A Handsome Ransom
By Karl Klooster
Few winemakers can lay claim to being distillers and vice versa. Though there are a couple crossover products -most notably brandies - the disciplines demand their own distinct expertise.
Having mastered both, Tad Seestedt can be counted among the rare individuals in Oregon. The founder of Ransom Wines & Spirits began making wine from grapes in 1993 and distilling grain for spirits in 1997.
Ever since, both endeavors have been a part of the business operation he dubbed Ransom to convey the playful but truthful message that making alcoholic beverages on a tight budget is no easy feat.
Determined to succeed from the outset, he operated on what he calls a “nomadic basis” over the course of several years. Salem, Corvallis, Portland and McMinnville all served as home base. He kept going and slowly growing by doing almost everything himself.
Seestedt learned the lessons of self-sufficiency growing up on a small farm in New York’s Finger Lakes district. And he’s had a desire to grow things ever since.
In 2008, he came across a 40-acre parcel between Sheridan and Willamina on a hillside just above old Highway 18. “In aerial views, the majority of the land looked flat,” he said. “But when I went out to see it, that was not the case.”
Instead, he found an open field facing southeast, gently sloping from 350 down to 300 feet in elevation.
The three to four feet of topsoil was Willakenzie, underlaid by fragmented rock. Had this same land been farther east, it would have been snatched up for vineyard planting years before. But this is a cooler microclimate and Seestedt knows it.
“I’m going to plant cool-climate whites here,” he said. “I think it would work well for Riesling; and I’m really looking closely at a couple of white varieties like Albariño that grow so well in northwestern Spain.”
He’s also considering varieties from the Basque region in the Pyrenees, between France and Spain. But acquiring the cuttings presents a problem.
Meanwhile, he plans to plant the 30 acres in winter barley to use in his WhipperSnapper whiskey. Then next spring, he’ll find out what’s available from California, where he’s contacting a couple of the growers who have planted Albariño.
As important as the land was, a 3,000-square-foot building readily converted into a distillery proved equally valuable. Directly across the way on the same steeply sloping property below the access road, he had a site excavated for his winery.
The building, constructed in the same modular style as the distillery building, covers 4,000 square feet. Jockeying back and forth between the two sites several times a day, he is able to keep both operations humming along.
Inside the distillery, the traditional Old World alembic pot still, from which all his spirits take rise, was constructed in Cognac, France, in 1978. “It was imported to California for a distillery that didn’t get off the ground,” he said. “It had never been used.”
The 300-gallon capacity boiler is five times the size of the one he used when he made his first batches of grappa, eau de vie and brandy in the late ’90s. He has kept a small amount of that Pinot Noir brandy, distilled in ’98, aging in barrel.
“I’ll sell some of it in a few years,” he said. “I haven’t come up with a name for it yet … or a price. But it won’t be cheap.
“Making brandy is a big investment,” he added. “It takes between three and four tons of grapes for each 60-gallon barrel, compared to 600 gallons of wine from the same tonnage. Then you have to age it at least four years, probably more.”
However, making whiskey and gin is another matter. Long aging isn’t nearly as important as the ingredients and the distilling technique. In that regard, knowing how to deal with the heads, tails and hearts is crucial to the outcome.
“The head boils off first, then comes the heart,” Seestedt explained. “The secret is to know when the harsher tails are going to begin entering the distillate and capture the heart beforehand.”
He said it took him about two years to perfect the technique. And now that he has a world-class still, life is a lot easier.
Like every master distiller, he has perfected his own recipes and little tweaks in the process to put his own mark on each product.
Seestedt’s Old Tom Gin, in particular, is a spirit he can call uniquely his own — part gin, part whiskey, part liqueur. With his gin, he said, it’s all about the botanicals. But writing about it or talking about it can’t in any way substitute for tasting it.
In a word, Old Tom has a subtle, sipping complexity you wouldn’t want to taint with tonic. In other words, it’s tasty to a “T” on its own. His Small’s Gin, on the other hand, has the smoothness you’d expect from alembic distillation, but tonic works well with it.
As a student of the distilling industry, Seestedt understands you have to be a nimble and special sprite to survive among the giants. Gewürztraminer grappa is another example of the individuality he stresses. The grape itself has one-of-a kind character.
He has also experimented with clear brandies called eau de vie in French, or water of life. Made from fruits and berries, they can be quite marvelous, but once again are costly to produce.
“I love raspberries and strawberries,” he said. “But you can’t believe how many of them it takes to make a 375 milliliter bottle of eau de vie. Pears and apples are a lot better.”
As for liqueurs, he’s going to avoid that area for some of the same reasons. “Expensive, difficult and, unfortunately, not much demand,” he said. “I started looking into doing a hazelnut liqueur, but my customers didn’t seem all that interested.”
Speaking of customers, Ransom products are currently distributed in 22 states. The wines, which account for about 4,500 cases a year, mostly Pinot Noir, sell better closer to home - Oregon, Washington and California.
The spirits, about 5,000 cases a year, are distributed across the U.S. - New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, D.C.
“I cover this part of the country myself and use an agent for the rest of the country,” he said. “Some of the liquor laws are pretty bizarre back east.”
Whatever goes on at Ransom, you can bet Seestedt will have his hands in it one way or another. And whatever goes out the door has his signature on it. That doesn’t appear to change anytime soon. -
RANSOM WINES AND SPIRITS
ADDRESS: 23101 Houser Rd., Sheridan
HOURS: Not open to public