More drinking in Portland! The day after our visit to Clyde Common, we embarked on a marathon of even more cocktailing, starting it off with a fascinating and informative tasting at Clear Creek Distillery. I'd had their fabulously bone-dry Kirschwasser at the Good Fork in Red Hook, and their Douglas Fir eau-de-vie at Pegu Club in Audrey Saunders' diabolically inventive Douglas Fir Gimlet. Due to what is apparently a recent change in the law (the Clear Creek "passport" in which you're encouraged to mark your tasting choices carries an appropriately snarky legend), each person can only taste five products. Fortunately, we were two, so we could taste ten of Clear Creek's 25 products between us. Retail manager Jeanine Koszalka took us through the lineup and dropped some serious knowledge on us.
Clear Creek specializes in eaux-de-vie: clear brandies made from fruit other than grapes. And, they really do a fantastic job of cramming what feels like an orchard's worth of fruit into a bottle. (Not kidding here: apparently a bottle of their pear brandy takes thirty pounds of pears to make.) All their fruit is from Oregon, so it's an intensely local product as well. When we visited, the distillery was especially excited about their blue plum brandy (aka slivovitz), which was recently certified as kosher. They'd had lots of requests for a kosher spirit, and it wasn't too much of a change in their operations. (Normally, they use the "heads" -- the undrinkable first part of a distilling run -- for cleaning, but this wasn't kosher. They had a rabbi ritually clean the fermentation tanks with a torch and an ash wash.) The distillery plans to expand its kosher line with future bottlings.
The first thing we tasted was probably Clear Creek's best-known product, its Pear Brandy.
This was spectacular, with a huge dose of pure pear flavor, but dry and smooth. We had this one chilled -- apparently the preferred method of Clear Creek founder Steve McCarthy -- and despite the chilling, the nose was remarkably intense. Equally intense was their Kirschwasser, which as I'd mentioned I'd had before. This time I noticed a nutty note in amongst the cherry flavor that I hadn't noticed before (but then again, I was concentrating more this time.) This reminded me of Maraschino liqueur, which is made from the fruit and the pits of Maraska cherries and has a similar nut flavor that in some brands (notably Luxardo) can be almost funky. And as it turns out, Clear Creek's Kirschwasser is made from cherries that are crushed with their pits (and fermented with the pits as well.) The pits are removed for distillation, however.
We followed this with another true winner, their Eau de Vie de Pomme, which was aged for eight years in old Limousin oak Cognac barrels. Finally, a use for Golden Delicious apples! (They're hardly edible, but they sure are distillable.) This was tremendous, and had waves and waves of apple flavor: first sweetness, then that bite from good cider and apple peels, then a bit of smooth, fruity heat. (Clear Creek also makes an apple brandy that they age for only two years; they say that "this is the one you use to make fruitcake, to deglaze a pan-fried steak, for the recipe that calls for 'Calvados', in some dandy apple brandy cocktails and whenever 'applejack' is called for." I didn't taste it, and I'm sure it's good for those uses, but if you have to choose among the two, I'd pony up the extra few bucks for the eight-year. It's that good.)
We then had a taste of their "Oregon Brandy", a grape brandy distilled from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Muscat wines and aged in the same French oak casks that they use for their Eau de Vie de Pomme. It was smooooooth, with a floral finish. We didn't wind up buying much to haul back to New York on the plane (since some local stores here carry their products), but we did pickup a bottle of this stuff for drinking solo and perhaps the occasional Sidecar.
After the eaux-de-vie, it was on to the grappas. These firewaters are distilled from grape pomace -- the leftover skins, seeds, stems, and whatever juice clings to the fruit after they've been pressed for wine. Grappa is also known as "marc" when it's French, and Clear Creek refers to theirs as either grappa or marc, depending on the grape varietal it's made from. We tried their Marc de Gewurztraminer first, which was very interesting -- imagine a Gewurztraminer wine (one of my favorite varietals, particularly those from Alsace), but deconstructed and completely bone-dry. It had lots of fruity and floral flavors, with none of the sweetness that I expect to accompany those flavors. After that, we had their Cavatappi Grappa Sangiovese, which was very different. "Earthy" is the best word to describe it -- it had the grape-firewater heat to it (it and their Nebbiolo grappa are both bottled at a slightly-higher 90 proof), but had almost musty, soil-like flavors from the red wine. I can see how it'd cut through the palate after a heavy dinner, but the earthiness wasn't quite to my taste.
For the next round of tastings, we went sweeter with Clear Creek's liqueurs. I was most curious about these, because I'd had some of Clear Creek's eaux-de-vie before and was impressed by the pure fruit flavors in those, but wanted something that was more versatile and suitable for mixing in a cocktail. We had their Pear Liqueur first, which was wonderful. A relatively low-alcohol liqueur at 46 proof, their pear liqueur is based on their fantastically-good pear brandy. It's sweet, of course, but the flavor is wine-y at times, with more going on than a straight hit of pear flavor like the brandy delivers. The finish was amazingly long and smooth. Clear Creek starts with the pear brandy, then barrel-ages it and adds pear juice to it. Jeanine recommended adding this to Margaritas in addition to or instead of Cointreau or triple sec, and that does sound intriguing.
Next we had their Cassis Liqueur, which was very tart but quite balanced. It was almost like drinking a glass of good black currant jam; the flavor was jammy but not cooked-tasting, and Jeanine told us that the natural pectin in the currants contributes to a slightly viscous mouthfeel. I wanted to put this into a Kir, of course, but what I really wanted was some of this over some good vanilla ice cream. (Then again, we'd tasted a lot of spirits by this point, and it was slow going, even with water in between.) We finished off the liqueurs with their Cranberry Liqueur, another tart one, and very good. The acid from the fruit really stands up well to the sugar in the cassis and cranberry liqueurs. I thought the cranberry was especially interesting since I hadn't had a cranberry liqueur before, and it brings to mind some interesting mixing possibilities.
And, we capped the tasting with the justly famous Douglas Fir Eau de Vie. This one was kind of amazing -- a fir tree in a glass. The entire distillery shuts down (well, they only have nine employees) and goes out to harvest the spring buds of Douglas fir trees, which go right into buckets of neutral grape brandy to macerate. That brandy is redistilled into glass carboys and macerated again with the Douglas fir buds to add the color before it's strained and bottled. The lovely pale green color is, like all the colors and flavors of Clear Creek's offerings, completely natural. The taste is nuanced -- it's not quite like sucking on a pinecone, as I'd feared -- and fresh and clean and interesting, and frankly hard to describe. (My notes were also a bit blurry by this point as well.) I've never had anything like it. I need to pick up a bottle of this as well for more experimentation, though I think I'll probably do like Brooklynguy and keep it for straight sipping as a digestif.
So: I highly recommend Clear Creek's offerings, and also stopping by for an enthusiastic chat and a tasting if you happen to be in Portland. And I need to get myself to my local liquor store to pick up some more of their products: I have my eye specifically on the Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, the Eau de Vie de Pomme, the Cranberry Liqueur, and possibly some of the Pear Brandy and Pear Liqueur as well.
(Another installment of PDX cocktail-y goodness coming soon!)