Caitlin Bartlemay Wants to Set the Record Straight on Vodka

Photo courtesy of Clear Creek Distillery
Caitlin Bartlemay

Head distiller for Clear Creek Distillery and Hood River Distillers talks about vodka’s reputation as a “garbage spirit,” as well as the future of her workplace. 

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Caitlin Bartlemay is the head distiller and barrel room coordinator for Clear Creek Distillery and Hood River Distillers — the former a 37-year-old craft-distilling heavyweight, the latter one of Oregon’s oldest distilleries. (The two merged in 2014.)

Bartlemay, who grew up on a farm in Eastern Oregon, holds a food science degree with an option in fermentation and a minor in chemistry from Oregon State University. On the day of her last final, she went to work for Clear Creek, where she helped master distiller Joe O’Sullivan develop Timberline Vodka, made using Pacific Northwest apples and glacier-fed spring water from Mt. Hood. Timberline won a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition soon after launch; in Bartlemay’s 12 years at Clear Creek, the array of spirits she and her colleagues have developed have won more than 30 awards.

Oregon Business spoke to Bartlemay about the distilling business, the work culture at Clear Creek, what she drinks off the clock — and what’s next for the distillery.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

What’s your background?

I actually grew up on a century-old wheat ranch in Eastern Oregon, working alongside my dad and all of his friends. We had a riding lawnmower to ride around until our legs were long enough to drive four-wheelers around to do all the errands and take Dad his lunch when he was on the tractor. I started driving tractors when I was, like, 10 or 12; I was a solo combine driver by 14. Around 13 or 14, [my parents] decided to start a vineyard and winery, right around the time that Food Network started. I was Food Network’s No. 1 fan. Being farmers in Eastern Oregon, my parents didn’t understand why I was so obsessed with cooking competition shows, with fish that they didn’t even know existed — but they tolerated it as best they could.

Then I caught the fermentation bug in the vineyard with my parents. On top of all the farm work, I was out there in the vines with my mom doing all the pruning, getting them to maturity, doing all the grape harvests. My dad was the winemaker, so I learned how to make wine with Dad. They closed the winery, actually, when I got my job at Clear Creek, because all of a sudden their labor left and went pro.

What got you interested in spirits?

At Oregon State, I took a class called Introduction to Beer, Wine and Spirits. I knew quite a bit about beer; I obviously knew quite a bit about wine at that point. But I was really shocked and surprised at how little I actually knew about how to make spirits and what makes all the different kinds of spirits.

That is one of the big drivers for Clear Creek: We don’t really sell to people, we just spend time educating people about what we do and why buying quality spirits matters. And a big portion of that is just educating on where our alcohol comes from in the first place and how that process works. With Prohibition — even though it’s been so long since Prohibition has been removed — for the American public, there’s this big disconnect with how spirits are made: how whiskey is made, what makes whiskey different than beer, all that kind of stuff. I was super interested in the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about where spirits came from. And so I decided to try to learn as much as I could.

What’s your experience been in the industry — either as a female distiller, which is still kind of an unusual thing, or just generally? What have you seen in the industry?

I wasn’t the first female distiller [at Clear Creek] by a long shot. Probably the first female craft distiller in the United States was a woman who was part of the team that hired me; her name was Rachel Inman, and she started with Steve [McCarthy, founder of Clear Creek] in the early ’90s. She had 27 years of distilling experience; she started mashing pears with Steve at the first location there on Wilson Street in Northwest Portland. In the history of Clear Creek, I might not even be the sixth female distiller; I might be the seventh or eighth female distiller. All of our sales staff are women.

At Clear Creek, it didn’t matter: orientation, gender, whatever. If you were there to work, then you were hired, and we loved you. If you could do the job — or even just tried to do the job really hard, and you had enthusiasm — that’s all that mattered. That’s unfortunately not the standard that it should be out there in the industry. And so I’ve been very lucky on multiple fronts to have ended up where I am.

What do you think are some of the myths and misconceptions about vodka in particular?

There are so many. Everybody is very certain that vodka only comes from potatoes, and everybody is also fairly convinced that it’s just, like, a garbage spirit that you throw fruit juice on top of. Those would be my top two myths that we’re constantly dispelling. In the United States, as long as it’s distilled over 190 proof, it’s vodka. You can make it from anything you want. You can make it from fermented, expired 7-11 fruit pies. There is a distillery that does that: they use expired food-bank foods, and they mush it up and ferment it and turn it into vodka. You can make it from milk whey. You can make it like we do, which is a mash bill of grains and 14 different non-GMO varietals of apples. The important and only sticking point in the United States as to whether it’s vodka is if it comes out of and is above 190 proof.

The TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] also used to say that it had to be neutral as well. That’s kind of the third myth with vodka, that it has to be neutral. That’s totally not the case. Belvedere, which is made from 100% rye, has a character; it has an aroma. Vodkas are going to be certainly more neutral, but to say that they can’t have any flavor and shouldn’t have any is a total myth. It doesn’t come from potatoes, it can come from anything. It can be high quality and have character.

What are your hopes for the future of Timberline Vodka and for the distillery?

I’m really excited about Timberline for a lot of reasons. I have an opportunity to educate, which is always awesome. But also, we’re on this cutting edge of the vodka trend where people are really starting to pay attention to where their spirits come from and what they’re made from, and why that matters. There’s this big premiumization movement, [where] people aren’t just worried about throwing some sugar and fruit juice on top of a garbage spirit; they actually want to have a good cocktail. They want something that’s actually good — and vodkas can be good and make a beautiful, delicious, balanced cocktail.

With Timberline, there are some really awesome partnerships. The one that’s more important to both Joseph [O’Sullivan, master distiller] and me is that through the Timberline Vodka brand, we’ve partnered with the Freshwater Trust. They’re a nonprofit, and they’re using technology to pinpoint where they can best spend money on any particular river to improve it. Their first big project was the Sandy River, and it’s now one of the handful of rivers on the West Coast that is actually pumping out more fish than come in every year. They’ve had overwhelming success with the Sandy River and are now using technology and what they’ve learned from that project to apply it on an even broader scale. We give them a large donation every year and then act as ambassadors for the Freshwater Trust through the Timberline Vodka brand, to be able to tell people how awesome the Freshwater Trust is and how we should all care about the really important work that they’re doing.

What are your favorite vodka cocktails?

It’s kind of funny: We drink a lot of water off the clock mostly because we’re drinking spirits at work. My go-to is a vesper with the Clear Creek blue plum brandy. But if I’m going to make something at home, I’m going to make it quick and simple. All of the Clear Creek brandies, if you just add a quarter ounce or half an ounce to the Timberline martini out of the freezer at home, it’s like, wow, look at this pear martini that I just made, or this plum martini. When we first launched Timberline, Heidi Smart down at the Hood River Distillers tasting room made it and she called it the Bertini. If memory serves, it’s Timberline, a little bit of the Clear Creek Doug Fir — and then we use maple syrup to sweeten it. The recipe was geared to be an easier at-home cocktail. Most people don’t have simple syrup lying around, but they usually always have pancake syrup, so it was an easier way to sweeten your Pacific Northwest cocktail for an at-home cocktail. Those are my top ones.