produce Old World-style eaux de vie (fruit brandies)—indeed, he was the second such distiller in North America.
Based in Portland and using only Oregon-sourced fruit (and much from his own family’s farm), McCarthy crafts his spirits in traditional European pot stills drawing on both techniques he has learned in Alsace and Switzerland and his unparalleled 26 years of craft distilling experience.
“I had a long interest in French wines, eaux de vie, and obscure local and regional spirits,” says McCarthy. “In the 1980s I saw how the Northwest beer and wine people were starting small and being really creative. Like them, I wanted to use the local fruits and help create more of a market for agriculture by distilling the fruit into high-quality brandies.”
It was the success of his skills and the quality of his products that brought national attention to what was then a little-known specialty: small-batch distilling. Throughout the years, and a move to a larger and more efficient production facility, it has been McCarthy’s products that set the standards for artisan spirits.
“We got a lot of national attention, but the market was still very small,” he recalls. “About the year 2000 people began popping up doing distilling, and now it’s a thundering herd! A lot of these new folks have the right ideas: use local products, create very high-quality products, and build their markets carefully. The trend is great, but it is still very challenging.”
Though best known for his seven fruit brandies, especially the Williams Pear Brandy (with the pear in the bottle grown on McCarthy’s own orchards), McCarthy’s range of more than 20 products is eclectic. He produces an often sold-out Islay-style Oregon Single Malt Whiskey made from peat-malted barley imported from Scotland and fermented into a wash by Widmer Brothers Brewing, a range of grappas, brandies, and liqueurs, and even a unique Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir, which delivers an unparalleled Alpine aroma and flavor.
“When I began, eaux de vie were a hard sell until people tasted them,” McCarthy says, “but today people know so much more and they are more ready to seek new tasting experiences. We focus on craft and quality ingredients so we can create the best products we possibly can.”