You know folks in the southeastern part of this city reckon they are on to something big because the nickname game has commenced. Should the district be...

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PORTLAND — You know folks in the southeastern part of this city reckon they are on to something big because the nickname game has commenced. Should the district be “Distillery Row”? “Libation Alley”? You get the picture.

The small craft distillery scene has hit Portland, reminiscent of the microbrewery boom two decades ago. Young microbrewers and winemakers are now distilling whiskey, brandy, grappa and even absinthe. And taking a page from Kentucky’s iconic whiskey distillers, they are beginning to host tours and tastings. With 17 microdistilleries in Oregon, and eight more startups expected across the state by year’s end, spirits aficionados haven’t seen anything like this in recent memory.

Sure, boutique distilleries also dot the landscapes in Michigan and Northern California, but only in Oregon do most artisan distilleries concentrate around a city. Collectively, the distillers help shape the bar and culinary scene in Portland. The Rose City is now seeing a renaissance of classic cocktails, and some high-end restaurants are trying experimental pairings of food with spirits.

“The distillery scene here is where the wine industry in California was in the 1960s,” said Steve McCarthy, owner of Clear Creek Distillery, one of the nation’s first microdistilleries. “We are rewriting all the rules. The artisan distilleries are making up a whole new industry.”

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Breaking in with brandy

McCarthy earned a cult following after making small batches of eau de vie, or fruit brandy, in 1985.

Now, four-star restaurants Le Cirque in New York City and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago carry his brandy. The hip Pegu Club in New York invented a cocktail in homage to it. Local celebrity chefs Tom Douglas and Thierry Rautureau both rave about it.

In 1987, McCarthy sold his hunting-rifle part supply company to focus on his dream: making a world-class brandy. The Mercer Island native now lives a few blocks from his distillery in northwest Portland.

Clear Creek is Oregon’s most impressive distillery, a must-stop for anyone who wants to see how a world-class distillery operates. On our recent visit, McCarthy, 65, gave a tour of where his brandies, grappas, liqueurs and whiskeys are made.

He stood next to a pallet of brandy set to be shipped to France, petting it like it was man’s best friend. “The French invented eau de vie. For a French distributor to say that my stuff is good enough to go into France and compete with their stuff is a very nice recognition.”

He also distills cherry, apple and even Douglas fir brandy, made from green buds plucked near Mount Hood. But his pear brandy, about $40 a bottle, is the big draw.

It takes 30 pounds of pears to make one 750-ml bottle. McCarthy trucks in Bartletts from his orchards in the Hood River Valley. The ripe pears get crushed, then fermented for a month in one of six 2,300-gallon tanks. The fermented mash then heats up in his copper stills.

How does it taste? Crisp, with an intense clarity of fresh-fruit characteristics. It doesn’t taste medicinal or get run over by the high alcohol content. In the United States, only St. George Spirits and Germain-Robin in California belong in the same pantheon. It’s as good as or better than many of the respected eaux de vie I’ve tasted in France.

Craft distilleries

Outside of Kentucky, Oregon hosts one of the nation’s most exciting craft distillery scenes. Family-owned Brandy Peak Distillery in Brookings makes spirits the old-fashioned way, from a wood-fired still. Beer empire McMenamins runs a distillery next to Edgefield Hotel in Troutdale, east of Portland. In southeast Portland, House Spirits Distillery can craft a barrel of whiskey tailored to your taste. Nearby, Integrity Spirits makes an absinthe.

Two factors put the state at the forefront. Like wineries, distillers in Oregon can sell their spirits on their premises and offer tastings — unlike most states.

Also, an artisanal culture was already here. Think winemakers who make the famed pinot noir in Willamette Valley, and all the city’s microbrewers. These days, those winemakers and brewers or their apprentices, along with bartenders and farmers, distill spirits with a Northwest flavor, even aging whiskey in Oregon oak.

Among the spirits being crafted here: pinot noir brandy, gewürztraminer grappa, Eastern-style gin, hazelnut spiced rum, or vodka infused with hot pepper, saffron, tarragon, chocolate or basil.

Distillery district

Many distill out of warehouses in an industrialized part of southeast Portland. Also on this corridor will be a few breweries, wineries and the much-anticipated September debut of a restaurant featuring Kevin Ludwig and Lance J. Mayhew, two of the city’s best bartenders. Talks have begun about creating tour signs and a catchy nickname for this area.

Most distilleries in Portland offer tours and tastings, but expectations should be tempered, since most are startups and their operations are modest.

Often now, tasting means cozying up to a makeshift bar or a barrel that doubles as a tasting table. It’s actually charming and more personal. Although many plan to build more formal tasting rooms by year’s end, this informal setting falls more in line with the mom-and-pop profile of the small craft distilleries.

House Spirits Distillery is one of the big kids on this block. Its Aviation Gin was served at a James Beard award dinner and carried in many bars in New York City and San Francisco, the epicenters for classic and contemporary cocktails.

Aviation Gin breaks from traditional London Dry-style gin (think Tanqueray or Beefeater). It has less emphasis on juniper berries, and possesses a spicy nose, with hints of lavender and coriander and a smooth finish, similar to a Dutch genever gin.

Sophisticated spirits

Artisan spirits in Portland are so sophisticated that advocates such as Oregon Distillers Guild President Lee Medoff, who also co-owns House Spirits Distillery, are convinced spirits can pair with food just as wines do. Some of the city’s top restaurants agree. Simpatica Dining Hall, Park Kitchen and Paley’s Place all occasionally feature tasting menus with cocktails and spirits.

That’s a sore point with traditionalists such as Clear Creek’s McCarthy who believe the alcohol content is too high to pair with food. That it’s a topic of discussion in restaurant kitchens and bars shows how big the distillery scene has grown in a city billed as “the capital of microbrewery.”

In the Pearl District, bartenders Daniel Shoemaker at Teardrop Cocktail Lounge and Kelley Swenson of Ten 01 both create innovative cocktails with local spirits and almost draw as much attention in foodie circles as the city’s top chefs. Their rise can be partly attributed to the craft distillery scene, which has raised awareness among the young crowd.

The craft distillery scene “is just about to explode,” said Shoemaker, who owns Teardrop. He doesn’t want to miss out. He plans to open a distillery to make peach liquor and apricot brandy for his bar.

Seattle Times staffer Tan Vinh is a regular contributor to NWWeekend. Contact him: 206-515-5656 or

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