The Rise of Hood River

Before professional wrestling became dominated by Vince McMahon and his corporate WWE enterprise, the business was a regional one. There were territories and those geographical lines were respected and honored. You didn't run a show in another man's backyard. Stampede ran out of Calgary with the Hart family. Jim Cornette ran the Smoky Mounatins. The Von Erichs ran much of Texas with the NWA and WCCW. Verne Gagne oversaw Minnesota's AWA (that's where guys like Hulk Hogan, Mr. Perfect, and Ric Rude came from). Future stars like Ric Flair came from the Crockett promotion in the mid-Atlantic. Eventually many of these federations joined forces and became national circuits, much like booze distribution today. Most operations now are national or global, but there's currently a quiet force slowly consolidating some serious brands in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, one that I never paid much attention to until this past week. It's a company hearkening back to the old days of regionality, back when you gathered your neighbors together and helped each other out, rather than try to dominate the world with a global portfolio. 

I had never even heard of Hood River Distillers until they purchased Clear Creek distillery from my friend Steve McCarthy a few years back. I was devistated by that news initially, thinking they were just another big booze company who would try to expand on Steve's work by sacrificing his commitment to quality. It was a completely unfair assessment on my part, but it was a cynical reaction based on my experience in the business. That being said, after tasting the most recent edition of the brand's peated single malt whisky, I've completely changed my tune. I met with Hood River this week not only to learn more about the company, but to get an idea of where they're going. I learned that they've actually been around since 1934 and that they're the Pacific Northwest's largest importer, producer, and bottler of spirits. They're kind of like San Francisco's Anchor in that they distill as well as work in tandem with other companies. But while Anchor works with producers all over the globe, Hood River is focusing solely on its own territory.

I tasted three products yesterday with Dustin Reed, the brand's account manager in California, and I thought all three were fantastic. Let's talk first about what Hood River distills. They've owned Clear Creek since 2014 and it's been about that long since I've tasted the McCarthy single malt. After working directly with Steve McCarthy for years and even doing a single cask program with him at one point, I was incredibly sad when he decided to retire. The peated single malt had long been a labor of love for Steve and, at one point, it was by far the finest American single malt in the business. I was skeptical that Steve's meticulous care for quality and ethics would be as sharp and that those traits would shine through in future Clear Creek products like they had in the past. It's important to keep an open mind, however. You can't prejudice yourself against any wine or spirit before you've given it a fair shake. When I tasted this year's new batch of McCarthy's Single Malt, the peated Oregon-distilled whisky that tastes a bit like Kilchoman or Laphroaig, I have to admit that I was quite impressed. They'd managed to retain all the potent flavor of Steve's older releases, but had cleaned up some of the grit and rounded off some of the rough edges. The whisky tastes incredibly professional, meaning that I think it's a big step forward for the label. If you put the new batch of McCarthy's in a lineup with some of Islay's younger stalwarts, I think the Oregon whisky would stand a serious chance of fooling a few professionals. This might be the best batch of McCarthy's I've ever tasted, even though I honestly hoped it wouldn't be. The smoke, sweetness of the malt, and oak influence are in complete balance. In this case, Hood River seems to know what they're doing, while paying homage to the foundations of their inheritance. I'd say this release (unlike the past few batches) firmly puts McCarthy's back into the conversation of the top American single malts. 

Now let's talk about what Hood River contracts, like Canadian whisky for example. Pendleton Canadian whisky is a brand that's contracted by Hood River in Oregon at full strength and bottled using spring water from Mount Hood to proof down the spirit. The standard Pendleton 1910 has always been a delightful sipper, but the new release of the Director's Reserve 20 year edition is something to stand up and take notice of. While the rare edition was typically bottled only every five years or so (we last carried it in 2010), the company decided to ramp up production a bit after learning that many of the brand's admirers were hoarding their bottles rather than drinking them (unsure if they'd be able to replace them once finished). The beauty of the Pendleton 20 year is its straightforward drinkability. Canadian whisky when it's unadulterated can taste much like a lighter version of American rye whiskey, but in this case it's mellower and less spicy. There's nothing hiding beneath the surface here. It's a smooth, satisfying, and seductively simple whiskey. Whereas Scotch and Bourbons are often prized for their power, I would say the beauty of the Pendleton is in its ease. It glides over the palate effortlessly, while still maintaining spice from the oak and richness from the two decades in wood.

Personally, I love a good Canadian whisky because it takes away any of the bullshit that comes with whisky evaluation and focuses it entirely on the enjoyment. Canadian whisky, for me (and I know I'm going to get butchered for saying this), is a simple pleasure. It's to-the-point, succinct, and straightforward. It's rich, smooth, delicious, and easy to love. It's like a John Steinbeck novel. I don't need someone to explain to me why East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath are good books. They're easy-to-understand masterpieces of American literature. That being said, you're never going to see a college professer teaching a class on Steinbeck because it's all right there on the page! What more can an expert teach you that isn't right there? Professors want to talk about books like Moby Dick or Ulysses or Der Zauberberg because you can interpret them in different ways (plus, you can make a career for yourself by arguing about what they mean). People love to argue about Scotch and Bourbon in the same way, but you rarely hear anyone raise a fuss over Canadian whisky. In the case of the Pendleton, I don't think there's any argument to be made. This is a fucking delicious product, period.

Now let's talk about what they're contracting from Kentucky. While this technically counts as stepping outside the Pacific Northwest region, Hood River does put a nice little Oregon spin on this lovely Bourbon. Trail's End is one of the better third-party American whiskies on the market for a number of reasons, one being the use of actual Kentucky Bourbon in the bottle (rather than the ubiquitous Indiana-distilled MGP Bourbons) and the age statement on the side of the label. This eight year old beauty was contracted and then shipped out to Oregon where it was aged for an additional period in new Oregon oak. The extra spice and toasted character that foreign wood adds to the mix definitely dials up the richness. There's an exotic and woody note that stands out above the standard vanilla and char flavors. For the price, it's one of the more interesting and unique independently-bottled Bourbons that commands a very fair price (thirty five bucks). It's a welcome addition to the category and one of the more drinkable and satisfying new Bourbons I've tasted this year.

I'm happy I can think of Hood River in a completely different context now than I did previously. Before they were simply the people who bought Clear Creek and were probably going to ruin the brand. Now, they're on my list of promotions to watch. I like a little regional competition. The booze business needs it as much today as professional wrestling does.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll