The spirit of the west valley
The chemical processes of the Yamhill Valley’s most notable products, wine and beer, are pretty straightforward — sugars from grapes or starches from grains are fermented with yeast to create alcohol.
But what if they're taken to the next step?
That was the question that drove longtime winemaker Tad Seestedt into the distilling business.
Ransom Spirits, which operates on a farm outside Sheridan, and the wide variety of spirits produced there, are the result of Seestedt’s passion for that succeeding step in the process.
“I was working for a winery back in the early '90s, and someone on the night crew forgot to turn on the compressor for the press with a load of riesling in it,” he recalls. “I came in that morning and made tank measurements and something didn’t add up; there was very little juice in the tanks. I went to see where the pumice, the skins, had been dumped and realized they really hadn’t been pressed. That’s when the light went on, and I thought, ‘This is a great opportunity to try and make grappa.’”
Grappa is one of Ransom’s signature products, along with its widely celebrated Old Tom Gin and a variety of whiskies, gins and other spirits, and is traditionally made with the leftovers from the winemaking process. American spirit consumers generally trend more toward grain spirits, but Seestedt continues to produce his unique brandy for its flavor and its connection to his start in distilling.
“It’s almost entirely Gewürztraminer for our grappa. That’s a Germanic variety of white wine that’s very aromatic. In the past, we were making grappa from many different types of grapes, but that’s always been my favorite. It’s very distinctive,” he said. “Because we like making it, we’re still making it, but we’re only making our favorite one.”
Whatever the final product, the process is much the same — fermentation, then distillation.
“You have to ferment first. Distillation concentrates alcohol; it doesn’t create alcohol,” Seestedt explained. Once the wine or wort is fermented, it goes into the still. Ransom operates a pair of '70s vintage French pot stills, each with a gas-fired kettle and a large condenser tank. The initial liquid is boiled, which separates the alcohol from the water, and the result is cooled back into liquid and collected. The process is time intensive — each cycle of operation can take up to 16 hours, and the product must run through the still twice to achieve the desired flavor and concentration — resulting in a 90 percent or more reduction in volume from start to finish.
“If we start with 100 gallons of wine, we end up with 10 gallons of brandy,” Seestedt said. “When we’re making gin and whisky, the reduction is more extreme because the starting alcohol is lower.”
The product comes out of the still at between 130 and 150 proof, or up to 75 percent alcohol by volume. It’s further processed and aged before water is added to achieve bottle proof, which is 88 proof for Old Tom Gin.
Ransom has been in business since the late 90s, but moved to the West Valley in 2008 with the purchase of a 40-acre farm that houses the distillery, Ransom’s winemaking operation and provides the space to grow much of the barley in Ransom spirits “I came out to this area in Sheridan for the farm country. This piece of land is sort of multipurpose,” Seestedt said. “It has good soil for grapes and it’s good for grains. It allows us to be versatile in what we’re going to grow.”
Seestedt sources the grapes that go into Ransom wine and brandy from around Oregon, particularly the Eola Hills, and the grain which is not grown on site comes primarily from a company in Vancouver.
The land the distillery sits on, the painstaking process required to create fine spirits, and the resulting products are all part of the fulfillment of Seestedt’s lifelong passion. “I was always fascinated with distilling and distilled products,” he said. “Working as a winemaker was a natural extension into looking into what comes after fermentation.“