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October 18, 2002


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DRINK!
Why in the world?
Peculiar passions lead distillers to emulate far-off classic liquors


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By Lew Bryson
Special to the Tribune
Published October 16, 2002

Questions come 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 almost immediately.

Why?

Steve 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?

"Because 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 them."

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 aging.

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."

Of course, 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 distillery.

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 Glenlivet."

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 one."

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 juniper.

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?

"It's quite 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 gin?'

"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 . . . Virginia?

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."

His Virginia 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.

"He bought 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.

"There's a 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 yours?' "

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 not?"

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune


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