Celebrating the fruits of our labors this time of the year is something that resonates across all cultures. Making fruit preserves is a familiar American tradition, and I would like to encourage a new approach to the preservation of fruit, this time in the form of spirits, or, more specifically, eau de vie.
Rejoice in the abundance of wonderful eau de vies, created from the best fruits of the year’s harvest. Here is a quick breakdown of production: once you harvest your fruit, it is then pressed, and a purée of the fruit is then fermented. Once it’s fermented, it is then distilled twice. The result is a spirit redolent of aromas from the fruit that is also dry on the palate, as there is no sugar added. These are not aged, so you get an unadulterated expression.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting what is, in my mind, one of the best producers of eau de vies in the world. Stephen McCarthy was generous by allowing me a firsthand opportunity to see stills in action and the people who work them. The relationship he has with growers in Oregon is important to the quality of the spirit. For me, the purity of fruit is what makes the aromas and mouth-feel things of beauty.
What got you interested in distillation in the first place, and how did Clear Creek start?
I went to college in Europe in the early 1960’s and later, on vacations, and also on sales trips, selling hunting accessories for my previous company, and I appreciated the food culture, and, basically, the way people ate. Meals are slower, food is fresh and locally-sourced, you drink local wine with the meal and enjoy a local digestif at the end. Eau de vie is such a pleasurable way to end a nice dinner. Every village has fruit growers, making fruit brandies from the fruit they grow. But back in the United States, I just couldn’t find anything like it. No one was making eau de vie. So I decided maybe I should be that guy who makes eau de vie. I did some research, bought a small pot still, and, in 1985, made my first batch of pear eau de vie from Bartlett pears my family grows in the Hood River Valley here in Oregon.
What was the first product you released?
Pear Brandy. It was the first and, 29 years and 25 products later, is still the best thing I make.
We love eau de vies here at Astor, but find, however, that they are overlooked and underrated. How do you view the popularity of the category?
They ARE overlooked and underrated, and that is something I have worked hard to change for nearly 30 years. There have always been a small handful of people, many of them top chefs, who understood what I was doing, but back when I started, there was no such thing as a “foodie,” and there was no Food Network. Americans did not know of it. So, I pounded the pavement, visiting restaurants and fine wine shops, welcoming visitors to my distillery, shamelessly chasing journalists, and spending a lot of time talking to people about what I was making, its place in the culinary tradition and why it was important. And, of course, pouring samples. I am frankly astonished by how much eau de vie we sell now, but it is still a drop in the bucket compared to the more popular spirits categories. We like to think our customers are the particularly smart and sophisticated few who “get” it. Eau de vie, which is, by nature, handcrafted, and requires an enormous amount of fruit, is expensive to make. And there are no options. And we don’t want there to be any options. There is only one way to make it. And that is how we do it: pure mashes of pure fermented fruit are distilled in small German-made pot stills. That’s it.
Why did you decide to make a single malt?
The McCarthy’s Single Malt is the only one of my 25 spirits products that is not made from fruit. I make it because I love it. Years ago, I was vacationing at a fishing lodge in Ireland. The weather was miserable and the fish weren’t biting, so I spent a fair amount of time sampling the whiskies in the lodge’s very nice bar. That is when I fell in love with Lagavulin 16-year-old. I got thinking about it: we don’t have ripe fruit year-round in Oregon, and that down time would be perfect for experimenting on a smoky, peaty single malt of my own. What fun! I had no idea it would turn out as well as it has. I can’t meet demand now. I make more every year and it seems we are constantly sold out.
What do you think of the craft spirits movement?
It’s about time. There were only a handful of us for nearly 20 years. There are four parts to the craft spirits movement. Negociants, or bottlers who play much the same role as the negociants in Burgundy, or Bordeaux, concentrate on gin, vodka, rum, whiskey, and tequila, and often buy finished, or partly-finished goods, and bottle with their own label. Whiskey distiller. There is much activity here with some potentially major players and some very good distillations. Eau de vie. Fewer of these guys, but some promising newcomers. Finally, the apple distillers of the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires are doing great work.
What keeps you motivated to do this job?
The fame and fortune, of course! Clearly, you have to love fine spirits and the craft of making them. But, in the end, I am running a business, and there are new challenges to tackle every day. New product development is always fun, and usually not easy. Managing company growth is a great challenge – when is it time to buy another fermentation tank or still, when is it time to move to a bigger building, or hire a new employee? How many cherries, pears, apples, etc. do I need to buy this season? I always have a dozen balls in the air. Like eau de vie, it may not be for everybody, but this is my baby.
Where do you see the future of Clear Creek heading?
I am very proud of what we do and what we have accomplished. I don’t plan to change much. Making good stuff is a full time job. We have a lot of very loyal customers and their constant encouragement and recognition of the quality of what we make keeps me going.