Like any good origin story, Thomas & Sons Distillery's begins with Lindsay Lohan.
"Basically Lindsay Lohan is why we're here," said head distiller Seth O'Malley. It was 2011 and the embattled actress had been placed under house arrest when she tested positive for alcohol in her system. Lohan claimed that she hadn't been drinking true booze, but just her beloved kombucha.
"It did raise some concerns, industry-wise, about the alcohol content of kombucha," said Rob Nollenberger, the head of operations and marketing for the distillery. We're in the distillery tasting room in Portland, Oregon. There are Christmas lights strewn around the bar, some stuffed animals—sloths, the distillery's unofficial mascot—sprinkled about.
At the time of Lohan's kombucha controversy, Thomas & Sons did not exist.
"We started as a tea shop," Nollenberger said.
Its parent company, Townshend's Tea Company, came first back in 2006. Next, its founder, Matt Thomas, started making raw, organic kombucha in the teahouse kitchen, an endeavor that turned into Brew Dr. Kombucha, one of the largest kombucha brands in the country. Then hurricane Lohan hit, and the company needed to figure out a way to regulate the alcohol content of the kombucha. (When kombucha's yeast and sugar ingredients get together and ferment, some alcohol naturally occurs.)
The team wanted to distill the kombucha to separate the ethanol from everything else, but using methods like a pot or column still would be problematic for the product. Traditional stills need to get really hot to do their thing, which would kill the bacteria in the kombucha—one of the main reasons people buy the drink.
They found a solution to the problem: a vacuum still.
"It's a really extra complicated vacuum still that allows us to achieve distillation at a very low temperature, just below 100 degrees Fahrenheit," O'Malley said.
Not only did they find a way to save the gut-friendly bacteria in the kombucha, they had made some pure alcohol as a byproduct.
"What we do in tandem with Brew Dr. is we separate the alcohol from the kombucha, and through a long, windy process turn that alcohol into fernet and all sorts of weird stuff."
From a white rose kombucha called Happiness, created from Townshend's white peony tea and rose petals, came White Rose. From Assamese black tea and Indian spices came Kashmiri Amaro. One of the highlights of the lineup is the gin, created with Silver Tip Jasmine green tea, lavender flowers, chamomile blossoms, and juniper berries.
"This is the anti-London dry gin," O'Malley said. "There is juniper in there for sure but really the spirit is more about jasmine, lavender, citrus, a little orris root in there. It's very sweet, unapologetically floral."
The distilling team didn't achieve its floral gin right off the bat.
"There was a lot of throwing gin down the toilet, which is sad," O'Malley said.
Fifteen prototypes later, the final result was born.
"There are so many great dry gins out there, and very similar gins out there, that we just wanted to get out in the weeds and make something we thought really expresses the kind of thing we want to drink when we're looking for gin," O'Malley said.
The spirits are unique, many holding up on their own when served neat. Ray Roslyn, the distillery's Operations & Events Manager, whips up some cocktails that go down smooth, too. I take another sip of the fernet—one, I'm told, created to evoke the essence of the Pacific Northwest's conifer forest using more than 30 ultra-local ingredients.
Thanks, Lindsay Lohan.