Portland’s first distillery and Oregon’s oldest distillery make a spirited combination that blends progress with tradition.
BY MARGARETT WATERBURY
PHOTO BY NOLAN CALISCH
This year marks a watershed moment for the spirits industry: For the first time since Prohibition, the United States is home to more than 1,000 distilleries, with hundreds more in the planning stages. At least one distillery — and usually several — can be found in every state. Here in Oregon, we have around 60 small businesses hawking our very own homegrown hooch.
But before all those startups, there was Clear Creek Distillery. Founded in 1985, a time when the number of total U.S. distilleries, small and large alike, numbered in the dozens, Clear Creek has been a stalwart of the Willamette Valley food scene for the past 30-plus years.
Clear Creek hasn’t been a leader by keeping up with the latest trends or following fads. Instead, it has stuck to its guns: quality, consistency, and an unwavering commitment to using local ingredients to create spirits that reflect Oregon terroir.
That’s not to say the business has stopped evolving. Even now, more than 30 years later, Clear Creek is still growing and changing alongside Oregon’s dynamic culinary community. And that achievement is made all the more remarkable by the esoteric spirits category Clear Creek built its reputation on: fruit brandy.
Clear Creek’s founder, Steve McCarthy, was introduced to French-style fruit brandies while traveling in Europe for work. He fell in love with the intensely aromatic eau de vies served after meals — clear, bright, fiery spirits made from nothing but fruit. His favorite? Poire Williams, a spirit so evocative of ripe pear it bordered on hallucinatory. Imagine his delight when he discovered that Poire Williams was made with nothing more exotic than the humble American Bartlett pear, that familiar, slightly lumpy green fruit available from even the most ordinary grocery store. And as luck would have it, Steve’s family owned a pear orchard in Hood River, planted with Bartletts.
It was a time when even craft beer had yet to make a major impact, and American consumers were still deeply mired in a drinking culture that favored Budweiser, light whiskey, and Long Island iced tea. Yet Steve took it upon himself to champion these most ephemeral and sophisticated of spirits, mapping French distilling techniques and categories onto Northwest terroir. Using only Northwest-grown fruit, including pears from his own orchard and others, he debuted a line of spirits that included eau de vie, grappa, and aged grape and apple brandy.
From the beginning, Steve famously deterred bartenders from using his eau de vies in cock- tails (although they make some great ones). In- stead, he focused on promoting its enjoyment as an after-dinner digestif, a drinking custom that has an imported flavor even today.
It was an uphill battle. Most Americans were unfamiliar with European-style fruit brandy in 1985, and many still are. It was clear that education would be vital for Clear Creek’s success. Before moving to its current ware- house on the corner of Northwest 24th and Wilson, Clear Creek had a production facility and tasting room at Northwest 23rd and Quimby, in the building that now houses Southland Whiskey Kitchen and The Matador. The space was so small that each morning, anything that wasn’t bolted down got wheeled outside onto the sidewalk to make space for fruit processing and distillation. Unlike many small distilleries, Clear Creek has never used bulk neutral grain spirits, instead making and fermenting everything onsite from produce sourced from local farmers.
A cozy tasting room, complete with wood- burning stove, and the pervasive aroma of ripening fruit made convert after convert, but every bottle sale still took work: guided tastings, consumer education, and tours through the production facility to show off bins of local pears and cherries picked at the peak of ripeness. “What do you do with it?” was — and still is — an oft-fielded question at the Clear Creek tasting room.
After a few years in business, Clear Creek introduced a line of liqueurs in Northwest-centric flavors, such as Marionberry, Douglas fir, cranberry, and cassis, as well as a single-malt whiskey called McCarthy’s, inspired by the peated drams of Islay. Slowly, Portland’s first distillery wove itself into the fabric of our culinary landscape, establishing a presence on the shelves of fine restaurants, bars, and liquor stores throughout the Northwest.
Then, in 2014, Clear Creek was acquired by Hood River Distillers, the oldest distillery in Oregon. It was a move that surprised many in the industry. Clear Creek had remained to- tally committed to its traditional product line since day one, while Hood River Distillers had kept up with the times, updating its portfolio to include everything from Canadian whisky to candy-flavored liqueurs.
But there’s a lot more to Hood River Distillers than meets the eye. Founded in 1934 in Hood River, Oregon (where the company is still headquartered), Hood River Distillers began in much the same way as Clear Creek: making fruit brandy out of the apples and pears grown in the sunny, windswept valleys of the Columbia Gorge. Over the years, Hood River had discontinued its brandy line, but the romance of fruit is hard to shake. If anybody was going to continue Clear Creek’s uniquely Oregonian story, it was Hood River Distillers.
“We followed the growth of Clear Creek from its founding in 1985 with great interest and admiration,” says Brad Whiting, Hood River’s director of distilling and bulk spirits and Clear Creek’s general manager. “When Steve was ready to retire, we felt privileged that he reached out to us to continue his legacy. Clear Creek returns Hood River Dis- tillers to its roots of fruit distilling, and Hood River Distillers gives Clear Creek sales and marketing resources to bring its world-class spirits to a larger audience.”
“When Hood River Distillers first acquired us in 2014, they were very frank,” says Rachel Inman, Clear Creek’s brand steward and one of Clear Creek’s longest-standing employees. “They said, ‘We don’t know how to make what you make. Proceed as usual.’” And so Clear Creek did — only this time, it had access to some serious new resources. “Hood River Distillers bought us 45 new toasted French-oak barrels. That has really helped the quality of our aged apple brandy.”
The acquisition also brought a full rebranding of Clear Creek’s products, including new bottle shapes and label designs. “They brought us into the 21st century,” says Rachel. “Our product line is still the same. We may be dropping a few grappas, and as far as liqueurs, there’s definitely some overlap we might think about eliminating — Marionberry, loganberry, and blackberry? We’ll see. But everything else is still the same. We still have those farmer relationships: all our fruit comes from local farms.”
In fact, the effects of the partnership can even be seen in Hood River Distillers’ own products. It recently launched Trail’s End Bourbon, a sourced. Kentucky-made bourbon finished in Oregon Oak casks — the same casks used to age McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey. Are there any parallel new re- leases on the horizon for Clear Creek? “There are some new products in the works, al- though I can’t tell you what they are,” Rachel says with a smile.
As the craft spirits movement reaches fever pitch, the world is catching up to Clear Creek. Bartenders are now experimenting with cocktails featuring brandies and grappa. Other fruit brandies are much easier to find, making it possible to get a true sense of what Oregon terroir actually means when compared to, say, Upstate New York or the Sonoma Valley. As tastes change, Clear Creek is constantly being discovered anew. For a distillery that’s been ahead of the times since the very beginning, sticking to tradition might end up being the most radical option of all.
Margarett Waterbury is a food, drink, and travel writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.