Peculiar passions lead
distillers to emulate far-off classic liquors
By Lew Bryson
Special to the
Published October 16,
to mind when you first see a bottle of single-malt whiskey from
Oregon, Bourbon from Virginia, gin from Scotland, or any other
spirit hailing from an unexpected birthplace. "Is it any good?"
might be one, or "Can they do that?" But one question blurts out
McCarthy makes a whiskey at his Clear Creek Distillery in Portland,
Ore., that tastes surprisingly like a peaty single-malt from the
Scottish isle of Islay, where the malted barley that becomes the
liquor is dried over peat fires. Why did he bother?
I like it," McCarthy said. "My wife and I were trapped in a fishing
lodge in western Ireland back in 1980 with a run of bad fishing and
bad weather. There wasn't much to do but play pool and drink
whiskey, which I did. I tried whiskeys I'd never had before,
including really peaty ones, like Lagavulin. I really loved
Six years later McCarthy started Clear Creek, making
eaux de vie and grappa, those clear, French- and Italian-style fruit
brandies. "One spring I ran out of fresh fruit," he said. "I went to
Kurt Widmer, at Widmer Brothers Brewing, and said, 'Let's make some
whiskey.' " Once you have a license to distill, apparently, the
sky's the limit.
"Kurt brewed a wonderfully smoky 'wash' [the
beer that is distilled into liquor] with some peated malt he had,
and I made whiskey." Three years later he bottled it as McCarthy's
Oregon Single Malt Whiskey, and it has sold so well that only this
year has he finally been able to save some for longer
New Scotland, old beverage
Lauchie MacLean has
a similar problem with popularity. The first bottling of 2,000 cases
of his Glen Breton whiskey sold out in six weeks after its release
in September 2000. MacLean is the president of the Glenora
Distillery in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
"I consider us North
America's only single-malt distillery," he said. "Others may make
malt whiskey, but it's all we make, all the time."
with a name of Lauchie MacLean and a home of "New Scotland," the
answer to "why" is a lot easier.
"We've maintained the
Scottish culture and the clan system here in Nova Scotia," MacLean
said. "But the tradition of Scotch whiskey didn't come over, largely
because of the trade with the West Indies. We got very cheap rum,
and that's continued here."
So in the 1980s, when some
investors asked what Cape Breton was missing, the answer was easy:
Whiskey! An unused distillery was dismantled in Scotland and rebuilt
in Cape Breton. It has been cooking away since 1991, making whiskey
from Scottish malt and water from the brook that runs through the
Glen Breton is more lightly peated than Islay
whiskeys. "We didn't want heavy peat," MacLean said. "We wanted to
be attractive to a wider range of drinkers. Some of the Speyside
malts are similar to ours, maybe Cragganmore, or The
Scots are thought of as scratching a living from
a harsh environment by making whiskey, a heritage Nova Scotians can
also lay claim to, but imagine the winters in Sweden. That's where
the Mackmyra distillery is making Scotch-style whiskey, the
northernmost whiskey distillery.
Swedes making whiskey is an
automatic "why," but distillery marketing director Rikard Lundborg
has a ready answer. The high interest in Scotch whiskey in
Scandinavia was one reason. But the partners at Mackmyra, Lundborg
said, "wanted to add a new dimension to malt whiskey, a Scandinavian
touch, as a complement to the Scottish and Irish brands. We do not
attempt to copy a certain character, rather to create a new
The Scandinavian touch comes from the climate, from
much smaller casks (some as small as 30 liters, a thimble compared
to a Scottish hogshead), and from the smoke in the malt. Where
Scotch whiskey is famous for the iodine twang of peat, Mackmyra
kilns its malt with a mix of peat, alder and
Scotland isn't immune to these displaced spirits.
William Grant & Sons, a company famous for its global
Glenfiddich single malt, has cheekily launched a gin, Hendrick's.
This is a gin with two "why's" to it. Why make a spirit so closely
associated with London and Holland, and if you do, why add
botanicals like rose petals and . . . cucumber?
simple, really," distillery representative James Bruton said. "Our
master distiller, Mike Weber, is a gin drinker, and he said, 'Look,
if we're so good at whiskey, why not take a crack at
"We asked ourselves, what's the quintessential gin
moment?" Bruton laughed. "For a Brit, it's sitting in a rose garden
eating cucumber sandwiches and drinking gin and tonic. That's where
the rose petals and cucumber came from."
Bourbon from . . .
A Bourbon drinker's quintessential moment might be
when the julep cup is frosted and the mint freshly snipped. But
before you pour Kentucky straight Bourbon whiskey into the silver
cup, think about this: The first mention of a mint julep in print,
in 1803, refers to it as a Virginian's drink.
As Jay Adams of
the A. Smith Bowman distillery in Fredericksburg, Va., says,
"Bourbon doesn't have to come from Kentucky."
Gentleman Bourbon makes that clear. Its initial distillation is in
Kentucky at an unnamed distillery, but the second distillation and
barrel-aging takes place in Virginia, and that is its birthright.
Adams doesn't make a big deal of why Mr. Bowman, a Kentucky native,
originally decided to make Bourbon in Virginia.
the farm here in 1927," he said. "He just always liked the idea of
distilling. Here he could grow corn and raise cattle to eat the
spent mash." That's a pretty good why.
You might be asking a
different "why" about all these spirits: Why buy them rather than
Scotch from Scotland, Bourbon from Kentucky, gin from London?
(Granting for the moment that most "London dry" gin is distilled
anywhere else these days.)
That was a question Steve McCarthy
ran into at Pearson's Wines, a store in Atlanta.
wonderful man at Pearson's named Carter," McCarthy recalled. "He's
the buyer. Carter tasted my whiskey, and he liked it, but he had a
question. 'I want to try to understand this,' he said. 'You make
whiskey in Oregon and no one's heard of you. Then we've got this
very, very good whiskey from this famous place in Scotland. The two
whiskeys cost the same. Can you explain why anyone should buy
McCarthy chuckled. "I couldn't tell him much at the
time," he admitted. "But I think the answer is, it's a good whiskey,
it's American, and $40 isn't the end of the world. So why
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