You have to immediately respect anyone who is able to make a living doing exactly what they want to be doing. In our capitalist society some businessmen choose to focus their attention on the demands of the market, while others trust that the market will come to them. It takes confidence and ability, as well as a certain amount of luck, to succeed with the latter philosophy, and Steve McCarthy, head boss and chief distiller of Clear Creek Distillery, has all three. Located in Portland, Oregon, Steve has created a remarkable line-up of spirits, most of which are created with locally-grown Oregon fruits. Fruit-based eau de vies and liqueurs are not the meat and potatoes of the booze business; that hasn’t influenced McCarthy’s operation, however. While most producers are out trying to create the next big designer vodka, Clear Creek sticks to what they do best. “We’re like a French restaurant,” Steve told me, referring to the fact that his production is based around whatever he feels like cooking, or in this case, distilling.
Like a fine French restaurant, McCarthy uses fresh seasonal fruits to enhance the flavors of his “entrees.” “Sometimes I’ll just drive around the state with a bunch of cash and buy what’s available,” he says. If he can find a good deal on something out in the orchard, then he’ll find a way to use it. Not a sure-fire strategy by any stretch of the imagination, the main reason Clear Creek has been successful so far is because the spirits are that damn good. Steve’s pear brandy smells like a fresh-picked basket of pears, and his liqueurs taste like pure fruit juice (not the sweetened, store-bought kind, but the real fresh-squeezed essence). In this case, the quality of the distillates creates its own demand. You may not have known you wanted loganberry liqueur or apple eau de vie, but, after a small sample, your taste buds will inform you that indeed you do.
Not every Clear Creek bottling is geared toward fruit lovers. Their Single Malt Whiskey is made from a mash of peated barley just like in Scotland, but aged in Oregon oak barrels to help impart a sense of originality and place. Smoky, smooth, and delicious, it gives the best Islay malts a run for their money, and it is continuously ranked as one of the top American-produced whiskeys available. McCarthy also produces a line of single varietal grappas that stand up to the best Italian bottles available, but are, of course, made from locally-grown Oregon grape skins and pips. Clear Creek does an amazing job of taking the finest spirits from abroad and recreating them domestically from local produce. More often than not, they surpass the superb examples from which they are inspired. I’ll almost always advise customers looking for a great bottle of French Calvados to opt for Clear Creek’s 8-year-old apple eau de vie instead.
Perhaps the most famous recreation from Steve McCarthy is his homage to an obscure French eau de vie made from the buds of a spruce tree, maybe the most obscure form of eau de vie in the world. His version, flavored from the indigenous Douglas Fir, has intrigued spirit lovers everywhere. It is the perfect showcase for McCarthy’s ability as a distiller, as well as his indifference towards the perceived desires of the liquor market. In the New York Times, Steve McCarthy recently wrote, “A product that all conceivable market research would say had absolutely no future is now a modest success in the market place, which is pretty good for something made out of a fir tree.” Clear Creek products garner such respect that they can afford to take risks. They seek to define the demands of the market, rather than respond to them, which always keeps things interesting. Having tried the Douglas Fir, I can say that there is nothing else even remotely like it and that it’s worth the price of admission to ease your own lingering curiosity.
It’s that purity of flavor that McCarthy is after and I’ve yet to taste anything from Clear Creek that doesn’t achieve it. Because he works so hard in the name of flavor, he cringes at the thought of diluting it down. When I asked about his feelings on Clear Creek cocktails, he said that everything he makes is for straight sipping. He fully supports bartenders experimenting with his spirits in their concoctions, but he’s not going to be sending out any recipes. “I wouldn’t go into a restaurant and tell the chef how to prepare my food,” he says. It’s understandable. Imagine if you slaved over the grill cooking the perfect fillet mignon only to have your guest pour barbeque sauce all over it.
At the end of our visit to the distillery, McCarthy was kind enough to sample us on some of his products, including a new one in the works. He quickly ran to the back and retrieved a flask containing a beautiful dark, ruby-colored substance. “I got all these cranberries and figured I’d do something with them,” he told me, “I’m just not sure who’s going to drink it.” My fiancée and I each took one sip and immediately raised our hands and said, “We will!” My fiancée has been adamant about K&L buying it as soon as possible, and still claims it is the best alcoholic beverage she has ever had. It tasted of pure cranberry tartness with the flavors of the juice bursting in your mouth at every opportunity.
You might be saying to yourself, “That sounds nice David, but I’m not interested in cranberry liqueur.” I say, “You’re not interested in cranberry liqueur—yet.”