Hood River Distillers: A Spirits Giant in the NorthwestBy Jake Emen
Clear Creek Distillery was founded by Steve McCarthy in 1985, making it one of the oldest craft distilleries in the United States. Renowned for its European-style eaux-de-vie, as well as McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt–an American single malt made decades before the idea of American Single Malt caught on–the distillery continues pushing ahead today. Except now it’s a distillery within a distillery as part of the overall operation at Hood River Distillers.
“I’ve moved that whole distillery twice … I hope I never need to do that again,” says Joe O’Sullivan, head distiller for Hood River Distillers. He first started with Clear Creek in 2005, and while he had stints working elsewhere, he’s back to where it all began for him.
Clear Creek Brand Lives On
While some things have changed, others have remained the same. “We still have the same equipment, we still have the same crew,” O’Sullivan says.
Clear Creek spirits /Photo Credit: Hood River Distillers
When McCarthy was ready to retire, he sold Clear Creek to Hood River Distillers in 2014. They opted to retain the name and branding of Clear Creek’s products as separate products under the Hood River Distillers umbrella. “You start to think differently about brand identity,” O’Sullivan says. It might sound like a novel approach, but it’s not too different from spirits giants like Jim Beam, Heaven Hill or Buffalo Trace. These legacy producers are home to dozens of products and myriad different brands, running the stylistic gamut.
With 15 years of hands-on practice, O’Sullivan is one of the most experienced craft distillers in the game. Furthermore, he learned directly from McCarthy, creating a direct line of 35 years of distillation knowledge. “Steve McCarthy trained me, it’s the best education I could have asked for,” he says.
Brandy and More
O’Sullivan continues paying that education forward with wonderful eaux-de-vie. These fruit brandies are the pure alcoholic incarnation of the fruit from which they come. Consider the Pear Brandy, made using 20 pounds of pears per bottle and approximately 350,000 lbs overall per year. “The philosophy is you get a good source material and then you get out of its way, don’t try to make it something it’s not,” says O’Sullivan.
Or the Blue Plum Brandy, which took home honors as the world’s best slivovitz for three consecutive years. “Slivovitz is one of the great spirits in the world, and making this is the most exciting day in the distillery,” says O’Sullivan. Take a sip and the world seemingly turns a deep violet blue as you’re imbued with the fruit’s essence.
There’s also Pear in the Bottle, a Kirshwasser, and a Douglas Fir Brandy. Not to mention half a dozen fruit liqueurs and a handful of aged brandies, and that’s still just what’s in the Clear Creek portfolio. “The concept has always been don’t spread your money out more than 200 miles,” says O’Sullivan in reference to the sourcing of their fruits.
From there, Hood River Distillers produces Lucid Absinthe, Lewis and Clark Spirits, Easy Rider Bourbon, Yazi Ginger Vodka, Ullr Nordic Libation and Big Gin. For O’Sullivan, the seemingly endless and diverse collection of spirits offers him the opportunity to be as creative as possible in the distillery. “You can flex in every possible way, you can be inventive,” he says. “I’m just a science nerd.” And all of the aforementioned products are the result of his careful experimenting and fine-tuning, his passion for and knowledge of distilling as well as the history of the spirits and liqueurs he produces.
Hood River Distillers has its own downtown tasting room in Hood River. Located about 65 miles east of Portland, it’s a part of the city’s thriving drinks scene which has grown to become a worthy drinking destination for travelers. Whatever you want to drink, you’ll find a local producer offering its wares. There’s an abundance of wineries, cider coming from local orchards, and a brewing scene that’s become a regional hotbed.
Hood River Distillers Tasting Room /Photo Credit: Hood River Distillers
In fact, Hood River Distillers has partnered with Double Mountain Brewery for its Double Mountain Hopped Whiskey, a 100% corn whiskey infused with hop oil, showcasing a piney, lemony profile that retains its whiskey backbone. “Flavor is an orchestra, right? You should balance it out,” O’Sullivan says. The brewery also now handles the fermentation for McCarthy’s, a standout single malt worth revisiting. Made with 100% peated malt from Scotland, McCarthy’s is really where the idea of American single malt began.
“I’m really mindful of what these things mean,” O’Sullivan says. When you take a sip of one of his products, whether a mind-blowing fruit explosion of an eau-de-vie or a savorable smoky single malt, you can taste it.
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