The Story Behind America's First Single Malt Whiskey | Wine Enthusiast
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The Unexpected Story Behind the First American Single Malt

Distiller Steve McCarthy, who died January 2, just five days before his 80th birthday, was well-known as the founder of Portland, Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery. He was one of the early pioneers of the modern craft distillery movement.

Specifically, McCarthy is known for his work making fruit brandies in the style of Europe’s eau de vie, from a fully American-made version of pear-in-the-bottle Poire Williams to a bracing Douglas Fir brandy beloved by bartenders.

Yet, what many may not realize was McCarthy’s key role in paving the way for American single-malt whiskey.

“There is no shortage of seminal figures in the rise of American single malt, but few would argue that Steve McCarthy was its true godfather,” says Steve Hawley, president of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission. “We simply wouldn’t be where we are today as a category if he hadn’t laid the groundwork.”

McCarthy didn’t set out to be a distiller. He graduated from NYU Law School, then returned to Oregon to work in government and public service. Later, he took over his father’s manufacturing business, which frequently brought him to Europe. Fortuitously, that was where he learned about the fruit brandies known as schnapps or eau de vie.

He launched Clear Creek in 1985, as a way to rescue his family’s Hood River orchards, turning the Barlett pears grown there into American brandy. Acquiring a still from Germany and learning distillation techniques with the help of then-St. George distiller Jörg Rupf, McCarthy melded European traditions with American ingredients.

A decade later, he would do the same with another European spirit: Scotch single-malt whisky.

The project began in Ireland, says Joe O’Sullivan, Master Distiller for Clear Creek and Hood River Distillers, who worked with McCarthy for over a decade. There, a rainy night provided an excuse to spend time with a friend and their extensive Scotch collection, leading to an epiphany: “He said, what if I made a version of this using Oregon ingredients?”

The end result was McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt, which debuted in 1996, the first known American single malt.

Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery, Portland, Oregon.
Image Courtesy of Clear Creek Distillery

Peated Scotch provided the inspiration; in a 2011 interview with Wine Enthusiast, McCarthy specifically cited Lagavulin 16 year. As someone who liked to unravel complex problems and “support the underdog,” O’Sullivan says, he was well-positioned to take on the challenge of building an American single malt, step by step.

At first, he imported peated malt from Scotland, distilling and aging it in Oregon. Later, he worked with Portland’s Widmer Brewing to make a smoky beer to distill into whiskey and contacted Oregon coopers to make barrels from local garryana oak, another local input.

“He didn’t understand he was launching a category,” O’Sullivan continues. “At that time, he was just making a whiskey he liked and hoped other people would appreciate it. He wasn’t trying to disrupt the category. He just had a passion about it.”

He did, however, inspire many others to create American single malts.

“In the 1990s, McCarthy [created an] Oregon single-malt whiskey before any other American producer had done so, and I truly believe that Steve’s vision created one of the foundational brands of American whiskey,” says Rebecca Harris, president of American Craft Spirits Association and president and head distiller of Virginia craft distillery Catoctin Creek.

“Back when Scott [Harris] and I started Catoctin Creek in 2009, there were not as many role models for a new distillery. Steve McCarthy’s vision, both in his work creating Clear Creek brandies and McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt was really influential on us, and on hundreds of other distilleries over the past 25 years.” He “laid the foundation” for American single malt, she adds.

In 2014, McCarthy sold Clear Creek to Hood River Distillers and moved on to other pursuits. However, his legacy as one of the originators of American craft distilling—and American single malt in particular— lives on today.

What would McCarthy say of his considerable contribution to the American single-malt category? O’Sullivan suggests that “he would downplay it,” in his typical modest and soft-spoken fashion, but might show a measure of “end-stage fatherly pride,” aware of what he had created.

“It’s not that he shepherded the category as a whole, but being the beginning of it is very special,” O’Sullivan says. “Steve would look at American single malt now and realize it was living a larger life than he ever allowed himself.”

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