When I first met Steve McCarthy, he wasn’t romantic about working at Clear Creek, the first distillery in Portland, Oregon. “This is a production job,” he warned me. “It’s repetitive. Distilling isn’t what most people think.”

This was in 2005. Steve had been operating Clear Creek for 20 years, but his principles were the same as he had learned on his family’s orchards in Parkdale, several miles to the east of Portland. To Steve, distilling was about fruit. It would always be about the fruit.

“Get good fruit and get out of the way” was Clear Creek’s true motto. At work there was never the sense that what we were producing would ever surpass the raw materials, but if we remembered what that pear tasted like, we might approach the standard nature set. This philosophy stood not just in brandy production but in whiskey, too.

I recall one of the first things Steve ever taught me as a new hire was how to sample barley: “You crack it with your front teeth.” He went on to explain that everything you taste in that kernel should inform the finished spirit even down to the blend. In Steve’s approach, you were not an alchemist, there was no such thing as craft, you were not doing anything new. You were a steward of a tradition and a remodeler at best. In Steve’s eyes, to distill properly you show reverence for the ingredients and love for the liquid, and you humble yourself to each.

While eau de vie is what Steve was best known for, someday that notoriety will be eclipsed by the spirit that carries his name. As far as anyone can figure, McCarthy’s is the first American single malt, something we were surprised to learn — no one ever told us until a few years ago. But being first was never a thing Steve cared about. He focused on a spirit’s balance and trained his people on the parts that mattered to him. Where the category is now he’d claim to have no part in, despite his place in its legacy. Out of respect for the commission which has spearheaded the legislation to give American Single Malt an official TTB standard of identity, he’d say they were “brilliant” or “wizards” or “better them than me.”

He was an amazing teacher of spirits, but that was only the second half of his career. Before I met him, Steve had success as a writer, an environmentalist, a lawyer, a businessman, and even ran TriMet, the Portland public transportation agency. Most of these stories were passed down to me by Rachel Showalter Inman, Clear Creek’s production head from the mid-1990s till the mid-2010s and one of craft’s first female distillers. Steve rarely told me about them, except for the time he was published in Sports Illustrated, and even that he made sound like another brightly lit path he decided not to travel.

Since his passing, we’ve been sorting through his contributions and dogmas, knowing that he would never want the distillery to become a shrine to himself. We’ve found many of them have been difficult to shake. That may well be because Steve built Clear Creek with an ear open for everyone, so the transition from one era to another is a muddy one. In time, Clear Creek will look very different. Portfolios and passions need to live and breathe and adapt. We’ll each add to its history and legacy as well as clean away the cobwebs. But no matter what, this part of Steve will always remain: Get good fruit and get out of the way.