Steve McCarthy discovered his taste for eau de vie while abroad in college, climbing the Alps on the outskirts of Grenoble, France, in the mid-1970s. The clear, aromatic fruit brandy (which aptly translates to “water of life”) has kept French and Swiss climbers warm in cold mountain climates for more than 400 years.

Steve set out for Europe to study wine, but found his interest piqued by the distinct brandies and spirits of the French countryside, whose robust flavors and powerful kick were unlike anything he’d experienced. He brought this fascination to his hometown in Oregon, where his family has owned and operated orchards for more than a century.

Back home, Steve was dismayed by his family’s crops’ dependency on the buying whims of a few big markets. In France he experienced a culture much more focused on the local economy. So when a friend mentioned the Bartlett pears grown in Steve’s family orchard near Hood River were the same as the Williams pears used to make the eau de vie he loved, Steve saw an opportunity to support the family business, and Clear Creek Distillery was born.

In the 26 years since Steve distilled the first drop of his own Clear Creek eau de vie, a lot has changed. As Oregon’s first craft distiller, Steve ushered in a new era of locally produced spirits whose European counterparts had only been available as high-priced imports, and his use of homegrown fruits bolstered the locavore food movement.

Like any trailblazer, Steve encountered roadblocks along the way, but he wasn’t discouraged. When legislation impeded the selling of spirits out of his own distillery, he became instrumental in amending Oregon liquor law, paving the way for a budding industry that today boasts more than 25 distilleries statewide.

At the distillery’s northwest Portland location, you only need to visit the tasting room to understand there’s something truly alchemical going on here. In the distillery, the clear, fragrant liquid dripping slowly out of the four German-made pot stills visually conveys the science and craftsmanship that goes into each and every one of Clear Creek’s products.

Clear Creek makes use of the Northwest’s fruit and berry yields in their grappa, wine brandy, liqueurs and multiple varieties of eau de vie and outsource (to Scotland) only for their single malt whiskey. In the tasting room, Steve shares his zeal for artisan spirits with visitors who, in turn, get to sample the goods. It’s only then, as crisp pear permeates the senses, that one can appreciate how eau de vie became a lifelong passion.

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