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Clear Creek Distillery’s “eaux de vie” inspires a clafouti with a magical touch of pear

September 15, 2009

Steve McCarthy holds a bottle of his famous pear brandy with a pear encased in the bottle. Photo courtesy of Cleer Creek Distillery.

Steve McCarthy holds a bottle of his famous pear brandy with a pear encased in the bottle. Photo courtesy of Cleer Creek Distillery.

Bicycling through the French countryside, a young Steve McCarthy rode past rows of pear trees with bottles hanging from their branches and was fascinated by them. Now, many years later, McCarthy’s apple and pear trees in the Hood River Valley has almost 10,000 bottles hanging from them, each with an apple or pear slowly growing inside.

After harvesting, the Bartlett pears and Golden Delicious apples encased in glass will be filled with 80-proof brandy and shipped from Clear Creek Distillery, McCarthy’s small operation in Northwest Portland to stores throughout the United States.

For the past 24 years, McCarthy has been making brandies, liqueurs and grappas by applying techniques he learned in Europe to locally grown fruit. The resulting fruit of his labor is a selection of more than 20 spirits, several of which have garnered national attention and accolades, including raves in The New York Times, Bon Appetit and Wine & Spirits magazines.

McCarthy makes eaux de vie. It’s an old tradition in France and Switzerland.

Translated literally as “waters of life,” the term eaux de vie refers to colorless, unsweetened fruit brandies.

With a single still, McCarthy made his first batch of pear brandy in 1985. Since then, his one-man operation has burgeoned into a four-still distillery, Jeanine Koszalka, retail manager at Clear Creek Distillery, explained to Charles and I when we visited.

Clear Creek's line of products. Photo courtesy of Clear Creek Distillery

Clear Creek's line of products. Photo courtesy of Clear Creek Distillery

Clear Creek’s brandies are made from a variety of fruit, including plums, cherries, raspberries, loganberries, blackberries and black currants. The black current brandy is one of my favorites over vanilla ice cream.

The distillery even has branched into whiskey making. Each year, the distillery bottles about 500 cases, which quickly sell out, Koszalka says.

In 2004 and 2006, McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey made the pages of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible as the best small-batch whiskey in the world. It also has been listed as one of the 10 best U.S. whiskeys.

Despite the success of his other product lines, McCarthy’s true passion is eaux de vie, and the distillery’s top seller has remained its pear brandy.

At harvest time, the crew hauls about 45,000 pounds of pears into the distillery room, where the running stills create a temperature and humidity that is perfect for ripening the Bartletts.

Charles gets a closer look at one of the four stills used at Clear Creek Distillery.

Jeanine Koszalka gives Charles a closer look at one of the four stills used at Clear Creek Distillery.

Once ripened, the pears are crushed, inoculated with yeast and fermented in stainless-steel vats, then distilled in the four copper pot stills McCarthy imported from Germany.

It takes 28 pounds of pears to make one bottle of brandy.

Clear Creek bottles about 6,000 cases of eaux de vie per year, making him the biggest eaux de vie maker in North America.

McCarthy likes to experiment and some of his concoctions take years to perfect.

It took McCarthy 10 years to perfect his Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir.

It took McCarthy 10 years to perfect his Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir.

One of his favorite triumphs is the green-tinged Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir, inspired by an obscure distillate made from trees in Alsace, France. McCarthy spent 10 years developing an Oregon version of the tree spirit. The key is infusing brandy with springtime Douglas fir buds and distilling the result. When you taste it, you could close your eyes and imagine yourself in the middle of a forest surrounded by fir trees.

Besides the usual bottling of pear and apple brandy, there are the prized Pear-in-the-Bottle and Apple-in-the-Bottle products, which require a lot of attention.

Unlike the normal bottlings of pear and apple brandy, in which the bottles simply contain the brandy, these bottles actually contain a whole pear or apple inside. The bottles are placed on the branches of pear and apple trees while the fruit still is small enough to fit through the bottle opening and neck. Every week throughout the summer, employees roam the orchard to adjust the angles of the bottles and make sure the pears and apples growing inside haven’t succumbed to the heat or insects.

The full-grown fruit, encased in bottles, are harvested in August, and each one is scrubbed by hand before being filled with aromatic brandy.

I have to admit it is a showstopper to bring out one of these bottles to pour for a guest at a dinner party and watch their eyes widen in disbelief.

Besides sipping, one of my favorite things to do with the pear brandy is to add it to a pear clafouti, it’s the perfect crowning glory for this beautiful and easy-to-make dessert.

Charles turned me on to cherry and pear clafoutis a few years ago. It’s one of the outstanding recipes in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

I had always been intimidated by baking but Charles assured me it was easy and after watching him making it a few times, I took to it like a fish takes to water…or pear does to pear brandy.

If you’re ever in Portland and want to visit Clear Creek Distillery, they love to have visitors. Address: 2389 NW Wilson St., Portland.

Phone: (503) 248-9470.

Tasting room hours: Tastings available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, with occasional closings.

Tours: Tours of the distillery are conducted at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Saturday.

Pear Clafouti infused with Clear Creek Distillery's pear brandy

Pear Clafouti infused with Clear Creek Distillery's pear brandy

Pear Clafouti

  1. 3 Bosc pears, peeled, cored or remove the seeds with a knife, and sliced into 8 wedges per pear.
  2. 1 3/4 cups milk
  3. 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  4. 3 eggs
  5. 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  6. 1 tablespoon pear brandy
  7. 1/8 teaspoon salt
  8. 2/3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a blender combine the milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla, brandy, salt and flour and blend at the highest setting for about 1 minute.
  • Lightly butter a 7 to 8 cup baking dish or pie plate about 1 1/2 inches deep.
  • Pour a 1/4 inch layer of batter in the baking dish or pie plate and put it in the oven for two to three minutes until the batter sets in the bottom of the dish.
  • Remove from oven. Arrange pear wedges in a circular wagon-wheel pattern with the narrowest side pointed towards the center of the pie plate.
  • Sprinkle another 1/3 cup of sugar over the pears and then pour the remainder of the batter over the fruit. Place the pie plate in the middle of the rack in the oven and bake for about an hour. The clafouti is done when it has puffed up and browned on the top.
  • To test, stick a toothpick in the center of the cake and remove. If it comes out clean, without any batter clinging to it, the clafouti’s done. You can serve the clafouti warm or at room temperature. As the clafouti cools, the cake will sink down slightly. My favorite way of serving clafouti is with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child

— Vic

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. charlesprice permalink*
    September 15, 2009 10:54 pm

    I tasted this last evening – it was a knockout!

    • Michelle Maxwell permalink
      September 17, 2009 5:36 am

      Wow! I have to go check this place out thank you Charles and the Pear Clafouti I’m making this it looks wonderful!!!

  2. charlesprice permalink*
    September 15, 2009 8:07 pm

    Tasted it again tonight as a leftover. Still fantastic. I’m a great teacher.

  3. Craig permalink
    September 16, 2009 8:43 pm

    The pear brandy sounds marvelous. So does the clafouti.

    • vpanichkul permalink*
      September 17, 2009 9:00 pm

      They both are! There’s nothing to help you have sweet dreams than a nightcap of pear brandy…hmmm…I think I’ll go get one now…

  4. Michelle Maxwell permalink
    September 22, 2009 8:51 pm

    I can’t wait to try the Pear Brandy!!

  5. October 8, 2009 7:12 am

    That’s quite the dessert, it’s beautiful!

    • vpanichkul permalink*
      October 8, 2009 7:51 am

      Thanks! It’s also incredibly easy to make!

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