The Spirited Story of Thomas & Sons Distillery
STORY BY CHAD WALSH
IMAGES COURTESY OF THOMAS & SONS DISTILLERY
When one considers opening a distillery, one normally wants alcohol to be front and center. But before launching Thomas & Sons Distillery — an offshoot of Townshend’s Tea Company — owner Matt Thomas and his industriously capable acolyte, Seth O’Malley, were trying to rid their tea (specifically, their kombucha) of any alcoholic presence.
Thomas is the brains behind Townshend’s, a loose-leaf tea company that launched in 2006 and has storefronts in Portland, Bend, Eugene, and Bozeman.
O’Malley is his unlikely — or very likely — protégé: As a high schooler, O’Malley frequently visited the Bend shop and spent two years taking copious notes while tasting all of Townshend’s 125 or so blends before asking Thomas for a job serving tea.
But around the time his Bend shop opened, Thomas’s guests began to ask more and more about kombucha. And because he takes his guests’ requests seriously, he set about learning how to make it.
The idea took off. In fact, he couldn’t make enough of the stuff. Brew Dr. Kombucha — his line of kombucha—is now available in 40 states and Canada.
But Thomas admits that he, like other kombucha makers, kept running into one snag: When kombucha ferments, it naturally creates alcohol. Too much, in fact, for the FDA and the OLCC.
Thomas could have boiled out all the alcohol, but doing so would have also boiled out all the probiotics that make kombucha what it is.
Lucky for him, Whole Foods Market had loaned him $50,000 to invest in the brand, and that’s when Thomas invested in a vacuum distillation still, which operates at a lower temperature than a traditional still. That helped keep the kombucha pure and alcohol-free.
But what to do with all that alcoholic byproduct?
O’Malley’s interests had recently turned to spirits, especially complex ones like amari, that are distilled with a variety of ingredients. So he asked his mentor to lead what would become Thomas & Sons Distillery, using the product from that very same vacuum still. What resulted is a line of liqueurs that is as densely herbal as the teas from which they’re derived.
“I learned a lot about taste and flavor profiles and how to coax flavors out of dry ingredients,” O’Malley says. “We’re able to take these delicate aromatics and capture them without applying too much heat as to change them.”
And after four months of R&D, Thomas and O’Malley bottled their first batch and launched a line based on some of Townshend’s favorite flavors, like Ceylon and Lapsang Souchong.
Within 18 months, they doubled their line. Thomas & Sons now offers a floral white rose liqueur, a frosty Alpine liqueur, and their very own Fernet, a favorite of just about every bartender worth his suspenders or her tattoos. And at the end of 2016, they got into the harder stuff, distilling their very first liquor, Townshend’s Gin.
If you’re looking for a taste of what these industrious men have been up to lately, Thomas & Sons has a tasting room at their distillery where they can walk you through the tasting notes of each liqueur.
Or you can always see how Portland’s bartenders are playing around with Thomas & Sons spirits, which are now being shaken and stirred into specialty cocktails at the Heathman Hotel, Quality Bar (born from the Sizzle Pie empire), and one of the city’s oldest craft cocktail bars, Teardrop Lounge.
Thomas & Sons Distillery
4211 SE Milwaukie Ave.
503-477-6137 • thomasandsonsdistillery.com
Tasting Hours: 4 to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, and noon to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays
Chad Walsh is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He contributes to — and sometimes pinch-hits as editor at — Eater PDX and writes for other publications, like Edible Portland.