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The Unexpected Story Behind the First American Single Malt

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Distiller Steve McCarthy, who died January 2, just five days before his 80th birthday, was well-known as the founder of Portland, Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery. He was one of the early pioneers of the modern craft distillery movement.

Specifically, McCarthy is known for his work making fruit brandies in the style of Europe’s eau de vie, from a fully American-made version of pear-in-the-bottle Poire Williams to a bracing Douglas Fir brandy beloved by bartenders.

Yet, what many may not realize was McCarthy’s key role in paving the way for American single-malt whiskey.

“There is no shortage of seminal figures in the rise of American single malt, but few would argue that Steve McCarthy was its true godfather,” says Steve Hawley, president of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission. “We simply wouldn’t be where we are today as a category if he hadn’t laid the groundwork.”

McCarthy didn’t set out to be a distiller. He graduated from NYU Law School, then returned to Oregon to work in government and public service. Later, he took over his father’s manufacturing business, which frequently brought him to Europe. Fortuitously, that was where he learned about the fruit brandies known as schnapps or eau de vie.