Thomas & Sons, founded in Portland, Ore., in 2015, is a young distillery. It’s head distiller, Seth O’Malley, is only 26 but has a supersized ambition. He experiments with a wide array of spirits, from gin to fernet to génépy, but rather than making his products from traditional base ingredients such as barley, corn or agave, he uses fermented tea.
He has been riding the tea train ever since he was 18, when he started working at Townshend’s Tea in Bend, Ore. The shop imported fine teas from Asia and beyond. O’Malley, who had spent his youth smelling through his parents’ pantry, was immediately hooked. “It was a mecca for weird kids like me,” he says.
He was joined there by high-school friend Ray Nagler. Soon after, the two moved to Portland, where they continued to work at Townshend’s stores while attending Portland State University. Martin Thomas, the owner of Townshend’s, told O’Malley that when he was done with school he would have a position waiting for him. The company was growing and had launched Brew Dr., a line of bottled kombucha. But the brewers had an issue: The kombucha, naturally fermented, was just a hair too alcoholic, hovering at around 1 to 2 percent, rather than the desired .5 percent.
There were two solutions, neither of which was attractive. One was to halt fermentation early, creating a sweeter kombucha, but that ran the risk of spontaneous fermentation in the bottle, which could create alcohol. The second option was pasteurization, but that would kill much of the good bacteria that gives kombucha its health benefits and flavor.
So Thomas found a third option in a spinning cone column, inspired by its use in making nonalcoholic wines. The process safely removes ethanol with a steam and vacuum system, creating a dealcoholized kombucha without pasteurizing it, perfect for Brew Dr. Thomas also had a plan for what to do with the leftover distillate from the kombucha: make a tea-based spirit from it.
For this, Thomas tapped O’Malley to be head distiller at the newly created Thomas & Sons spirits. O’Malley was 23 when he biked to his new job, getting there just as a crane was lowering a massive still into the shop in southeast Portland.
“What am I getting myself into?” O’Malley thought on his first day. A team of distillers from Australia was brought up to help guide him, and he started work immediately. Nagler was also hired to help manage the distillery.
The kombucha starts its life at a higher alcohol content than other similar products but still extremely low for the base of a spirit. Thanks to other organisms competing with the yeast over sugar, it’s only 3 percent alcohol before distillation (made stronger than it was originally for the purpose of distillation). For comparison, whiskey starts out as a “beer” at around 8 to 12 percent. It takes roughly 50 gallons of kombucha to make one gallon of 100-proof spirit, in a process O’Malley jokes is “the most inefficient on the planet.”
Each spirit has a different kombucha base, most of which get flavored with teas, herbs, spices and botanicals after distillation. The first few products developed were tea-flavored spirits, a Spice, Sweet and Bitter tea.
The Sweet and Spice teas were especially popular, and the Bitter tea was recently relabeled as Townshend’s Kashmiri amaro, a bitter chai-spiced liqueur, perfect for after dinner or in a cocktail. O’Malley soon developed other styles: the delicate and lavender-forward Townshend’s gin is a standout, as is the Townshend’s Pacific Northwest fernet. The fernet was one of the first spirits O’Malley planned, but it took dozens of tries before it was bottled and then went through seven permutations before landing on its current recipe. It’s a spirit unique to the region, with doug fir and Willamette hops, though definitively a fernet with its licorice and spice.
Just two years since it opened, Thomas & Sons is steadily growing, with distribution in Oregon, Washington and, now, California, as well as online sales. The company recently hired Mindy Kucan, a bartender at famous Tiki bar Hale Pele, to work with O’Malley on product development. O’Malley continues to perfect his recipes and develop new ones as the company expands.
“This has been a really fun product for me and Ray,” says O’Malley. “We were just rascals working at the teahouse in high school, hanging out behind the counter. We never would’ve imagined we’d be running a distillery together nine years later.“