Top | The Culinate Interview

Stephen McCarthy

(article, Liz Crain)

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p(blue). Stephen McCarthy is the proprietor of Clear Creek Distillery, an award-winning distillery based in Portland, Oregon, that has been crafting top-shelf spirits for more than 20 years using Alsatian and Swiss techniques, German copper pot stills, French oak barrels, and local and seasonal fruit. McCarthy refuses to cut corners and has strong opinions about the state of the American spirits industry.

How has the U.S. liquor industry changed since you started out?
I started doing the research in the late 1970s, I started buying equipment in 1984, and started distilling in 1985. I was pretty much the second eaux de vie distiller in North America. 

Twenty-two years later, things have changed enormously. There are still relatively few people doing true artisan distilling; we are perhaps 20-odd in America now. There are a number of people trying to make very good pot-distilled brandy with some success. And then there are some people making various types of whiskeys all around the country. I can’t tell you how many of those there are, but probably a couple dozen — most very small. 

[%image mccarthy float=left width=300 caption="Clear Creek Distillery founder Stephen McCarthy in front of barrels used by the distillery." credit="Photo courtesy Clear Creek Distillery"]

And then there are a huge number of people making vodka or gin in ways that I sort of wrinkle my nose at. Of course there are legitimate operators, but most of these people are buying their alcohol in bulk from some big factory somewhere, adding flavoring, redistilling, and then saying they’re artisan distillers. 

So where the little artisan distillers are is sort of where the beer and wine industries were a long, long time ago. Artisan distillers like me — making a range of true eaux de vies, grappas, pot-distilled brandies, in my case whiskey, and now five different liqueurs using Oregon fruit — have a mindset more like a winemaker.

How so?
We don’t really make what we make; we let nature make it. The pear is perfect the moment it’s crushed. And we crush whole pears, ferment them, and distill them. We’re not adding anything to that pear — we’re trying to capture what the pear offered us when it was fully ripe. And that’s the same, of course, with the cherries or the apples. 

What's it like competing with the mass-produced, mass-marketed spirits industry?
We are now trying to teach the spirits industry, these huge companies with monstrous distribution organizations, a new set of rules. The interesting thing is that of all of these small distillers I’ve talked about, the critical mass has not yet been reached — there aren’t that many of us, the volume is infinitely small. 

But we’ve had some impact. Twenty-plus years ago, they didn’t know what to make of us. Most of the people in the trade didn’t believe that we actually made this stuff. They thought that we bought it from somebody. I mean, they kept thinking that it was flavored brandy — that we bought vodka or grape neutral and were just flavoring it. 

What would you like to see emerge in the U.S. liquor industry in the near future?
Well, I think we’re on the right track. I don’t have any problem with these guys buying vodka in a drum and putting it in a bottle with a cute label and then calling themselves distillers. Some of them are going to make a whole lot of money quickly, and that seems to be what mainly concerns them.

But then there are people making vodka from scratch — from potatoes, from grapes. We’re experimenting with vodkas here now, not because we really want to sell one, but just because we’re interested in learning how to make them, and how to make them good. 

You want a robust group of independent, reasonably financially stable people making distillates with increased understanding and sophistication about marketing. 

So we don’t know exactly what a good, healthy distilling industry is going to look like in 15, 20, or 30 years. The majors will still be there — you know, the Seagram’s and Smirnoff. Global consolidation certainly has not slowed down at all. I suspect there will be some alliances between large companies and small distilleries. But at this point there are no small distilleries in the country that are big enough to be of interest. 

If you’re a big distilling conglomerate, you don’t want to talk to someone who is much less than $25 million a year in sales; it’s just not worth it. And that’s probably not even the threshold; it’s probably more like $50 million. Last year we did a little over $1 million, and I’m probably the biggest independent artisan distiller in the country.

How do you prefer to take your liquor?
My preference for most of what we make here is to pour it in a snifter, or a tulip glass, by itself and have a little bit after dinner. That’s historically where it belongs in the food-and-wine experience. You have a little bit of eau de vie of pear at the end of a meal as a digestif. But I’m not saying it always has to be that way.

It’s an interesting intergenerational thing. When my dad was younger, after World War II, people drank cocktails: Manhattans, martinis, old-fashioneds. My generation, we didn’t want to do that, because that’s what our parents did. So we drank wine, and when the microbrews came along, we drank good local beer. 

And my daughter, who’s 30, drinks cocktails, and it’s a big deal. All her friends go out and drink cocktails with things floating in them — pink ones and bright green ones. And I think that’s great. 

But we’re marginally involved with that. Not because we dislike it or because we don’t want to be involved; we are just largely something else. And we don’t want to go dashing frantically after the cocktail craze, because it’s not who we are.

Why are Americans willing to pay top dollar for specialty foods but not for artisan liquor?
I’m not sure I agree with that. The people that spend a lot of money on food, whether in restaurants or buying wonderful ingredients in a market — that’s our customer. And they don’t necessarily buy the most expensive stuff; they’ll buy interesting stuff, they’ll buy food that’s in season. If it’s asparagus season, they’ll buy asparagus; they won’t buy asparagus in October. 

And it's the same thing with fish or meat. The people that I know that really know what’s going on, they don’t buy fish from the South Pacific anymore, because it’s all being fished out. They buy what’s good and fresh from the Oregon coast. 

So I don’t think that price has been too much of a barrier. Now, we’re small. If I was trying to sell 250,000 cases of eaux de vie, which is a long ways away, you would have to do something to price. But I’m not sure you can get there, because eaux de vie is so expensive to make. It’s pure fruit; that's a huge raw-material cost.

Beyond that, it’s not a competitive problem in the normal sense; it’s the competition for that salesperson’s attention. If I go help salespeople in Manhattan, Chicago, or Boston call on important retailers and restaurants and generate some interest, and the next day Bacardi shows up in force, they can be forgiven for forgetting where Oregon is, and forgetting who I am. 

Miraculously, though, many don’t. But it’s necessary to spend the time reminding them and encouraging them to spend some time and energy on small independents.

p(bio). Liz Crain is a writer in Portland, Oregon.

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