Day Trip: Seth O’Malley, Wilderton Non-Alcoholic Spirits - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Day Trip: Seth O’Malley, Wilderton Non-Alcoholic Spirits

An early fascination with fragrant plant materials and loose-leaf tea brought Seth O’Malley to the world of spirit making. A founding distiller of the botanically driven spirit-free brand Wilderton, O’Malley spent his formative years during high school and college working for Townshend Tea, in Portland, Oregon, and later spearheaded the brand’s line of distilled spirits before it closed in 2019. So when longtime spirits professional Brad Whiting (Hood River Distillers) approached him to develop no-alcohol spirits for Wilderton, the challenge was an instant attraction. “It sounded really fun and intellectually stimulating. I do like to drink alcohol but it’s not my identity as a distiller,” says O’Malley. “Something that has always inspired me about spirits is how atmospheric they are. They have such a mood to them and because of the sheer concentration of flavor, you can’t help but be humbled by whatever mood that is. I thought that NA spirits ought to deliver that [too].” Equipped with a new facility in Hood River, Oregon, O’Malley talks us through a typical production day at Wilderton.

7:30 a.m.

I’m not a morning person, but I have a dog, Oscar, and my husband and I cuddle him in the morning as late as possible before taking him for a walk around the neighborhood. I also try to work out in the morning since I like having an anaerobic element to the start of my workday. I’m also a really avid consumer of tea. I have several cups of tea throughout the day, usually a Chinese black tea or a pu-erh tea.

9:00 a.m.

I have an hour-long commute to Hood River, which is a beautiful drive. But it’s still an hour, so I tend to use that time listening to a podcast or perhaps an audiobook. I listen to the Ezra Klein show, like long-form political conversations. Or I’ll listen to the news. It makes for a nice slow start to the day. When I arrive, I can hit the ground running.

10:00 a.m.

As soon as I arrive I get some music going. On a day when I’m producing the Bittersweet Aperitivo, that first starts with scaling the recipe and doing the math to figure out what’s going into it. I tend to work with a lot of ingredients. Ahead of time I’ll make sure all of the ingredients are in inventory and specced. I spend a good amount of time in spreadsheets to make sure the formula is scaled properly.


When all of that is done, I’ll start to measure out the botanicals. That’s maybe my favorite part of the work because it’s such a rich sensory experience—measuring out things like galangal, gentian root, sandalwood—basically making this big herbal tea, if you want to call it that. That will be the base of the aperitivo.

1:00 p.m.

After a simple lunch (I’m really into lox with Wasa crackers at the moment), I start the extraction process. It takes six to eight hours to create a batch of product, whereas the tea extract we do for about an hour in a closed environment so we can keep the volatile compounds in place. We have a special type of low-heat distillation process that aims at preserving and conveying these really delicate aromas.

“The way we approach our product is through the lens of craft spirits.”—Seth O’Malley

2:00 p.m.

After an hour or so, it’s time to distill. The way we approach our product is through the lens of craft spirits. The way we do things is by distilling that herbal tea extract, and then distilling it again under vacuum. If we cite an ingredient on our label, for example lemon peel, I’m actually handling lemons. We do that through extraction and distillation, just not in the presence of alcohol.

5:00 p.m.

Distillation takes place in fractions. As the liquid is coming off the still, I’m monitoring and taking samples and figuring out where to make the cut, or where to start and stop the distillation. I want to make sure I’m getting the quantity and character of flavor I’m looking for. I’m going for pureness of expression, but also using distillation to isolate particular flavors and aromatics.

8:00 p.m.

Production days usually run pretty late. As the evening goes on, I tend to turn the music in the distillery up louder and louder. By the end of the day we’re usually creating about 1,400 bottles, which aren’t as time sensitive as products that have to be aged. Usually they’ll be bottled and packaged by our friends and family the following week. That’s probably going to have to change soon, as our demand is growing pretty quickly.

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