Thursday, October 1, 2015

A conversation with Steve McCarthy, Founder and Master Distiller of Clear Creek Distilleries

By Antonia Fattizzi, Founder/President, Cork and Tin

Founded in 1985 by Steve McCarthy, Clear Creek Distilleries has become a leader of European distillation techniques in Portland, Oregon. Showcasing the best of “pure fruit spirits from the Pacific Northwest” such as eau de vies, grappas, liqueurs and whiskeys, Clear Creek Distilleries celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. 

Apple and pear orchards have been in the McCarthy family since 1910. While the family temporarily lost the orchards during the Great Depression, McCarthy’s father bought them back as soon as he was financially able to do so and by the 1970s the land had been reconsolidated with McCarthy’s uncle running the business. At this time, the junior McCarthy (Steve) owned a hunting accessories company leading him to Europe on business. There, he saw how pears—nearly identical to McCarthy orchard pears—were used to produce eau de vie.

Within a few years he became more involved in his family’s orchard business, helping out when the market for Bartlett pears collapsed. The family watched on as their neighbors cut down three-generation old orchard pear trees full of fruit.  Soon, South American produce had taken over and, if the family wanted to remain in business, it was clear that Clear Creek Distilleries would need to intelligently market their products.  At the time, no Pacific Northwest distillery made eau de vie, and McCarthy saw an opportunity to create a line using his family’s fresh fruit and drawing on the techniques he’d learned while in Europe.

In 1984, he purchased his first still from Germany. It arrived in ruins, but he didn’t let this rocky start derail him. He simply order another still a year later, learning how to use it from the one man in Northern California making an eau de vie. To house the still, he bought a building in NW Portland, obtained the proper permits and began distilling in early summer 1985.  Following his teacher’s instructions to the letter, he was heartened when the first cut was “decent.” Within a year he was on the road to developing techniques that would allow him to produce pear brandy and other products.

Goals and Keys to Success
Once in business, McCarthy lined out some important goals for both himself and his distillery:

•    Make great eau de vie, even better than French products.
•    Produce enough of it. In order to do this, one must be wary of issues that creep into the production line.
•    Figure out a way to distribute the products.
•    Develop a model for small, family-owned distilleries, which was new territory for the Portland area 30 years ago.
•    Become profitable.

From the outset, McCarthy found himself building both a brand and an entirely new spirits category. He didn’t know enough about the spirits industry in the U.S. to understand that the chances of succeeding were low and that realizing his goals would require long days at the distillery and weeks on the road. He then made it a point to be deeply involved in the production process, and even after the first 15 years in business, he can do every job imaginable inside of the distillery. While the sales trips were grueling, he was energized by the challenge of educating trade and consumers alike on the eau de vie category, and soon grew to be known for the care he took in his products.

McCarthy quickly found his niche in high-end restaurants, particularly with French sommeliers who understood eau de vie and saw similarities between his distillery and the ones they knew from Europe. (The fact that McCarthy can speak French didn’t hurt). In one instance, when a presentation to Le Bernardin ran too long, McCarthy missed his flight home to Oregon. He continued on with the presentation and the sommelier was so impressed by the Clear Creek line that he brought all of the chefs out from the kitchen to taste it. Experiences like this showed him that when influential members of the restaurant community supported his distillery, success could follow.

Another key to success involved winning over his distributors—a lesson he learned from his days marketing and selling hunting gear. Distribution was instrumental to building the company, and Clear Creek Distilleries has been distributed by the same company (Frederick Wildman & Sons) from the very beginning.  McCarthy credits them for helping Clear Creek Distilleries partner with committed retailers and restaurateurs willing to sell a high-end product in every major city in America.

But above all, McCarthy has had years of experience working in his family’s orchards and he knows good fruit. He unabashedly informed his customers that his blue plum brandy was the best he ever made, though he’ll be the first to admit that he’s not sure just what made it so much better than everything else. Jeanine Racht, Clear Creek Distillery’s National Sales Director, says that McCarthy possesses the “mindset of a winemaker” and that he was brave, even fearless, in his approach to distillation.  Essentially making up the rules as he went along, McCarthy had no other area distillers to look to – the nearest distillery was located in the Bay Area of California. Yet, he knew his target market and built upon it accordingly.

Whiskey: “The Darndest Accidental Product”
On vacation in Western Ireland 20 years ago, McCarthy found himself in a cabin that held an extensive scotch bar. Stuck inside due to nonstop rain, he made his way through all of the single malts and fell in love with Isla style, naming Lagavulin 16 as his favorite. On the spot, he decided to make a peated single malt, but it took a longer time to source ingredients than he anticipated. From the outset, McCarthy had to cobble the pieces of this project together. He bought peat-malted barley in Scotland because nobody close to his distillery would sell to him, found a local person to make a whiskey wash of unfinished beer and fermented barley, and bought his barrels from a nearby barrelmaker.  Now, the whiskey is distilled once in Clear Creek’s own eau de vie stills and then aged in Oregon Oak. Winemakers have a difficult time utilizing Oregon oak due to its strong influence on their wine, but it works well for whiskey.

Demand exploded around 2000 when Jim Murray, author of The Whiskey Bible, dropped by the distillery on a lark, giving Clear Creek Distilleries Whiskey his top rating in the world for a small distillery whiskey. McCarthy described it as “all hell breaking loose.” And even though demand exceeded their supply, they didn’t get greedy with prices. While the distillery attempts to produce a bit more whiskey each year, peak times at both the brewery and distillery make this difficult. Therefore, each bottling equates to just under 600 cases.

Leaving a Legacy
For over three decades, McCarthy’s tenacity and commitment to excellence has inspired his employees. He retired last year and when asked which lessons he hopes he’s instilled in his employees, quality control was at the top of that list. “My team has to be complete maniacs from the time the fruit is harvested until it comes out of the barrel,” he said. To him, there are many examples of successful companies that get sloppy with their production methods, and while Clear Creek Distilleries is successful in its own right, he’s careful not to fall prey to others’ mistakes. He feels that the way an employer treats their people says a great deal about the type of environment they wish to have at their company.  With that approach, rarely has he had an employee not work out in his organization.

When it comes to his customers, he wants to people to know his story: He made everything from scratch, he believes in products, not brands, and he doesn’t cut corners. Racht adds to this by pointing out that European distillers are brilliant in terms of controlling rotten fruit and fermenting it; Clear Creek Distilleries sees itself as a reflection of that community. With this approach, they support local agriculture by completing the cycle of farm-to-bottle.  That’s sustainable distillation at its very best.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Since 2003, Antonia Fattizzi has managed, marketed and sold boutique wines and spirits in the US market. Her passion for artisinal products propelled her to found Cork and Tin, which serves as a voice and a strategic partner for small and emerging brands.

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