Craft spirits got a lot of attention in 2013 and we expect that to increase dramatically in 2014. One of the real pioneers in this space is Clear Creak Distillery in Portland, Oregon. Clear Creek has been producing spirits for almost thirty years. Owner and Head Distiller Stephen McCarthy is a true craft spirit trailblazer, and he’s spent decades helping open doors for craft spirits at a time when no one would ever consider giving the category the time of day. Although Clear Creek is best known for its pear brandy (they actually grow a pear in the bottle they use), Stephen McCarthy has been quietly releasing a small batch of Single Malt whiskey for a number of years. The whiskey, McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt, was released more as a passion project and in such limited quantities that it was nearly impossible to find outside of the local Portland market.
With the help of Widmer Brothers Brewing Company (who now does the fermentation for Clear Creek), the volume and distribution for McCarthy’s has increased and it can now be found outside of Portland. McCarthy’s is made in the traditional Scotch Whisky style using a pot still with fermented peat-malted Scottish barley, then aged for 3 years.
McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey (42.5% ABV / 85 proof, $50) – light gold in color, this whiskey doesn’t seem to have any caramel coloring. The nose on McCarthy’s is a nice mix of malted barley, straw, honey, light citrus, light smoke, iodine, and oak. Stephen McCarthy draws his inspiration for McCarthy’s from Lagavulin; the iodine and peat notes are unmistakeable, but the honey core is much more reflective of a Highland malt, and the play of oak is much stronger than with most single malt whiskies from Scotland. Three years is relatively young for a single malt whiskey, but McCarthy manages to avoid most of the younger, unpleasant notes that often can be found in the nose of younger malt.
The honey from the nose is right there on the entry, which has a fairly light character. The honey is quickly joined by barley malt, salt, and some light lemon citrus. It’s in the midpalate that McCarthy’s smoky character really begins to emerge along with oak spice and sweet rich honey. Although Steve McCarthy does a masterful job handling this young malt, there’s no escaping the fact that it is three years old. The finish is medium length and a little on the dry side, but it’s absent of any harsh edges. It also carries a little less of the flavor from the midpalate than we’d like, losing the exquisite balance that it achieved.
When McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt was first released a number of years ago, $50 for a craft whiskey seemed expensive, but now with the dramatic increase in prices for both American Craft Whiskey and Scottish Single Malts, McCarthy’s seems downright affordable. While we generally prefer our malts a little older, McCarthy’s is a notable stand-out at the three year age mark and it manages to integrate a Scotch-style whisky with American craft whiskey sensibilities. The interplay between the oak and smoke is very well executed as well as the balance in the midpalate. McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey was way ahead of its time when it was released a number of years ago, and we’d argue it still is. Stephen McCarthy is an extraordinarily skilled and experienced craft distiller, and McCarthy’s is reflective of that. McCarthy’s is a major bright spot on the American Craft Whiskey landscape and indicator of the real potential that this category has. Beyond that, McCarthy’s is an enjoyable whiskey that has a clear identity and executes on that very well.