Pine and fir essences are typically harnessed for their olfactory properties rather than for their taste. But for more than a decade, Stephen McCarthy, proprietor of Portland’s renowned Clear Creek Distillery, has been tinkering with the sweet, earthy flavors of the Doug fir. His Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir was unveiled in 2005 and now lines liquor store shelves throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
McCarthy first came across eau de vie de bourgeons de sapins d’Alsace in an early book, among a list of exotic eaux de vie. He adds, “At that time the distillery and eau de vie in general were only a glimmer in my eye and it got filed away somewhere in my mind. When I worked my way through most of the obvious eau de vie—pear, kirsch, etc.—I started to think about slightly crazier stuff. There was no reason to try to duplicate the sapin d’Alsace—the spruce tree that covers the hills of the Voges Mountains. Our iconic conifer is Douglas Fir. So, why not?”
Eau de vie, which translates literally to “water of life,” is the French term for a colorless spirit distilled from fruit. Clear Creek Distillery produces seven different eaux de vie in German pot stills, ranging from Mirabelle Plum and Framboise (raspberry) to their very popular Eau de Vie of Pear.
The process of creating Clear Creek’s Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir begins with the distillation of Oregon wine (mainly chardonnay and pinot noir) into high-proof grape spirits, which McCarthy defines as “basically brandy but more like grape Everclear.” This grape spirit is used for some of Clear Creek’s other liqueurs and they also fortify some local vintners’ wine into port with it.
The Doug fir tips, which Clear Creek employees harvest annually from McCarthy’s family land just north of Mt. Hood, are soaked in the grape spirit in stainless tanks for a week, after which the spirit is redistilled. This fixes the flavor and aroma but removes all the color. After redistilling, the crew returns to Mt. Hood to gather more Doug fir tips. They add these to the eau de vie to steep for another few days to weeks which develops the flavor and results in a slight coloration—pale chartreuse.
It took McCarthy ten years to perfect the process. “When we got the color right, it was undrinkable. Or, we could make a delicate, aromatic eau de vie, but it was water clear which was a non-starter for me. The green had to be there.”
A Foraging First
I’ve collected sea vegetables along the Oregon coast, gathered juniper berries in eastern Oregon, picked blackberries in the thickets of Sauvie Island just north of Portland, and hunted for wild mushrooms in the Astoria dunes, but until the spring of 2006, when I was lucky enough to be invited to join Clear Creek’s annual Doug fir harvesting expedition, I’d never considered plucking the early spring growth—the lime-green tips—of Oregon’s Douglas fir.
Rachel Showalter, vice president of production, Emily Walsh and Ryan Wilcoxen of the production crew, and I weren’t planning to take the scenic route that morning in mid-June but there’s nothing but when traveling from Portland to Parkdale. We shot out east on Interstate 84 through the Columbia Gorge and made a beeline from Hood River south along the rolling foothills of Mt. Hood—quilted with orchards, old cemeteries, and scenic farmsteads—and up to the meadows of Parkdale.
As we idled before the first gate to the McCarthy property, Rachel explained that in the winter the McCarthy family drives out with skis and snowshoes strapped to the roof rack because that’s the only way to make it to the cabin along the winding, snow-covered road.
On this late spring day, we could have used a couple of machetes to clear the way. The Doug firs weren’t the only trees with sizeable spring growth and as we proceeded along the dirt road, branches thwacked the truck.
This approach made the clearing on which the McCarthy cabin rests all the more serene. Beyond the meadow, cloud-cloaked Mt. Hood stood poised before us as osprey circled above and cottonwood seeds drifted down from towering trees—a dreamlike late spring snowfall.
Carrying stainless steel buckets filled with neutral grape spirits, we made our way to the Doug fir trees necklacing the property. Plucking the branches’ bright green tips, we favored the “rabbit-footy” tips over the more spindly ones. We dropped them into our spirit-full buckets to curtail oxidization, and made periodic trips to the truck to unload our harvest.
While picking, we dreamed up potential Doug fir cocktail names—Fir-y Russian, Firtini, Old-Firshioned—but the truth is, Clear Creek’s Douglas fir elixir tastes best served unadulterated, at room temperature or slightly chilled. McCarthy himself enjoys it unadorned, “in a small tulip glass. That’s how I drink almost everything I make. I don’t like to fiddle with it but if other people do, I don’t mind.”
McCarthy couldn’t join us on that expedition as he usually does every year. The year’s later-than-usual Doug fir spring spurt pushed the harvesting trip into his vacation time. And so while we were getting to know his alpine neighbors—bushy-tailed wood rats, tree frogs, and red tailed hawks—he was traveling around Italy. His presence was felt every time we unfolded the minimal, chicken-scratch map he’d composed for Rachel before he left town. The map illustrated which trees to pluck from and which trees to leave be. The most important instruction, written boldly at the bottom: “Pick a lot.”
Following his instructions to a tee, we ended up sloshing back to Portland with a couple of 60-gallon buckets filled with steeping Douglas fir tips strapped to the bed of the truck. For me, the act of making spirits out of Douglas fir tips is akin to turning water into wine. And so, participating in the process, in my small way, was sublime.
A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of Northwest Palate Magazine.
Liz Crain is a food and fiction writer based in Portland, Oregon.