Ransom Spirits: a True Sense of Farm to Glass
All images courtesy Ransom Wine Co. and Distillery.
Farm to ____ is a powerful marketing term these days that is sadly beginning to lose its credibility. Just because something is grown on a farm that winds up in a product that makes it to our plates or glasses doesn’t always mean all aspects of its production are overseen by the brand behind it or that the ingredients were grown adjacent to the property at which they are manufactured or presented. There are some shining examples of good farm to table or farm to glass businesses, however, and one of these is Ransom Spirits outside of Portland, Oregon.
Ransom winery and distillery was founded in 1997 by Tad Seestedt, who came to the Pacific Northwest with a thirst and a dream of leaving the 9 - 5 office life for a career as a winemaker and distiller. Seestedt grew up on a farm, but he says that after high school he thought he would never want to work on a farm again, spending all that time sitting on tractors and shoveling manure. However, after holding several city office jobs, the allure of a “rural lifestyle” called him back. He says, “I was really into wine and how wine pairs with food and decided to try working in the wine industry to see how it fit. I went back to night school for chemistry and biology, read books on growing grapes and drinking wine, tasted lots of wine, thought about it, talked about it... Then decided to move to Oregon and get a job in the wine industry.” He says he worked in wineries for 4 - 5 years before starting Ransom.
The name represents the payments for debt incurred bringing that American dream to fruition and of course, the freedom of those debts paid off with that business (to pay the bills, he had to continue working for wineries while simultaneously starting up Ransom.) The spirits produced there are a wide and diverse range, but what they all share in common is a sense of old world traditional craft with modern new world twists. Some of these projects, including an Old Tom Gin, are collaborations with long time friend, the author and drinks historian David Wondrich. (More on that later.)
The notion of distilling his own spirits attracted Seestedt after working as a winemaker for a couple of years. “In the early 90s, spirits were more of a mystery world. There were a lot of articles and books about wine, but not so much spirits. So for me, I was always interested in spirits from a consumer end. Drinking cocktails back in the ‘80s, they were pretty bad! Not across the board everywhere, but just about. It was difficult to get a well made Manhattan 30 years ago, so I was drinking spirits entirely neat and pretty much shied away from cocktails for decades. That made me curious about the making of spirits. What was behind them? Working as a winemaker made me curious about brandies, eaux de vie and grappa. That’s when I started experimenting in the early ‘90s.”
One of the most unique products from Ransom is a Dry Gin, which is a nod to the malty style of Dutch genever with a decidedly more aromatic palate, giving it the weight of the genever with the refreshment of a London Dry. It’s made from an in-house base wort of malted barley and rye mixed with corn-based spirits that have been infused with certified, organically-grown juniper and other botanicals, including Oregon-grown Marionberry (no relation to the controversial former mayor of Washington, D.C.) and local hops. The gin is distilled using a direct fire-fueled alambic pot still.
It happens to go exceptionally well in a Martini mixed with Ransom’s Dry Vermouth. While many vermouth producers have to source their wine, Seestedt has the luxury of starting his vermouth with a blend of aromatic white wines vinified at the Ransom winery and mixing it with his own alambic-distilled brandy aged in French oak. The botanical infusion combines rosehip, chamomile, verbena, spearmint and other aromatics with vanilla. It also includes a healthy dose of wormwood, an ingredient most American vermouths leave out because of pesky government regulations surrounding it. Wormwood is not only the main ingredient in traditional European recipes for vermouth, it’s also a required component of absinthe, perhaps the most misunderstood of all spirits. Says Seestedt, “There’s a lot of hype about the psychotropic effects of wormwood. Keep in mind, most absinthe is a pretty high proof product, so if people were drinking significant amounts of it, I would guess it was probably the enormous amount of alcohol that would cause them to do the bizarre things they were accused of and not the wormwood in it.
It was fairly recent, some time in the last 10 years, that the US finally allowed products with wormwood to be manufactured and imported to the US. Being a wine producer and spirits maker, people would ask why I’m not making a vermouth. Back in the day I was making fortified wines - port style wines, which I stopped doing around 2003, 2004. So that end of the equation I was fairly familiar with. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to make a vermouth without wormwood in it. So it never occurred to me not to, not really understanding how American label laws work. I mean, vermouth is made with wormwood! Our first recipe trial, wormwood was one of the main ingredients. Once we finished our recipe work we had to send our final recipe to the federal laboratories to have it analyzed for the levels of thujone [the ketone found in it thought to cause blood-thinning above certain levels]. If we were over the level, I guess we would have had to ratchet back on the wormwood. Luckily we were not even close to the legal limit of thujone.”
Which is a lot. “It would be more than a person could eat. You would have to have like a wormwood salad for it to be the amount they’re worried about.”
Another fascinating product from Ransom is the Emerald 1865 Whiskey, a modern American interpretation of what had been a traditional Irish whiskey recipe. This is one of the collaborations with David Wondrich, whom Seestedt first met in the 1980s when they were both working as paralegals in New York City. Seestedt says he enjoyed going to hear Wondrich play live with his punk band, and a kinship was formed. However, the friends lost touch when Seestedt left New York to travel Europe. Upon his return, the number he had for Wondrich no longer worked and so he thought he’d been lost for good. It wasn’t until a few years later that Seestedt was reading a cocktail article when he saw his old pal’s name on the byline and thanks to the internet, found a way to get back in touch. Coincidentally by then they were both working in the beverage industry, just different ends of it.
Sometime around 2010, the friends attended a genever festival together in Europe. On the flight home, they had a lot of time to discuss important topics on their minds. Naturally, these topics included the subject of whiskey and mash bills. Seestedt mentioned he wanted to work on new whiskey and Wondrich had been researching a story about the origins of Irish whiskey. Says Seestedt, “He had copies of old mash bills that were used in the 1800s in Ireland. What was different about them was the presence of oats, compared to what Irish whiskeys are like today [mostly barley]. Beyond that, around the turn of the [20th] century, column stills were becoming more commonplace than pot stills. Most Irish whiskey was transitioning to column stills. There was the introduction of a lot of grains that hadn’t been used in European whiskeys before, such as corn. There were tribunal hearings in England about Irish whiskey. Big brands like Jamesons and Powers were testifying about what was Irish Whiskey, what should legally be labeled ‘Irish Whiskey.’” They were saying if it’s made in a column still, then it really isn’t Irish whiskey. They also said if it doesn’t have oats in it, it’s not Irish whiskey either. One of the questions that was asked of them was how long oats had been present in the mash bills of Irish whiskey and their answer was as long as they had been in the business, which was since the 1700s.”
Seestedt decided to give this whiskey a go at Ransom using organically grown grains from the distillery's surrounding farm. He elaborates, “Dave had the copies of these mash bills, so we started fooling around with them. Just tasting the wort, it was much richer. It had more depth and complexity both aromatically and on the palate, after distilling into whiskey. It was a real A-ha Moment. The first time we made a mash with oats in the mash tun it was very different, and very different in a good way.”
Now that Seedstedt is back in the farm life he’s content with his accomplisments. The spirits he produces are truly top notch examples of what farm to bottle should be about. After life’s twists and turns, he’s back on the tractor for now, but luckily not shoveling manure, either literally or figuratively.
Ransom Spirits to Try:
Old Tom Gin: a collaboration with David Wondrich that provides a truly historically accurate rendering of this classic style.
Dry Gin: Where malty genever and aromatic dry gin meet, it has deep cereal flavors and a balanced floral finish that feels truly informed by its winemaking roots.
Whipper Snapper Whiskey: aged between 6 months and 2 years, this a youthful whiskey with an old soul. It’s a rare example of a young American whiskey that doesn’t taste like it was just hastily thrown in a bottle to earn a buck.
The Emerald 1865 Whiskey: David Wondrich hunted down some old microfiche (kids, ask your parents) to come up with this traditional recipe for Irish Whiskey made with oats. You’ll try it for the experience, but want to keep drinking it because it’s awesome.
Dry Vermouth: Wormwood. So misunderstood. So delicious. It certainly helps that the base wine used to make this vermouth is also of exceptional quality. Highly sippable on the rocks, but does wonders for a Martini.