Distilling in Portland, Oregon:

Clear Creek



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Clear Creek Distillery

The real life of a city is in its neighborhoods. Strolling down 23rd Ave NW in Portland, Oregon's Alphabet District on a sunny afternoon, the visitor has an impression of a lively and pleasant town. The street is lined with shops ranging from upscale furniture emporiums to offbeat clothing stores to purveyors of kitschy gag items. There are cafes and restaurants, and two of the McMenamin brothers' splendid brewpubs.

The Clear Creek distillery, on NW Wilson Street in a light industrial zone at the edge of the neighborhood, has benefitted from the area's resurgence in recent years. The original plant at Quimby and 23rd, a few blocks away, was cramped and inadequate to the growing business' needs. It was also sited on what was becoming prime real estate, and the sale of the property made the current facility, set up to owner Steve McCarthy's specifications, possible.

Clear Creek has been distilling since 1985. McCarthy's family was (and is) in the fruit business, with orchards in the shadow of Mount Hood. His travels in Europe gave him an appreciation of spirits like grappa and eau-de-vie, and building his own distillery seemed the natural thing to do. He isn't alone; microdistilleries have been popping up all over the American Northwest in recent years, making either brandies and eaux-de-vie, or vodka, gin, and rum. But in 1994, McCarthy became one of the few to start producing whiskey.

"I love peaty whisky," says McCarthy, by way of explaining why he imports malt peated to 30ppm from Scotland--Baird's of Inverness, to be precise--when barley is surely plentiful enough in Oregon. None of the American maltsters have experience with peat, and while McCarthy says he would eventually like to use locally-produced peated malt, he concedes that there is no guarantee that American peat would be quite the same. It becomes evident, during the course of a visit, that that won't stop him from trying. McCarthy is not afraid to tinker and experiment, and indeed would not be where he is if that were not so.

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There are, for example, two of Clear Creek's more unusual products: Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir, and Apple-in-the-Bottle Eau de Vie de Pomme. The latter was inspired by pear-in-the-bottle pear brandy, made by growing pears in the bottle before filling. (McCarthy says the regular bottling of pear brandy is still "the backbone of the business.") Growing apples in the bottle proved to be much more difficult, but the very limited bottling is offered in years when things go well. The green-tinged Douglas Fir spirit, inspired by "an obscure Alsatian distillate called Eau de Vie de Bourgeons de Sapin", took ten years to perfect, and involves infusion of fresh buds into clear brandy, redistillation, and reinfusion. As with all Clear Creek products, there is no added flavor, color, or sugar.

As well as these, there are brandy; eaux-de-vie of Kirsch (cherries), framboise (raspberries), blue plum (Slivovitz) and mirabelle plum; and a number of grappas, ranging from the accessibly floral moscato to the earthy and complex sangiovese. Apple brandy, meant to evoke calvados and made from Golden Delicious apples, is aged for two years in limousin oak for cooking and cocktails, and eight years for the snifter. Liqueurs of loganberry, cassis, cherry, raspberry, and pear have been added in recent years. Oregon fruit and wine are the basis for all of these products, which collectively have won an astonishing number of awards and rave reviews. McCarthy says the blue plum brandy keeps winning gold at the U.S. Slivovitz competition, "even when we don't enter."

No accolade is more surprising or impressive than that given McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt Whiskey by Jim Murray in the 2004 edition of his Whisky Bible: Best Small Batch Whiskey in the world, with a stellar score of 94. McCarthy likes to compare his whiskey to Lagavulin, perhaps because it's widely known; Murray said it's "the closest...to how Ardbeg was 20 years ago," and a later batch could pass for "one of the best Caol Ilas I had come across for quite a few years." My own first nosing of it evoked Port Ellen, and a recent tasting of the much-heralded Port Charlotte was almost spookily similar (perhaps not so surprising, given that PC's malt is also from Baird's). Is that enough Islay reference for you?

"This is...a whiskey you pin gold medals to," Murray goes on. "Fabulous and just about faultless." It's heady praise for a three-year-old whiskey.

McCarthy has no proper brewing equipment, so his wash is prepared by Widmer Brothers Brewing of Portland. He says no one else in this microbrewery mecca was willing, and makes a point of emphasizing how cooperative Widmer has been over the years.

Distillation is done in eau-de-vie stills, manufactured in Germany by Holstein. They are the same stills all Clear Creek products pass through. It's single distillation, with a short heads cut, and a longer tails one. McCarthy says the cuts are made by smell. The spirit finishes at about 75% before being diluted for filling. I watched as one of the distillates dripped steadily into a five-gallon carboy. It all seemed very low-tech.

Wood policy is evolving. There are two old sherry butts, acquired for a song from L. Martini, "one of the really old, genuine Napa wineries," which McCarthy reckons are about at the end of their useful lives. He rues that he was not able to take more at the time. There is some of what he describes as "neutral old limousin oak", which formerly held cognac. Increasingly, there is new Oregon oak from the Oregon Barrel Works, a cooperage whose main business is supplying the burgeoning vineyards of the Northwest. McCarthy admits he is not fussy about the char, and takes whatever is available at the time he needs it.

Until 2007, McCarthy's Single Malt was bottled at 40% abv. It's now at 42.5%, to eliminate the need for chillfiltering. The whiskey is bottled twice a year, and it sells out fast. It's gone from the distillery within a week, and most retailers sell out their allotment long before the next batch is available. It would be nice, says McCarthy, to hold some barrels back for further aging, but so far he hasn't been able to justify it.

The front office doubles as a shop, and there is always product available for tasting and sale (if not often the whiskey). An old Scottish bootlegger's still sits in the corner. Distillery tours are conducted on Saturdays at 11:00 (phone for reservations). And when you are done, you might well stroll down 23rd Avenue for a pint at McMenamins' Tavern & Pool pub, or a bit of shopping. As you take in the neighborhood, warmed by a spot of apple brandy, perhaps, you will be hard pressed to think of any place you'd rather be at just that moment.

Clear Creek Distillery
2389 NW Wilson
Portland OR 97210
(503) 248-9470

In the area:

Edgefield Distillery

In 25 years, the McMenamin brothers have built an empire of more than 50 brewpubs in the Pacific Northwest, centered in Portland. Inspired by the pubs of Europe, they delight in making each property unique and fun, and welcoming to the whole community. Certainly none is more interesting than Edgefield, the former Multnomah County Poor Farm, now the site of hotel, restaurant, gardens, golf course, several bars, brewery, winery, and distillery. The 38-acre complex stands in Troutdale, a twenty-minute drive from downtown Portland. Edgefield's Hogshead Whiskey is available by the bottle in the hotel shop, and of course by the drink in McMenamins' pubs. If you've ever wondered what single malt would taste like aged in new wood, here it is.

The distillery, with its single Holstein still, is housed in a virtual closet. Stick your nose in and say hi--they're friendly folk.

. . .

2126 SW Halsey
Troutdale OR 97060
(503) 669-8610, (800) 669-8610


House Spirits

The exuberant clutter of House Spirit's workspace stands in marked contrast to Clear Creek's airy and orderly plant, but it would be a mistake to take the business less than seriously. The principals at House are young, and it shows in their attitude, but they know what they are doing. They learned their craft at Edgefield before setting up shop in Portland.

House's product line-up includes vodka, gin, aquavit, ouzo, schnapps, and rum. In the works is an "Apothecary Line" of small-batch experimental spirits.

But for the whiskey lover, the most interesting development at House is the "Whiskey Your Way" program. After a tasting seminar and consultation, the customer designs his own whiskey, from mash bill to wood selection, and is invited to participate in the distillation process. The end product is a very personal barrel of whiskey.

House Spirits
2025 SE 7th
Portland OR 97214
(503) 219-2219
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