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HR Distillers returns to roots with Clear Creek purchase

A landmark Hood River County distiller is selling to his larger neighbor.

Clear Creek Brandy of Portland, which Steve McCarthy founded in Parkdale in 1985, was purchased Monday by Hood River Distillers, the state’s largest maker of distilled products, the Portland Business Journal reported last week. Clear Creek turns fruit into a variety of brandies and eaux de vie, including its famed pear brandy with the whole pear in the bottle.

In 2013 Clear Creek hit about $2 million in sales, reported Malia Spencer in the Business Journal.

President and CEO Ron Dodge told Hood River News Tuesday, “We are very excited about this. It’s been part of our long-term business strategy since the 1990s: to get back to our roots in doing original distilling.” HR Distillers celebrates its 80th year in 2014. “Original distilling is how we got our start, and getting back into it is a sound decision,” Dodge said.

The Clear Creek name, label and brand will continue, “and probably even more so,” McCarthy told the Hood River News, citing plans to expand Clear Creek spirits nationally.

“Clear Creek makes high-quality products and has a niche in the market and we don’t want to do anything to change that. We will combine our talents over time. We just want to let (Clear Creek) do what they have been doing so well for so long, and over time expand into even more products,” Dodge said.

He said a Clear Creek tasting room will be built in downtown Hood River in space the company is leasing in the Heilbronner Building, with access to the tasting room via the alley shared currently by Cerulean Winery, Doppio Coffee and other businesses.

Dodge said there is no set timeline on the tasting room. “We are going to take our time with developing that part of the business. We have a lot of nurturing to do for this acquisition, and we do not want to rush things.”

McCarthy first started the business in 1985, using fruit from the McCarthy family orchards on the far south end of the Hood River valley. Last year, the company purchased 650,000 pounds of Hood River valley fruit via Duckwall Pooley in Odell, which McCarthy said is an “extremely valuable partner” in Clear Creek’s success.

The deal was formally signed Monday but the distillery is currently operating under a temporary distilling permit, a standard practice under Oregon Liquor Control Commission. “This gives us a temporary permit for Clear Creek and HR Distillers to operate as an entity until OLCC completes its formal review of the transaction.

“I was one of the first in the new wave of distilled spirits; there were three of us in the entire U.S.,” McCarthy said. Distillers in Ukiah and Emeryville, Calif., were making brandy and eau de vie, “and then there was us.”

“We learned a lot in 29 years,” McCarthy said. “And that is part of what I think appealed to (Hood River Distillers). This is kind of a strategic purchase for them. They are catching up quick.” And the timing was right for McCarthy: “I’ve bankrolled this project on my own money for years, and it was an expensive prospect to take it in a couple of directions we knew we needed to do to stay successful: upgrading our bottling, and going national with our marketing.”

Clear Creek’s cherries are purchased from Bailey Orchards in Wasco County, and its apples come via Yakima valley in Washington.

McCarthy said the transition plan involves his staying with Clear Creek at least another six months to a year, and perhaps longer.

“There are a lot of things I can do. We’ll see how it goes,” he said. In the meantime, HR Distillers is ready to learn from McCarthy and his staff; all nine Clear Creek employees will be kept on.

He said HRD’s director of distilling, Brad Whiting, “is a real professional. And he will pick up what we are doing very quickly. We have very strong people who are very eager to work with him.”

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