THE EPICENTER OF the American whiskey industry has long been Kentucky, where a wild-eyed Baptist minister named Elijah Craig is credited with creating the country’s first true bourbon, back in the 1700s. There, distilleries like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark grew into household names. But if Portland distillers succeed in swinging the attention—and the esteem—West, Oregon may find itself on the world whiskey map, ranking right up there not only with Kentucky but also with Tennessee, Ireland, and Scotland. “When people think of whiskey, I want them to think of Oregon,” says Lee Medoff, a House Spirits master distiller who plans to release his first batch of whiskey next April.
Critics have already lauded Clear Creek Distillery owner Stephen McCarthy’s single-malt whiskey as one of the best small-batch whiskeys in the world—the New York Times called it a “dead ringer” for an Islay Scottish single malt. In the 1990s, McCarthy became among the first distillers to start making American single malts, and other distillers consider him the grandfather of the local distillery movement (his? Williams pear brandy, of Bartlett pears grown on his own orchard, is another staple in fellow distillers’ liquor cabinets). McCarthy uses peat-malted barley from Scotland, and Widmer Brothers Brewing Company ferments it into a “wash,” or unhopped beer. The distilling occurs in old sherry casks and in “barrels made from air-dried Oregon oak.” McCarthy limits the production, which, of course, raises a thirst in lovers of good whiskey. In March 2008, McCarthy’s release of two hundred cases sold out in an astonishing twenty-eight hours. Take heart, though—he plans to release five hundred more in August.—BB