Talking Portland Distilleries & Winemakers

Clear Creek, Oregon’s distilling great
Bull Run’s charming tasting room

In my recent travels in Portland I trekked to three distilleries within city limits, two established, one brand new. My top priorities were Clear Creek and House Spirits which have been the best I’ve tasted historically of what is coming out of Oregon.

I also visited brand new Bull Run Distillery near Clear Creek, boasting a retro tasting room lined with vintage barware and paraphernalia, with plans for tastings and bartender parties. In tasting their light Pacific Rum, Medoyeff Vodka and Temperance Trader whiskey blended from Kentucky whiskies (which they aren’t allowed to name), unable to taste the Oregon whiskey they have begun to age (scheduled to release in 2015), thus far it’s hard to say there’s yet a standout spirit putting them on the national craft distilling map. Waiting for their Oregon whiskey to be released…


Clear Creek’s stills

On the one sunny afternoon during my week in Portland this May, I walked through the peaceful Alphabet District along leafy, tree-lined streets to Clear Creek Distillery. Housing four stills and smelling sweetly of apples, which they were distilling the day I visited, I spent the afternoon with Steve McCarthy, the gracious owner/distiller who started Clear Creek in the late ’80’s using fruit from his family’s orchard. He told me how he learned directly in the 1980’s from Northern California pioneers Jorg Rupf (St. George Spirits) and Hubert Germain-Robin (Germain-Robin), who pioneered the first US craft brandies on par with the best in Europe. McCarthy’s products are in that style, recalling Old World Europe. Utilizing local fruits and ingredients, he crafts everything from his best-selling pear eau de vie to grappas, an Oregon Single Malt Whiskey and Douglas Fir liqueur.

In production at Clear Creek

TRY: McCarthy said it and I agree: the traditional Williams Pear Brandy ($25.45 for 350ml; $40.45 for 750ml) is my favorite Clear Creek product, pure and intensely pear, on par with Poire Williams brandies I’ve sipped in France, Austria and Switzerland. I appreciate his elegant Cassis liqueur, akin to the black currant liqueurs of France, tart, sweet and ideal in a number of classic cocktail recipes. His Cranberry and Loganberry liqueurs are unique, particularly the bracingly tart, lush cranberry.


Spending a rainy morning at cozy House Spirits Distillery (launched in 2004) with distiller Colin Howard was a pleasure as we sampled future releases straight from the barrels.

Tasting with House Spirits distiller Colin Howard

House Spirits may be best known for Aviation Gin (admittedly a solid Dutch-style gin, though not one of my favorites) – they also produce Krogstad Aquavit and the small batch, limited edition Stillroom Series. Where I was particularly intrigued, however, was in tasting their upcoming Oregon whiskey (due Oct.-Nov.) and just-released rum. Howard exhibits a willingness to experiment, even play, that I admire in distillers and witness in the range of what House Spirits is creating.

WATCH FOR: As Oregon distillers pursue Oregon whiskey as a category, House Spirits is the more intriguing I’ve tasted, nuanced with spice and sweet, creamy grain, made from 100% malted barley, aged in new American oak barrels.

My taste buds were most piqued by their aged rum. It shines with a molasses sweetness from Barbados molasses, fermented with a Guadalupe Island yeast strain. Simultaneously, it exhibits a whisper of grassiness, an almost rhum agricole quality, that surprised and delighted me immediately, giving it greater character than a sweeter molasses rum. Aged in used, whiskey-washed barrels for 6-8 months, it’s smooth but stands apart with a welcome earthiness.

Two Willamette Valley WINEMAKERS

Though unfortunately this trip I did not have time to make it to Oregon’s famed wineries, I recently enjoyed long lunches with Oregon winemakers visiting San Francisco, tasting through either their entire line or in the case of Argyle, vertical tastings through vintages of the past 25 years. Both of these winemakers and wines impressed, produced with care and verve.


Argyle winemaker, Rollin Soles

As part of Argyle Winery’s Roadhouse Tour around various US cities, I attended a special media luncheon at Ame offering a vertical tasting of Argyle wines celebrating their 25th anniversary with head winemaker and founder, Rollin Soles. With quirky, knowledgeable insights (and timeless mustache), Soles led us through the tasting with laughter, commenting in depth on winemaking in the cool weather climate of the Willamette Valley: “We say, ‘It’s not Oregon wine unless it gets rained on.”

Soles says the climate as ideally suited not just for Oregon Pinot but for Chardonnay, Riesling and sparkling wine, all of which he produces from 650 acres of hillside slopes. His Rieslings sing with Asian-influenced dishes, like Ame’s gorgeous “Kaisen” sashimi salad, dotted with Japanese cucumber and tobiko caviar in a yuzu soy vinaigrette.

Naturally, the Pinots are beauties – Argyle’s Nuthouse, Spirithouse and Reserve Pinot Noirs exemplifying Oregon’s place as one of the world’s great Pinot-producing regions. I also savored a complex yet delicate 2007 Blanc de Blancs’ Brut (earthy minerality on the nose; tastes of white peach and hibiscus) and a meaty 2001 Nuthouse Chardonnay, lovely with cheese. A 2001 Extended Tirage Brut was aged 10 years in the bottle exhibiting a funky mushroom nose, crisp yet creamy on the tongue, while a 1999 Nuthouse Chardonnay is ripe with melon, vanilla, floral notes, and acidic bite.


Stoller winemaker, Melissa Burr

Stoller Vineyards boasts the distinction of being the first LEED Certified winery (with Gold rating) in the US. Stoller was founded by owner Bill Stoller, a third generation Oregonian on a 400 acre parcel of land – once Oregon’s largest turkey farm – which his family has farmed and lived on since his grandparents. It’s all volcanic soil above 200 feet, adding depth and earth to wines grown from clones Bill secured in Dijon, France.

Bill brought on a female winemaker in 2003, the lovely Melissa Burr, who I recently enjoyed a long lunch with at RN74. She looks too young to have been winemaking for over a decade, but has a rich history, from science major and intern at Cooper Mountain Vineyards to winemaker, her care apparent in the handful of Stoller releases. I was impressed hearing she’d just become pregnant when first interviewing at Stoller, and upon informing Bill, he welcomed it and brought her on board as winemaker, affirming his belief in a family-friendly winery and business.

A 2009 Chardonnay ($28) – again confirming the rise of Chardonnay production in the Willamette Valley – is crisp, barrel fermented and aged with enough acidity to be food-friendly. It’s pleasantly perfumed, tasting of light baking spice and mushroom. Though I enjoyed the expensive 2008 Reserve Cathy’s Pinot (merely 110 cases, $100), sourced from their oldest vines, I preferred the 2008 Pinot SV ($40), blended from their best 2008 barrels, its nose of plum and violets gives way to damp earth, dusty berries mushroom, and cardamom.