Monday, January 2, 2017

My Interview with Steve McCarthy

An essential part of preparing chapter 9 of Distilled in Oregon was an interview with the founder of Clear Creek Distillery, Steve McCarthy, who retired in 2014 after selling the distillery to Hood River Distillers. The interview took place on May 21, 2016, at McCarthy's home in northwest Portland.

The first part of the interview covered biographical details - McCarthy's birth in Seattle in 1943, the family's move to Myrtle Creek, Oregon, in 1950, graduation from Reed College in Portland in 1966 and NYU law school in 1969, law practice for two years, director of OSPIRG for two years and of TRIMET for four, after which he joined his father's company, Michael's of  Oregon.

I'd been furiously scribbling notes, and about the time we began discussing the beginning of the distilling enterprise, I decided to use my iPhone to record the balance of the interview.

Stursa: Mind if I record this?
McCarthy: Go ahead. So I started work on and I was running the distillery, which was growing very rapidly…and we did a lot of inventions. We had our own in-house R and D department. We were very lucky…we had some very capable people and we were growing fast. That creates a lot of work…
Stursa: Yes.
McCarthy: …and a lot of risk.
Stursa: Can I ask a question here? We’re at a pertinent point for this one.
McCarthy: Sure.
Stursa: I’ve read a lot of articles over the years, about you and Clear Creek, and some interviews with you, and some of the information is contradictory. Most state that you were in Europe and that’s where you were exposed to eau de vie and that’s where you acquired a taste for it. Is that true?
McCarthy: Yes.
Stursa: Now I’ve seen one article that states that you were there studying winemaking.
McCarthy: No. While attending university I made a lot of trips to Europe. The first trip was in 1961 and I went to a French university for six months…mostly did a lot of cross-country skiing and mountain climbing, with the Grenoble University mountain club. And those kids, my fellow students, grew up around Grenoble, which was eau de vie country. It’s not recognized widely but all those little farmers, they used everything. If they had some leftover pears they’d ferment them and distill them. So these kids, we’d climb mountains together, and they’d always have a little bottle of schnapps or eau de vie, so I had a little bit of it then, and I was not crazy about it but I was very interested in the idea of taking pears, leftovers that you couldn’t otherwise really sell but were sound fruit, and making something out of them. So every subsequent trip to Europe…between 1960 and 1984 I probably had ten or a dozen trips to Europe…
Stursa: Some of these trips were pleasure and some were related to the gun accessory business?
McCarthy: Yes. I build a good market in Europe for what we made.
Stursa: What, specifically, did you make?
McCarthy: Well, we had a couple of hundred products and we made everything ourselves. We had a plant in Boise with 140 people and a plant in Portland with 60 people, including the office, sales people and the like. We made a quick-detachable sling swivel. That was our big product. You know what that is?
Stursa: Yes.
McCarthy: Most people don’t.
Stursa: I come from a hunting family.
McCarthy: Well, there are a lot of hunting families and I got to know them pretty well and it was a wonderful experience. I loved that company and the distributors and retailers and the ultimate consumers. It was a great lesson in how much fun you can have in business in this country. So anyway, I was on a three track program, running and growing the [gun accessory] company, getting ready to sell the company, and researching and getting ready to setup and running a distillery. When I first started doing the research there was no one doing artisan small-scale distilling, and I ran into Jörg Rupf about 1983, and he was from Alsace, so he grew up with it over there. Also a renegade lawyer, but from Germany. Went to law school in Freiburg, I think. Engaging, smart guy. Wanted to bring eau de vie to America. I approached him and basically what I said was, “I’m a very competitive guy and everything you tell me about how to make eau de vie is going to end up as a factor in the marketplace, so how about I pay you $75,000,” this was in 1983 or ‘84 when $75,000 was a lot of money, “to teach me the rudiments of how to make seven different kinds of eau de vie, and that way we’ll be square. You’ll be compensated, and I’ll just tell you that I’ll be in this thing for keeps. Maybe there’s room in the industry for two of us and maybe there isn’t. So it’s up to you. If you don’t want it, if you don’t want my $75,000, just tell me and I’ll go somewhere else.” He leapt at the chance, because he’d been distilling for a couple of years and it hadn’t gone particularly well, financially or, frankly, from my point of view, quality wise either…his stuff was a little on the rugged side. So he agreed to do it. We ordered a still. It arrived broken.
Stursa: Yes, Rachel told me about that.
McCarthy: So we had to tread water for a year. We got the next still in early summer of ’85. I had bought a building around 1980, partly to be a studio for my wife – she’s a painter and since we sold the building and distillery, that’s her new studio, that little building right out the window there. So we had a big empty building except for her studio and I wanted to build a distillery and I had no idea what I was doing. I got a couple of good contractors, small scale HVAC, plumbing, and construction. We fiddled with that still all summer long…got it put back together, because it came in pieces with no instructions, not even a diagram, because the guys that made it, in Germany, had never sold one…
McCarthy: If he gets to be a pest I’ll put him downstairs.
Kitty: MEOWWW.
McCarthy: Kitty – scram!
Stursa: Probably smells my cats.
McCarthy: Everyone in this company – I later found this out because I went over to buy still number two at the factory – said that everybody who had ever bought one from him already had one.
McCarthy: It had been passed down in their family, or their uncle had one or their kids had worked at one, so they didn’t need anyone to tell them how to put it together, let alone how to run it. So we…Kitty…I hope he doesn’t knock that off on the floor
Stursa: I’ve got it.
McCarthy: So we put it together, and in those days we took a Polaroid shot, transferred it to a piece of paper and faxed it to Germany. That was the technology of the time. We’d ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?” and they’d say, “Well, you’ve got this piece of pipe here inverted, should be the other way around.” So somewhere of the late summer of ’85 I bought a bunch of chardonnay from somebody just to get started, to have something to distill. Then we…and Jörg was helping me at this point…working off his $75,000…and we got it running, we got some pears out of one of our orchards in Parkdale…Hood River Valley…
Stursa: Out of who’s orchards?
McCarthy: One of ours.
Stursa: So you owned orchard property?
McCarthy: The family owned a lot of orchards.
Stursa: When you say ‘family’ do you mean your parents?
McCarthy: My mom and dad and three brothers.
Stursa: Okay.
McCarthy: So were winging it on all this stuff. We got the pears…it was an interesting fall…it got cold early and then warmed back up again, so it’s just purely by accident ripening on the tree or in the bin worked.
Stursa: This was in 1985?
McCarthy: Yes. We got just a small quantity of pears. Crushed them, using a little crusher, a small one. Rachel might have shown it to you, it’s too small for real commercial use but it was a great backup, and I bought a much bigger one a few years later. So we got a good crushed pear that had been properly ripened, we fermented it, and I didn’t try to re-invent the wheel on the yeast, I just called one of the big yeast companies and said, “send me a fruit fermentation yeast type,” and they did, and it worked perfectly okay. I just figured at that point in the process of building the company all of my mistake would cancel out any differences in yeast quality, unless you got something weird, like baker’s yeast or something, but the yeast companies know how to ferment fruit, non-grape fruit, pears, plums, they know all that stuff. Then we distilled it, we had that one still…we learned all the hard stuff, you had to put in all the floor drains and plumb it six ways from Sunday, and there were four fail-safe devices on it to make sure it would never blow up, some of them required electricity, some of them didn’t, the default position on the gas jets was closed, so if the power went out your pilots were going to go out on you…sort of like a solenoid, it would drop a plug into the line…very safe…had almost no problems with it. So that was still number one, it was a relatively small still, 270 liters, and David Lett, the founding father of…
Stursa: Eyrie winery.
McCarthy: Yeah, right. Wonderful guy, close friend. I called him, I said, “David, we’re going to make some eau de vie of pear tomorrow. You want to come up and watch?” So he came up and tasted it, practically the first run we made and he said, ”This is amazing…congratulations.” Getting a little pat on the back from someone from David in that era…because everyone else thought I was nuts…that was a real nice thing. So we were doing all this stuff and I was still running the other company and trying to sell the other company, so I was busy. Had a lot of energy then. Just going flat out…and I loved it. We were working with the old BATF then and they were amazingly helpful, partly because there were no small distillers. The Oregon guys, the Washington guys, there were no small stills, and they, I sort of made friends with them and they had more important fish to fry. I didn’t get away with anything that I shouldn’t, but they didn’t make it difficult. Same thing with the OLCC, I think the OLCC didn’t take me seriously, which worked my way. Instead of saying, “Wait, this guy’s going to change the whole industry, stand back, watch out,” they said, “Oh sure, go ahead.” There were a couple of unusually good people at the OLCC then. A guy named Bob Dancer, who was one of the top two or three people, was very open minded, smart guy. But the long and short of it is, at least for the first half of the season in ’85, summer and fall, we didn’t have much to do because we ran out of pears. We made some grappa – David brought me a couple of garbage cans full of…
Stursa: Pomace.
McCarthy: Pomace, yeah. He had a varietal Muscat, Muscat Ottonel, which turned out…I didn’t know what I was doing so I dumped some yeast into these plastic garbage cans and then let it ferment and then put it into the stills and distilled it, just sort of feeling my way, and it may have been the best grappa I made in all the thirty one years. It was this wonderful, fragrant Muscat Ottonel grape. And then, I think, we did something with apples…and then blue plums.
Stursa: I’ve got a question here that I’m going to rephrase because you’ve already partially answered it. Again, I’ve seen articles about how your family was producing pears and often times there were surpluses and they weren’t getting very good prices, so was one of your motivations was to do something with your family’s pear crop…
McCarthy: Yes.
Stursa: …and I was going to ask: was that your primary goal, to produce only pear eau de vie from your family’s pear crop. You’ve stated that you asked Jörg Rupf to teach you how to make seven different kinds of eau de vie, so you were already looking beyond just the pear?
McCarthy: Yeah, I knew already just instinctively that you could never build a market with one product. I learned that from the gun industry. A good distributor isn’t going to take on a one product line…and he isn’t going to take on a two hundred product line…so I was sort of the Goldilocks product line with seven items and a couple of sizes by the time I got to distribution.
Stursa: Were they all eau de vie?
McCarthy: Yeah, the other stuff came much, much later. As for your question, I left out the most important part which was, apart from interest, maybe just curiosity about how to do this, I was a member of the sort of founding land use planning mafia in this state, I was fairly close to Tom McCall. I knew enough about farming and rural life to know if you can’t sell the crop from your land, then you’ll sell it to the people with the big bucks, the developers, so let’s do what the French figured out about three hundred years ago, which was to take what you have, which was ordinary, good but nothing special, pears, and make it into something very good - most of the French eau de vie was excellent - and then sell it to the Americans. Seemed to me like a natural thing to do. I made enough money on the gun company to last me the rest of my life, so I wasn’t profit oriented initially. In fact, of the thirty one years that I owned [Clear Creek], I didn’t even think about profits for at least half of that. I wanted to learn how to make it, how to make it in large quantities, I wanted to learn how to sell it, in a real profound sense, as in “Where is the place in this country, in our culture, in our food habits, in our business world for eau de vie…how do you get there?” And then the last one on the list was, I wanted to make some money…as I said I had enough money that I didn’t need to worry about it for a long time…although I started to get serious about it about five years before I sold the company. I was ready to make some money. I hadn’t gone through all the revenue from the gun company, but I was picking away at it a little bit.
Stursa: Yes, reminds me of the old joke: how do you make a small fortune in the winemaking business? You start with a large one.
McCarthy: That’s right. I did…and we used a lot of it. Because I could write checks, I tried a lot of stuff. I didn’t look at a product and say, “How do I make this thing so it sells,” I’d say, “How do I make this thing so that it’s really good?” and then we’ll worry about how to sell it later. So by the time we got to about twenty five years in to it, the industry had responded very positively. The writers had responded. That was another thing – I had a pretty good sense of how to get to the wine writers because I’d done it in the gun business, I got to the gun writers…there are a lot of them…the sporting goods guys and the manufacturing guys and others. I’d learned how to call up some famous writer and somehow get a story out of him.
Stursa: At what point did you feel you’d achieved critical success? In other words, when did reviewers start putting articles out there saying, “Hey, this guy is making good stuff”?
McCarthy: At the very beginning, the absolute very beginning. I never had a bad word written about me.
Stursa: I’ve never seen one.
McCarthy: I had incredible luck. I understood the point of view of the writer…he’s got to have something good to write about. So it wasn’t like you were trying to pull the wool over his eyes or anything, it was just laying out the story. You had the food industry, the fancy food gourmet magazines, the traditional wine people, the wine distributors, they were happy to write about eau de vie. You had the business story people that wanted to write a business story, here’s a new business, how do you do this new business in the United States. There were a couple of other angles. Oh, Ag [agriculture], a set of interesting Ag problems and issues, how do you get more money for your fruit, here’s a way to do it. And I was just plain lucky a lot of the time. I got to know Johnny Apple, the New York Times food writer guy…crazy, wild man…wonderful guy…he’d often come to Portland and call me up, say, “Let’s go have dinner.” He was a huge fan, and it was sort of overwhelming, actually, this guy was famous…and he loved what I was doing…thought I’d gotten it right, and one day Eric Asimov, who was coming out to keynote the Oregon Pinot Noir annual potlatch, called me, said, “I’ll be in Portland Saturday, could you spend a little time with me?” I resisted the urge to be cute and say, “Jeez, I’m sorry, we’re fully booked,” went through my mind, “Sorry can’t fit you in this time, maybe next time.” I didn’t do that, I just played it straight. We spent the whole day together. He’s a good journalist, he’d ask a question and then listen to you, he wouldn’t try to answer it for you. Then I couldn’t I tell whether…and I had been very carefully, with a very light touch, cultivating him for about fifteen years…like getting an eight pound trout on a half-pound leader…you have to be very careful with what you’re doing…because he was being worked by everybody in the world in the industry. As he was leaving he said, “I’ll have a photographer in here on Tuesday,” and I thought son of a bitch, I got it. And he wrote that big spread on me, which was just the wildest…
Stursa: I’m pretty sure I’ve read it.
McCarthy: Ask Rachel, she should have a copy for you if you want.
Stursa: Okay.
McCarthy: Or Jeanine in Sales and Marketing.
Stursa: I may be getting with her for some follow-up questions.
McCarthy: She’s actually stepped up to do that. Rachel was actually more  production than marketing most of the time, but she could step into the marketing, and Jeanine came in, must be ten years ago now, to be just a rank-and-file sales person but I could tell right away she was a very bright, very ambitious girl and so when we had the transition at the time of sale I encouraged her to make a run for the top marketing job, which she did, and she’s basically been doing the work of two plus people ever since…she knows everything.
Stursa: What was the greatest challenge that you had to overcome during the first few years of the operation?
McCarthy: (long pause) Well, always, throughout the entire history of my time there, we were always working on marketing and sales, especially distribution. I had learned a lot about distribution from the gun business but there was a lot more to learn, and once you…and you can’t learn it without getting out there and taking you briefcase and your sample bottles and a stout pair of shoes and just work your ass off…and then you learn it and you learn stuff that most other people don’t know and you learn how to make some money. In terms of…sort of more tangible issues, we had to learn, with every single fruit type we added we had to start all over again, because cherries are not the same as a pear, just plain not. We’d start out, thinking, well, this will be easy, we’ll make it just like we made the pear, and then three years later we’d come up for air and realize that it hadn’t worked worth a damn. So that was sort of the heart of the company anyway was how do you do it…you want to make blue plum brandy, well how do you do that? You take a blue plum, well, what kind of blue plum and what stage of ripening and how ripe can they get? You got to get them pitted…there may be differences in fermentation…every single product. Pears, apples…apples we’d barrel age. Almost nothing else was barrel aged except brandy and whiskey.  But because we were just fanatics about making everything from the whole fruit, no flavorings involved at all. We had to learn how to get along with that fruit. Take a bottle of pear brandy, there wasn’t anything in it that wasn’t on the pear tree and so you’re stuck…it was very hard to cover up a mistake. A good winemaker can take a so-so wine, fiddle with it a little bit, make something that’s okay, but it was very hard for us to do that.
Stursa: At what point did you feel the distillery was a commercial success?
McCarthy: That’s a little bit hard to answer…obviously by the time I sold it…but I had just…I think I had mentioned…just five years short of selling it I finally got more serious about making money. That wasn’t how I define commercial success anyway, really. I’d get distributors who’d say, “Well, what kind of target shall we set?” They’d take on my stuff, they wanted to know what I expected. I’d say, “All I want to do is have year-to-year growth, and I want to become popular and respected among the circle that consists of your very best retail customers and your very best restaurant customers.” So Portland I wanted, got the OLCC, that was hard to deal with. Say, in New York City you wanted those big-time, four star restaurants, the heavy hitter retailers like Sherry Lehman and…
Kitty: Meowah. Meow.
McCarthy: I’ve forgotten…what the hell was the name of the wine store in…I’ll have to look back. Anyway, the super-high-class wine dealers that also sell liquor.
Kitty: MEOW.
McCarthy: I wanted them to say “Hi” to me when I walked in the door…and we got there. They could be real jerks, some of them, but if you see a guy who seems like he’s going to be a real jerk, you go easy. Eventually you could usually get most of them to at least give you the time of day.
Stursa: I admit that the phrase “commercial success” can be defined different ways, but what I was getting at was…presumably someone was keeping the books and so, was there a period of time when you were in the red and then finally in the black?
McCarthy: Yeah, well, we had a good bookkeeper…thank God, because without her I would have gone crazy. That was Candice…Rachel might have mentioned her…terrific bookkeeper. I always knew where we were, it wasn’t like I was just spending money. I knew that we, say, lost money last month, we were going to lose money this month, we get to August, September, October we’ll make some money, and so we bounced, with a couple of exceptions, we bounced right along the break-even line, almost at every level. We grew and we grew to meet existing demand, we grew to make demand for new products, and when you got done with pricing it, distribution issues and so on, you just barely broke even. I don’t want to seem blasé about having commercial success because sooner or later you can’t expect an industry to be based on not making any money, and I expected to see other guys come along and get into it…they were pretty slow as you know, and it took a while for anybody else to raise their head...and when they did there were the first few…and then there was just nobody after them for quite a while…and then all hell broke loose. But a great deal of that was the flavored stuff, which I never thought was…I mean they’re nice guys and they have a perfect right to go out and earn a buck and a lot of them will do better than I did, but to me that wasn’t the point of it. Who wants to take bad vodka and dump some flavoring into it, bottle it, call it…whatever you want to call it.
Stursa: Yeah, well…
McCarthy: How we doing there?
Stursa: We have fifteen minutes left on our hour so I’m going to try to jump through the rest of my questions. This one you’ve already partially answered but I’ll ask anyway; by 2014 you had an extensive product line – over two dozen – why so many products rather than concentrating on three or four? What you said earlier was that you wanted to offer a line of products to distributors.
McCarthy: Yes, to get serious with the real heavy hitters you needed something that was worthwhile, from their point of view. I they sent their salesmen out and they sold one case of pear brandy, and that was all, there was nothing in it for them, they needed to write a little more business than that…and that’s what I’d learned in the gun industry as well.
Stursa: Of the various products you’ve introduced over the years, is there anything in particular that you are proud of?
McCarthy: Well, the pear. But the other one, that’s kind of a sleeper, is the blue plum…and I got that…
Stursa: I’ll have to try that some time. Just so you know, we’re gone through a lot of the pear ourselves. Also I’m a big fan of the eight year old apple brandy for a long time. We moved here from Florida nine years ago and I had been able to buy it in an upscale liquor store in Tallahassee.
McCarthy: I don’t know how they got it, because I knocked myself out trying to get distribution in Florida and I never got it worth a damn. Frustrating. I had Southern [Wine and Spirits] for a while and they were very hard to deal with.
Stursa: Okay, sorry to have interrupted, pear…blue plum…
McCarthy: The blue plum was so good, it’s one I kept in the freezer. We had several good fruit years, and it was just a stunning eau de vie. Every bit as good as the pear…maybe even a little bit…I never like to talk about anything being better than the pear…but I knew it was good…drank quite a bit of it. I hardly drink it at all anymore, but when we brought that eau de vie along I was so excited about it that every so often I had to have a little taste.
Stursa: Many craft distillers make vodka in order to pay the bills while their good stuff is aging. You’ve never made vodka, but are their products you made more to satisfy popular demand as opposed to being something that you just wanted to make?
McCarthy: No, not really. We never made a coffee based liqueur, for example, partly because there’s no coffee grown in Oregon and there was a standard that we pretty well set, it had to be something you could buy the raw materials in Oregon or Washington.
Stursa: So if a distributor said, “People want this, could you make some of this?”
McCarthy: Well, we always listened. Seriously listened, because sometimes we’d get some ideas from people. Growing the pear inside the bottle on the tree, I’d seen that in Switzerland, but I had several distributors tell me I ought to do this, so I though, heck yes, so that was one. It fit, so neatly, into what we were doing. There were things I didn’t do. Never did an apricot, partly when people said apricot they meant the sweetened liqueur, they didn’t mean eau de vie.
Stursa: The pear-in-the-bottle is an interesting thing. I’m from Corvallis and for the first few years we lived there neither of the town’s two liquor stores had your pear-in-the-bottle. Somewhere along there I bought a bottle of a French pear-in-the-bottle…trying to recall the name…Mannewiz or something like that…
McCarthy: Manischewitz?
Stursa: No, but I can’t recall [Massenez was the brand]. We took the label off…you don’t want the pear to become exposed to air and so we kept topping it off with Clear Creek and at a certain point it didn’t seem honest to keep the original label on it. Shortly after that one of the local liquor stores finally started stocking your pear-in-the-bottle…perhaps they’d only just heard about it…
McCarthy: The OLCC was perfectly okay to deal with, there was no funny stuff, they weren’t crooked, but they were awful slow to respond to what I made and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Finally I hired a couple of pretty girls to go around and talk to the liquor stores and that helped. Jeanine and Jody. But compared to a private sector distributor who says, “Yeah I like your products, we’ll take them on,” that was the beginning and the end of it.
Stursa: They seem to be pretty supportive these days, but I guess it took them a while.
McCarthy: Yes, they’ve been better. I had to finally stop making the calls on the OLCC stores because they irritated me. They were just so darn slow to respond…and the girls got along with them just fine.
Stursa: Is there anything you would like to have made, but didn’t?
McCarthy: There were a few. I was interested in making a sour mash whiskey, as opposed to a peated malt whiskey. We sort of poked around it…and got started a little bit. This fellow Daniel was very talented [Daniel Ruiz is currently the Clear Creek Head Distiller and Production Manager] and I think if I hadn’t sold the company that in a couple of years we would have gone to that whiskey. We sort of came in under the radar with the McCarthy’s Whiskey. It was completely unplanned. It was almost too good a situation…it got away from us in terms of demand…I don’t know if they caught up down there yet. It was just amazing. I had friends tell me I was twenty five percent underpriced on it…I could have got have gotten a lot more money for it. I was always dragging my feet on prices…because this is Oregon and, especially in rural Oregon, I’ve got customers who don’t have sixty five bucks for a bottle of whiskey. I always had that in mind.
Stursa: It’s certainly the most I’ve ever paid for a three-year-old whiskey. Still have my original bottle. Bought it a number of years ago, sort of as a “ringer” in a tasting of Scottish single malts. Kept it in a bag. We’d tasted the five Scottish malts, and then I said, “I’ve got one I want everyone to try…tell me what you think.” I was pretty well received, so I pulled it out of the bag and announced, “It’s from Oregon.” But not being a fan of peaty malts, I still have over half the bottle, and I have to ask why you went with that style?
McCarthy: Because I liked it.
Stursa: I figured as much.
McCarthy: I’d had some sixteen-year-old Lagavulin and I couldn’t believe how good it was. It was just a perfect whiskey. It was pretty heavily oaked but not over-oaked to my taste. It was a very sound whiskey. My wife and I were in Ireland on vacation…sort of drinking our way around western Ireland…staying in some of the beautiful hotels there, with good liquor cellars and good wine cellars, and I went home with a bottle of it and thought, “I’m going to try to make something like this.” And that was ’92…’93…somewhere in there. For the first few years we made small amounts and put it in different kinds of wood without a whole lot of thought. Then what’s-his-name…Jim Murray…he came along and thought it was the best whiskey…
Stursa: Yes, he gave it great ratings.
McCarthy: I guess he just did it again. Somebody, Jeanine or Rachel, called me the other day to say, “You’ve got the best small distillery in the world again.” This was stuff that I made, actually, because it doesn’t go out for three years and that hasn’t come up yet.
Stursa: Why only three years of age on that?
McCarthy: In retrospect it was the right decision. We needed the money. That’s the problem with a successful product, particularly one that ages, you’ve got a fortune tied up just sitting there, because it has to. I think also, when I decided to put it on the market for real, there was a little bulge in our production so I had several barrels that were three years or older…and the public just loved it. It was a little bit of a dicey product because everything else was fruit…traditional eau de vie or grappa and we wondered if the whiskey would work as part of that family. You can ruin a company by having a product line that’s…nobody knows quite where it’s at…got the wrong stuff mixed in with it…but it was never a problem. They looked at Clear Creek, I think, and they treated that as important nomenclature.
Stursa: Although it’s interesting…HRD has moved the McCarthy’s over into their product line.
McCarthy: I didn’t know that.
Stursa: If you go to the Clear Creek website, the McCarthy’s is not there. If you go to the HRD website, that’s where it is, listed with their other whiskeys.
McCarthy: Well, I think that’s…more power to them, in a way. That’s how they’re going to pay for it, what they owe me.
Stursa: Kind of a tricky question…reflecting a personal bias…I’ve not had any of your grappa…in fact I’ve only had two or three American made grappas. I’ve been into spirits a long time…since my late twenties…and my first experiences with grappa and marc, I wasn’t impressed, and trying to find out more about it, I  learned that it was kind of the peasant’s brandy back in Europe, the good stuff that was barrel aged, that’s what the rich people drank, and they took this stuff that was left over from winemaking, give it some guy who’d fire up a little still in his barn and runs off some for him and his buddies, so it was basically peasant brandy. I know you’re gotten good reviews on your grappa so what I’m wondering is, do you follow a different process, or put more effort into it to create a better product?
McCarthy: Yes. Because you’re right. I learned how to make it in Alsace and I worked in a big distillery for a couple of days, and they were using stuff that we [Clear Creek] would never even let in the building. What you put into a still is what you’re going to get out, so I used fairly high quality pomace from fairly high quality wineries. I never paid for pomace.
Stursa: By “high quality pomace” you mean, say, not over-pressed?
McCarthy: Yes, but also just very good quality. They were making decent wine and they were using good quality grapes and they were treating them right and when they pressed them their techniques went with the flow of material. So they were good grappas. There is some terrific grappa but there isn’t much of it.
Stursa: I think there are a couple of good Italian ones.
McCarthy: There’s Jacopo Poli, an Italian, and his stuff is insanely expensive and I just kick myself around about it because he can charge that. He’s one of these charming Italians that everybody oohs and awws about him. I’m from Roseburg so I didn’t feel I could compete head-on with Jocopo Poli, so I priced it where I felt okay about it and I got a lot of attention, and that’s something that if I was still there I’d go back through that and see if I could doll it up a little bit and see if I could get a few more bucks a bottle for it. I don’t know what the new owners are doing with it.
Stursa: There are still four of them in the lineup.
McCarthy: Okay.
Stursa: I know you did some contract distilling for wineries that needed brandy to make fortified wines. I’m guessing that along the way you were contacted by people who were interested in having you do contract distilling for them and I presume that you didn’t.
McCarthy: We did some of it. Usually it was for another branch of the industry. Somebody wanted to make…uh, what is that cognac product…I mean the Normandy product…
Stursa: Calvados.
 McCarthy: Yes. They make a product that’s juice or cider with Calvados added.  A couple of these new cider guys were going try to do that so I did some custom distilling…it was a great way of booking some hours when there was not much to do. We had some flat spots the year so we’d get somebody to ship me a full tanker truck load of Chardonnay and want me to do some distilling for them and we’d come in with a low ball price, but it was a better than not getting any cash flow.  It was also a way of becoming a little more popular with the industry. I didn’t want ‘em to think I was too stuck up about myself. I wanted to work with people where I could…but those days were ending…and I don’t know that the new owners were doing it at all…don’t know one way or the other but  I would have probably had to give up the better part of  it. 
Stursa: Rachel told me they’re not. 
McCarthy: Well, yeah, we were headed that way.
Stursa: (checking watch) Oh my god. Okay, I just want to get through my questions then if you have any extra time and you want to give me more information. Verification question - Linné Dodge [of Hood River Distillers] told me that you approached them about the sale, that you initiated the negotiation.
McCarthy: Yes, that’s true. Well, it was a hard company to sell. They were one of the few companies that was wealthy enough to pay for something like this and they had the in house management ability to take it on and run it right. They’re good. I haven’t inquired at length as to what’s going on because now it’s none of my business…I don’t call Rachel or Jeanine and say, “Hey, what’s really going on?” I’ve been in there only a half a dozen times in the last two years. It’s just good business practice. If they invited me I’d go, but I wasn’t going to go down there and start to nose around and force my former employees to pay attention to me when they’re trying to pay attention to their new boss. They [HRD] were a terrific prospect for selling the company. They were really smart, they knew what they were doing, they had some great numbers guys, they had some great production guys. Ron and Linné…Linney…
Stursa: Linné.
McCarthy: Linné…are terrific people…I think they’ve got two of their kids involved in it. It’s a nice story.
Stursa: Would you do the whole thing over again, and if so, what would you have done differently?
McCarthy: Oh yeah, I’d do it over. I should have started ten years earlier. It’s hard work, making a market for a product. [pause] If you don’t mind, I’m going to get some more tea.
Stursa: Not at all.
Stursa: You’re a fussy feline.
Kitty: Rouwwwrrr.
Stursa: You’re a lot like our Cleo.
Kitty: Rrrrrr.
McCarthy: so, in terms of doing it over, sure. It was hard work. It’s different from law, which was hard work, but I could never really figure out what I was supposed to do…working hard to become a mediocre lawyer. In this business, and in the gun business, small scale, closely held, manufacturing companies with their own marketing and own brands, is a real nice place to be. For me it’s a little bit intuitive…I like figuring out stuff…so I’d do it again in a second.
Stursa: Including selling when you did?
McCarthy: Yes. I had some wild and crazy lawyers on this sale, even with a good straight outfit like Hood River, because they had their own wild and crazy lawyers. Every single word in the document was argued over…it’s just the game…and we did it and we did it right. We had a couple of cases where one side got their back up a little bit and I thought maybe we’d lose the deal, but the lawyers were pretty good about making something work and satisfying us and satisfying us that they didn’t leave a loophole they could walk away with.
Stursa: What do you feel is the historical significance of Clear Creek?
McCarthy: Well, the main thing I wanted to do was to show that you could make good, family-owned, small-scale, artisan distilled fruit brandies, like they did in Europe…partly because, if I go back to where I started, if that farmer can sell second-grade fruit, like a lot of the pears that I bought – I was buying a million pounds of pears every year – a lot of that was graded down because it was misshapen but was perfectly sound.
Stursa: Culls.
McCarthy: Not culls. Culls are crap…you can’t…these are what you call C grade...Fred Myer’s pear halves will be these because they peel them…or you can get graded down for being the wrong color. If your Bartlett pear is too red, which I think is kind of pretty, they’ll grade it down. So the poor farmer is sitting there with perfectly good fruit and half the time they had to dump it…or [a large California wine company] would give them two cents a pound or something and use it in those supermarket white wines.
Stursa: Well, that’s been a recurrent thing…using surplus fruit…that’s why HRD got started in 1934…
McCarthy: Yes.
Stursa: And there was a distillery in The Dalles that operated from 1900 to 1905…
McCarthy: I didn’t know that.
Stursa: You’re going to get a courtesy copy of this book, and I’m hoping there will be a lot in there you didn’t know.
McCarthy: Okay.
Stursa: Because I went all the way back to the 1830s on this, and I have covered every commercial distillery that has ever operated in Oregon.
McCarthy: I’ll read that with great interest.
Stursa: So, any observations on the current crop of Oregon craft distillers?
McCarthy: Well, there’s two kinds of small distillers. One of them is guys that basically flavor vodka that they buy, they don’t even make the vodka…
Stursa: Or they don’t even make their whiskey.
McCarthy: Yes, they don’t even make the whiskey…and that’s a lot of them…and they’ll do well, and that’s okay. I tried to get the OLCC, back when the first of these vodka guys were getting started, to have some nomenclature, like the French appellation contrôlée rules…but the overwhelming sentiment among the budding distillers was hell no and the OLCC didn’t have the political cojones to do it. They were afraid of the whole thing, they didn’t want a big issue of some kind. So part of what you read earlier is beneficial…you can have a very good cash flow by buying vodka for sixty cents a proof gallon and reselling it for five something, net, and if you want to get into the more respectable side of the industry you’ll have the money to do it, so it’s okay…but it’s very different.
Stursa: The story I’ve gotten from some of them…I’ve had several look me in the eye and say, “I never planned to make vodka, but I’ve got this rum I’m making, I’ve got this whiskey I’m making, it’s got to go in the barrel and I’ve got all my money tied up in that. People want vodka, so, fine, I make vodka. Keeps the bills paid, keeps the lights on while the rum ages.” It’s kind of hard to argue with that. My problem is with the ones who just buy the stuff and bottle it, that’s all they do. One of the things I’m going to be trying to do with this book is to identify who those people are…it’ll be a tricky thing with the people who are doing a mixed operation, I want to give them credit for what they’re actually making themselves. After all, the real artisan is the person who conceives of it, who designs it, makes it and presents it to the world. That’s not what you’re doing if you’re buying someone else’s whiskey, putting it in a bottle, putting your name on it along with the statement, “Produced in Oregon.”
McCarthy: That’s where I felt the OLCC could have done a better job. The wine industry has got it figured out. “Produced and bottled by,” means that you really made it, and if it’s “vinted by” or “cellared by” or “blended by” it means something else, and that’s fine. [pause] I get on my high horse about that a little bit…
Stursa: Okay, last question is one I always ask, sometimes I get really good answers and sometimes I don’t, what is the question that I didn’t ask, that I should of asked?
McCarthy: [long pause] Well, I can’t think of anything. I mean, I jumped around a lot.
Stursa: Yes, a lot more information than necessary to answer my questions, but all of it good…so this last question probably isn’t all that relevant…
McCarthy: But that’s a good question, and I’ve never had anyone ask me that…and I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people who were writing something on me. Well, good luck with the book. I think the timing is good…a lot more people in Oregon than there used to be.
Stursa: Yes, and there’s a lot of interest in it. I think it will do well.
McCarthy: I hope so.
Stursa: I’d like to take a quick photograph of you.
McCarthy: Okay.
Stursa: [taking photographs] Yes, this is good…the window light is very good…thanks.
McCarthy: You bet. I’m glad we got together. I’ll be very interested in seeing the book.
Stursa: thank you very much for your time. I know we ran over here.
McCarthy: Well, I’m not bothered by that at all.
Stursa: So, are you enjoying your retirement?
McCarthy: Very much. Generally, I’m busier than I ever was…I’m wondering how I ever had time to work.
Stursa: Thank you again.
McCarthy: You’re welcome.

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