Hood River’s Wilderton is America's first nonalcoholic distillery
Story and Photos by Noah Noteboom
As you walk into the Wilderton distillery, you are greeted by the tangy scent of fruity botanicals and the warm spirits of the employees. Co-founder Brad Whiting and Founding Distiller Seth O’Malley chose Hood River to open the first nonalcoholic distillery in America. On July 1, they opened their doors and made history.
Whiting grew up in Boston but chose a nomadic approach to life, moving every six months for a few years before finding a home in Hood River. A water sports enthusiast, he settled in the Gorge and eventually went back to business school at Portland State University for his master’s degree.
Still unsure of what he wanted to do, Whiting took a more nontraditional approach to job hunting. With his master’s degree in hand, he began knocking on doors asking around for business leads. His plan worked, as he found an opening at Hood River Distillers, where he ran the purchasing and procurement department for 14 years. Whiting was a member of the team who created the Pendleton Whiskey brand — which was bought by Jose Cuervo in 2017 for $205 million.
While Whiting worked with Hood River Distillers, O’Malley was the managing distiller at Townshend’s Distillery in Portland. Today, O’Malley is an expert in loose leaf teas, herbs and spices with a background in recipe development. O’Malley said he has every single botanical the Food and Drug Administration allows them to use — roughly 300 different ingredients.
“I try to work with an as expansive of a palette of ingredients as possible. I have literally hundreds of ingredients that I’m working with,” O’Malley said.
In April 2019, O’Malley and Whiting began laying the groundwork for Whiting’s idea to make a drink for those who live an active lifestyle. He also wanted to change the narrative attached to nonalcoholic drinks.
“A lot of people have this idea that if it’s a cocktail or drink without alcohol, that it doesn’t have a story,” Whiting said. “It’s always been that alcohol has been an assumption of a cocktail. But really, it’s about enjoying flavor. It’s about enjoying stories and being in a place where you’re spending time with other people.”
With this approach the two began experimenting with different combinations of plants, flowers, leaves, botanicals, roots and resins to find the right ingredients that would tell their story. Whiting says it took nearly two years to find the right concoction. Their endeavors came during a time in 2020 with COVID forcing lockdowns and residents confined to their homes.
Many started new hobbies — watched TV shows or tended to their garden, while others took up drinking. There was little shame with cracking a cold one or popping the wine bottle open at any hour of the day, they said, but over time, drinking can lead to consequences if not consumed responsibly. Wilderton is an alternative for those looking for more leisure.
By December 2020, Wilderton’s first bottles were on the shelves in Portland grocery stores.
As time progressed, so did their marketing and production strategies.
“It became less and less about people who necessarily didn’t drink at all or are looking to quit versus that idea of moderation and choice,” Whiting said.
Up until late-2022, Wilderton had relied on O’Malley’s previous employer to distill their drinks, and Whiting had a vision of becoming a craft spirit.
“I thought it was really important to have a consumer facing place. Most of the people walking by the tasting room have never heard of this,” Whiting added. “I want to bring people in. And that’s why we offer free samples and free tastings.”
In October, Whiting and O’Malley closed on the waterfront space beneath Ferment. In less than eight months, they had their flagship location up and running.
Whiting explains that making nonalcoholic beverages is similar to the traditional process of distilling spirits and brewing beer, but the main ingredients differ. Hot water is poured into a 1,000-gallon lauter tun filled with the “several hundred pounds of botanicals,” where it is left to soak for three to four hours. During that time, the water will become something like a bitter, concentrated herbal tea. At this point, the water is separated from the botanicals and pumped into a still where the boiling point of the liquid is lowered. Whiting said they change the atmospheric pressure inside the still to separate and concentrate all the different flavors.
“Essentially what goes in is this really gnarly brown, super tannic liquid. And in this case you get out this just perfectly clear, hyper concentrated version of what we started with,” Whiting said.
Two of their products, the Lustre and Earthen, are calorie- and sugar-free. Along with the newest drink, the Bittersweet Aperitivo, all three products are vegan and do not contain any gluten or caffeine. Whiting said they created the Bittersweet Aperitivo as homage to the Italian Aperitivo tradition — having a late-afternoon drink after work or as an appetizer to dinner. Popularity of the Aperol Spritz is rising in the U.S.
“This one was a little bit of a diversion for us where the first two don’t include any sugar at all. Because the Italian Aperitivo traditionally do include sugar, we use a little bit of a chardonnay grape juice to create a little bit of sweetness. And this has quickly become our top seller,” Whiting said.
The Bittersweet Aperitivo is described as aromatic and herbal with a blend of grapefruit and orange blossom. This drink is suggested to be paired with club soda and an orange slice garnish. The Earthen botanical spirit has smoky hints with a savory aftertaste that Wilderton suggests is paired with ginger ale and a lime garnish.
My personal favorite, the Lustre, is another floral and citrus drink that when paired with tonic water and an orange wheel is prefect for an afternoon by the water.
Wilderton’s tasting room and distillery is open every day from noon to 6 p.m. at 407 Portway Ave., Suite 100 (ground floor neighbors with Ferment brewing). Tours of the distillery are available upon request and tastings are free of charge.