Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon is an interesting guy. He’s got lots of stories about his unexpected role as a pioneer in the American craft distillation movement, and he’s clearly passionate about distillation and the products he makes. Clear Creek produces a wide array of fruit brandies (eaux de vies) using local Oregon fruit, including Golden Delicious apples and Bartlett pears from its own orchards. What drew me to a tasting that he recently hosted at K&L in Redwood City was his single malt. Yes, a malted barley American Whiskey made with imported Islay peat. Steve says Oregon Single-Malt is an appellation that he “made up” before Oregon legislature knew what he was up to!
Steve buys the malted barley from the maltings at Port Ellen, a Diageo facility, as does just about every other distillery on Islay. That means he’s distilling with the same malt that goes into Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and others. Widmer Brothers, a Portland microbrewery, makes his wash, and he distills it on his tiny German eau-de-vie copper stills. The distillate goes into large 400-liter barrels made from air-dried Oregon white ‘scrub’ oak. The first year is spent in old, oft-reused barrels. It is then racked into slightly newer barrels for the second year, and then spends the final year in brand-new oak. It’s not quite a solera process, but it does the job: oaky, but not too woody. It’s bottled at 46% ABV.
Nose: Meaty and full of peat – a blast of it, in fact. A campfire of burning pine needles, with an interesting depth of nuances. No iodine or fishiness, just sappy, resiny peat, mild oak, and an undercurrent of mildly sweet barley. Smells like an 8 or 10 year-old Caol Ila or Bowmore, with a little more ppm.
Palate: Soft and warming. Lots of nice malty sugar. Rice candy. Peat is not intense, and the smoothness on the palate belies its youth. Tastes well-crafted.
Finish: Pine and peat pervade, but the youth shows with evaporating raw alcohol and a vein of oaky bitterness. Lingers like most Islays.
Overall: Amazing that a three year-old whisky distilled on a tiny brandy still in Oregon can smell and taste like an 8 or 10 year-old Islay single malt scotch. Sure, the imported barley has a lot to do with that, but Steve McCarthy’s attention to detail, careful (and economical) use of oak, and small slowly-running stills all come through in the product, which somehow tastes handcrafted. I could wish it had a few more years in barrel to smooth out the wrinkles and improve that finish, but this is clearly an excellent product from a master distillery. You are still paying the ‘craft’ premium here: $50 is a lot for three years of aging, but if you’re looking to see what the ‘craft’ revolution is all about, this is a great place to start.
Update 4/4/2021: I haven’t been keeping up with Clear Creek Distillery since I wrote this review 9 years ago. I have heard reports that McCarthy’s malt can have some batch variation, which can mean your second bottle might not be as impressive as your first. I recently tasted a sample in a blind tasting, and while I don’t have enough notes to publish a full review, I can say that I found it heavily iodine/medicinal/chemical to the point of almost smelling like urine (sorry). I also found that its lack of balancing sweetness and development of undesirable ashy/tar notes were hard to get past. It did not score well in our blind tasting. In light of the batch variation, I have moved this down to a “Try Before Buy” rating: specifically you should try to taste the same batch that you’re intending to buy, if possible.
A word on craft pricing: These are slightly murky waters. Does it make sense to pay more for one company’s product simply because the nature of that company’s business model makes their whiskey more expensive to produce? Where’s the balance between pricing driven by costs-and-margins and pricing driven by competition? I was (and still am) skeptical about paying new Islay distillery Kilchoman’s prices for what was essentially really tasty new-make. McCarthy’s, similarly, is produced slowly in small quantities to exacting standards. It uses imported barley (not cheap), contracted wash (not cheap), custom-made barrels (not cheap), and is necessarily a niche product that cannot achieve efficiency via economies of scale in either production or distribution. Here’s the rub: it has to taste better than the factory-produced, lower-priced competition. If I make one bottle a day of hand-crafted dragonfruit eau-de-vie on a solid gold 20-gallon pot still and age it in 5-liter barrels made from solid mahogany… I shouldn’t expect to make up my costs by charging $2000 a bottle unless it tastes like $2000 a bottle. McCarthy’s, at least, tastes worth it. For all those other craft distillates out there – I say they have to pass the same test.