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The Spirit of Oregon Distilleries

"Portland was a culinary wasteland," says Stephen McCarthy, proprietor of Clear Creek Distillery. When he was a student at Reed College a few decades ago there were no good restaurants. No coffee shops worthy of noting. There were no wineries, no breweries. A culinary wasteland indeed. "Now it's like Paris!" Just take a look at the state of Portland and, further, the state of Oregon in regards to its burgeoning spirits market and it's easy to see that it is a wasteland no more.

Yes, there are fancy restaurants, independent coffee roasters, brewers and wine makers now all over the state. There are also the small distilleries making names for themselves — places like McCarthy's Clear Creek Distillery whose pear orchards have blanketed the Parkdale landscape for a hundred years; Jim Bendis' award-winning Bendistillery, in the center of one of the world's largest juniper forests; McMenamins Edgefield Distillery in Troutdale, with University of Oregon graduate Ty Reeder distilling great products; and House Spirits in Portland, reinvigorating the market with the hardy work of Christian Krogstad.

For the 64-year-old McCleary, clearly the father of Oregon's distillery business, "it's been a long haul and a marginal proposition financially. The response, though, has been incredible." His products are served now in the world's best restaurants and are appreciated by foremost connoisseurs. "It's an astonishing success," he states, flabbergasted.

In the 1970s McCleary spent a lot of time in Europe. After dinners there he'd be given a peach schnapps or an eau de vie made from Williams pears (our Bartlett). "I like this stuff," he said. A light went on. He had a fruit orchard that had been in the family for 100 years. "Why don't I figure out how to make pear brandy using the pears in our orchard?"

He sold his successful hunting business in Portland and put that money towards his dream. Clear Creek opened in 1985. The dream is now fully realized with a staff of twelve, a new plant, and, of course, the highest quality in fruit. The pear brandies are made from fruit plucked from his own orchards. Cherries for brandy are brought from The Dalles, and plums from the coast range. For McCarthy's unusual eau de vie of Douglas fir, they hand pick springtime buds off fir trees. Asked why he thinks there's been a recent spike in interest of Oregon's distillery business, McCarthy says flat out, "I have no idea. We're just a bunch of people crazy about making genuine products."

There are plenty of crazies in Oregon then, just by the sheer number of distilleries in operation. Portland alone has a half dozen or so. Oregon as a whole, according to Bill Owens of the American Distilling Institute, is second nationally behind California in regards to the number of small batch distilleries. "I have lived here in Oregon for 25 years," says Jim Bendis, founder and chief executive officer of Bendistillery in Bend. "There is a fresh feeling here and I am happy to be a part of it."

A part of it Bendis is. While working for a local TV station several years ago he began experimenting, making hand-crafted gin and vodka. Bendistillery opened in 1996 and now is, according to Bendis, "the most award-winning small batch distillery in the country." They make Cascade Mountain Gin (his favorite), Crater Lake Vodka, and Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso Vodka, amongst others. With their gin made from juniper berries picked nearby and with a new 24-acre distillery in the works, more awards will undoubtedly come. He's excited. "We will be the first distillery in the country to grow our own grains, ferment and distill the grains we grow, and have a fully operating distillery and sampling room."

More and more people are sampling the distilling business in Oregon with greater and greater success. It's not just the wise sage that is McCleary nor the relentless dreamer in Bendis that are the spirits of this business. Edgefield Distillery's Ty Reeder, a 30-something with an English degree started bartending at McMenamins after graduating. "I knew I didn't want to put on a tie and interview for a job so I decided to get a job closer to beer."

A decade-long career in being a brewer for McMenamins led him to crafting spirits. "My favorite spirit to make is our Hogshead whiskey, because I have to brew a beer first and it takes me back to my brewing roots," he says. They make a barley mash, ferment that out, and then distill it. Not to be outdone by their counterparts, the Edgefield Distillery uses close-to-home products, some really close. "We are lucky because we live right across the river from Great Western Malting who malts our barley." Reeder also uses McMenamins' freshly roasted coffee for their coffee liqueur. They grow syrah grapes on the property for the brandy and use pears from the grounds and from the Hood River area. What does the future hold for Edgefield's? "I would like to introduce a few new products," Reeder says. "I currently have four in mind that I want to see out there "¦Trade secrets, sorry."

Don't be sorry. Oregonians should be thankful for the caliber of spirits on the local market. House Spirits, for example, are created by distiller Christian Krogstad. With a spirit and cocktail boutique in Southeast Portland, House Spirits is enjoying a brisk business because of their exemplary Aviation Gin, Medoyeff Vodka, and an anise and caraway-flavored Aquavit. Customers can also custom-make their own whiskey using House Spirits' innovative Whiskey Your Way program.

Of course, these aren't the only distilleries in the state floating peoples' spirited boats. Brandy Peak Distillery in Brookings, Sub Rosa Spirits in Dundee, Rogue House of Spirits in Newport, Ransom Wines & Spirits and Dolmen Distillery in McMinnville, and Hood River Distillers are but some of many distilleries popping up all over Oregon's fertile landscape and there's no sign the distillery bandwagon is slowing any time soon. "Once people realize that great spirits can be [obtained] right here, locally," Reeder says with rich anticipation, "they will be more open to trying them and buying them." Proof positive that Oregon's leading the way in crafting spirits. Er, 80 proof that is.

The Spirit of Oregon Distilleries