It’s only been in recent years that the concept of “American single malt” has really made inroads in the collective consciousness of whiskey geeks, but that didn’t stop a couple notable distilleries from laying the groundwork far earlier. You may have only started hearing about scotch-style whiskeys being made in the U.S. a few years ago, but in Oregon the style has been well-established for more than two decades at this point. The face of the movement: McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey, a pioneering bottle from Hood River, OR’s Clear Creek Distilling, which has itself been in business since 1985. For more than 20 years, the company has been making its heavily peated, pot-distilled single malt, waiting for the rest of the market to catch up. And finally these days, it seems like people are taking notice.
McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt was the brainchild of Clear Creek Distillery founder Steve McCarthy, made in an approximation of traditional scotch distillation and aging, with subtle American twists. It’s produced from 100% Scottish peated malt barley, which is mashed and fermented by Portland’s Widmer Bros. brewery, before being distilled at Clear Creek in the simplest and most direct way possible—a single distillation via Holstein pot still. The non-chill-filtered whiskey is then aged for three years in air-dried Oregon oak (medium toast) before being bottled at 42.5% ABV (85 proof).
There are a few details here that stand out. One is the three years of aging—this is the minimum for products labeled as “scotch” in Scotland, and would seem to be the basis of choosing the same aging period here. The second thing to note is that this whiskey is being aged in newly toasted (rather than charred) Oregon oak. That’s an interesting choice, and it presumably lands this whiskey somewhere in the valley between the intense oak flavor contribution of newly charred oak and the gentle contribution of re-used American oak barrels, which is the standard in Scotland. Here, the barrels are being used for the first time, but they’re not so deeply roasted as the likes of what you’d use for bourbon. The air-dried oak is also said to “tighten the grain, slowly fermenting the natural sugars and properly cures the tanks, ensuring that over-extraction will not happen.”
These are some interesting little tidbits for the whiskey geeks in the audience, who will no doubt respect Clear Creek as one of the country’s older and more venerable micro-distilleries. MSRP on McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey, meanwhile, is roughly $55.
With all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, McCarthy’s hits with an initial rush of smoke that is impossible to ignore or undercut—hand this to a seasoned whiskey drinker, and they’ll almost certainly think it hails from a classic Islay scotch brand such as Laphroaig or Lagavulin. However, as you return to the glass, stylistic differences begin to emerge. What first seemed only like a smoky woodfire begins to reveal notes of butterscotch and fruit—this is actually quite buttery in character, and there are moderately assertive notes of apple and peach as well, with the suggestion of mild sweetness and the barest hint of vanilla. Absent is the more saline, briny, medicinal character more often associated with peated malts from Islay—instead, this has a somewhat richer, fruitier dimension to balance out the more savory, meaty smoke character.
On the palate, this single malt presents with mild-to-moderate sweetness and replicates some of the same fruit notes of apple and peach, with hints of butter toffee … and then BAM, it’s hit by a sturdy wall of savory smoke. That smoke definitely has a savory, meaty dimension to it, and it goes on forever—coupled with fairly aggressive heat, it makes for a far punchier dram at 85 proof than almost any comparable American bourbon or rye, although this is par for the course when it comes to Islay-style single malts, which are often bracingly flavorful even at 80 proof.
Ultimately, McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt may read as a little overwhelming to those not prepared for the depth of smoke flavor, as well as the astringency it brings to the palate here on the back end in particular. This is a dram for those who have been weaned on heavily peated Scottish malts, and it does a nice job of standing in their company, even with a small age statement. Be aware: If peat and smoke aren’t your thing, Speyside’s always going to be there waiting for you.
Distillery: Clear Creek Distillery
City: Hood River, OR
Style: Peated American single malt
ABV: 42.5% (85 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $55 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.