Here in the Northwest, we’re still waiting impatiently for the arrival of spring with all its promise: colorful flowers, bright greenery, fresh produce and occasional daily rain showers. But we’re lucky in this particular part of the world to be surrounded by the native abundance of evergreens all year round — they’re a defining symbol of the Pacific Northwest. In one Oregon distillery, the essence of this familiar tree has been refined into a clear brandy that will transport you into the midst of the forest at any time of year.
Steve McCarthy founded Clear Creek Distillery in 1985, after stints as a law student and eco-warrior. Having been sent to Europe while working for his father’s hunting goods company, McCarthy fell in love with traditional French methods of distilling fruit into clear brandies, or eaux de vie, which are usually drunk as digestifs at the end of a meal. A particular favorite was the pear brandy known as eau de vie de poire, which is made by fermenting the ripe fruit, then distilling it and bottling it quickly.
Since one side of McCarthy’s family owned apple and pear orchards in the Hood River Valley, and he discovered these fruit brandies would be an excellent way to use up surplus from the farm. Using the Old World methods with Pacific Northwest fruit, the range eventually expanded to include cherry, plum and raspberry brandies, as well as a wide variety of fruit liqueurs, grappa and even a single malt whiskey for the young Clear Creek Distillery. Today, all of the fruit for these spirits is grown within an hour-and-a-half of the distillery’s home base in Portland.
Finding resources abound in the area — such as Oregon’s state tree, the Douglas fir — has led directly to the creation of one of Clear Creek’s more distinctive offerings, the Douglas fir brandy. There is precedent for an evergreen-flavored brandy back in Europe, which MCarthy took as his inspiration, like the grandly-named Eau de Vie de Bourgeons de Sapin, made with pine buds in the French border region of Alsace. It also helped, of course, that his cabin at the foot of Mt. Hood is surrounded by Douglas firs. Nonetheless, it took Steve ten years of experimentation to really capture the fresh, herbal taste of this state icon.
As with all eaux de vie, the flavor-potent Douglas fir brandy works well as a digestif, but it’s also great in cocktails. You might think that the slightly Christmas-y taste of pine would work best in the winter, but the forest-forward profile is surprisingly versatile. It works well with the similarly herbal profile of gin, and also with all kinds of citrus fruit, especially grapefruit. Jeanine Racht, the sales manager at Clear Creek, recommends it in a Paloma, with tequila and grapefruit, or this bittersweet concoction, the Shiver.
Recipe courtesy of Clear Creek Distillery
1 1/2 ounces Campari
1/2 ounce Clear Creek Douglas fir brandy
1 1/2 ounces grapefruit juice
Garnish: orange slice, pine sprig
Shake all liquid ingredients in a shaker with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of orange or a sprig of pine.