With more microbreweries per capita than anywhere else in the country, the drink Portland is known for is definitely beer. But in addition to a booming brew culture, the city is also home to a burgeoning community of distillers, and in recent years has seen the rise of a handful of small artisan distilleries across the state. One of the oldest and most renowned of these is Clear Creek; distillers of fine brandies, grappas, and other craft spirits – the most flashy and attractive of which is undoubtedly the pear-in-bottle eau de vie pictured above.
Truth be told, the pear in the bottle doesn’t do anything for the flavor of the brandy; it’s really just for looks. Call it a gimmick if you like, but we think it’s better described as bait. The pear in the bottle is like a worm on a hook – it draws you in with its strange and alluring appearance (how the hell did they get that pear in there!?), and once you take a sip, you can’t put the bottle down.
Don’t take our word for it though – New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov did a piece on Clear Creek back in 2007, asserting that their eau de vie was without question the best fruit brandy being produced in the US. It’s been a few years since then, but the traditional distillation techniques founder Steve McCarthy uses haven’t changed a bit. His small-batch eau de vies are still just as delicious as they’ve ever been.
What sets Clear Creek’s pear brandy apart from other brandies is the process through which it’s made. Technically it’s an eau de vie, which is a bit different than a traditional brandy like cognac. McCarthy – being the walking encyclopedia of distillation that he is – filled us in on the difference.
“Think of eau de vie as a family of brandy, just like bourbon and rye are families of whiskey,” he explained. “Eau de vie is a smaller category in the larger family of brandy, and while traditional brandies like cognacs and grappas are distilled from grapes, eau de vie is typically a mash of pure fruit with no additives, which is distilled down to make brandy.”
“Historically, most distillation was a way to recover something of value from material that had no further use,” McCarthy explained. “The Poles didn’t invent vodka for the taste – they made it because they needed something to do with the rotten potatoes that the pigs wouldn’t eat. It’s the same story with brandy and eau de vie. Grappas, for example, are a traditional Italian peasants drink distilled from the leftovers of winemaking, and similarly, traditional eau de vie was made with over-ripened and otherwise unusable fruits.”
The key to Clear Creek’s superior flavor is achieved with a combination of fresh fruit and careful distillation. McCarthy starts his process with perfectly-ripened Bartlett pears grown in the Northwest and doesn’t add anything else, save for the yeast needed to ferment the mash. With over 30 pounds of pears in each bottle, Clear Creek’s brandy boasts a robust flavor and powerful aroma that you can’t find anywhere else. Check out their website to find out where you can pick up a bottle.