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Steve McCarthy, Founder of Clear Creek Distillery, Has Died

The distiller was known as the godfather of American single malt whiskey

A man stands in front of distillery equipment holding up a glass.
Steve McCarthy.
Clear Creek Distillery
Janey Wong is Eater Portland's reporter.

Less than a week shy of his 80th birthday, Clear Creek Distillery founder Steve McCarthy died on January 2 from Parkinson’s Disease. Noted for founding the craft distillery in 1985 and pioneering American single malt whiskey, McCarthy was considered one of the godfathers of American craft distilling. He is survived by his wife, painter Lucinda Parker, and daughter Abigail McCarthy, a research fisheries biologist.

“What he was doing at Clear Creek was science-minded, but in a way that I don’t think was really understood by the populace at the time,” says Clear Creek master distiller Joe O’Sullivan. “He was introducing the idea that distilling could be an artistic and creative endeavor.”

Considering his achievements in distilling, it’s notable that the career was in fact a second act for McCarthy. Earlier in his professional life, he took over operations of his father’s business, Michael’s of Oregon, served as the first executive director of the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), and worked as a manager for Tri-Met.

During a business trip to Europe, McCarthy came across Poire Williams, a clear brandy made from Williams pears, and felt it was the perfect way to utilize fruit from his family’s pear orchard, McCarthy Family Farm. Now on a mission to make brandy from Hood River pears and Yakima Valley apples as a celebration of regional agriculture, McCarthy purchased a brandy still from Germany and reached out to St. George Spirits founder Jörg Rupf to train him.

McCarthy’s proteges, Joe O’Sullivan and Caitlin Bartlemay, head distiller at Clear Creek, remember him as a joyful person whose childlike enthusiasm never waned. As a mentor, he had the ability to clearly identify employees who were “lifers” in the industry and wanted to build their distilling careers. “While he respected everybody and wanted everybody to take something away from it, there was a special consideration for people who he knew would be a similar mindset to himself,” O’Sullivan says. O’Sullivan is now at the point in his career where he cultivates young talent, and he credits McCarthy for teaching him a model of leadership.

“He would bring books into the distillery, and he would find me in production and be like, ‘I think you’ll really like this book, you should read it,’” Bartlemay says. “Some of it was fiction and some of it was historical non-fiction — stuff about the region, stuff about the world — and I read every single one of them. I hold a lot of them near and dear to my heart, especially the fact that he was like, ‘You know what? I think this will be impactful for her worldview and I think she’d enjoy it.’”

McCarthy sold Clear Creek to Hood River Distillers in 2014, and remained on board as a consultant until he retired about a year-and-a-half later.

“[Steve] was an incubator and a person who grew people, and when I speak of his legacy, it’s not in the products we make but in the mentorship that he gave to others,” O’Sullivan says. “Making pear brandy doesn’t hold a candle to being the kind man he was for the people he loved.”