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Cut by crafted cut: The Ransom Spirits story

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Tad Seestedt  moved to Oregon in 1993 and began working at a variety of  wineries in the Yamhill County. He spent the next 4 years working with some great vineyards, but there was an internal passion to create his own unique brand of craft spirits.

The initial focus was centered around making high quality grappa, eau de vie and brandy.

It was a passion that launched one of the first Oregon-based distilleries; one that has evolved from an initial niche line of spirits into a world class maker of whiskeys, gins, vodka and grappa.P1060830

Starting from scratch

The craft distillery landscape in 1997 was a lot different than it is today. There were only four craft distilleries in Oregon, Hood River Distillers, Clear Creek, Bendistillery and Brandy Peak. Ransom was the fifth craft distiller in Oregon.

Tad had been experimenting with distilling at that point for several years, but since the industry was still pretty small, there were very few places to go for resources or to learn about distilling. The people who were distilling did not want to take on a part time person, and since Tad had to keep his winemaking job, he was faced with a decision.

“I didn’t want to make the choice on winemaking or distilling. I wanted to be both. So, I had to start my own distillery in order to do both.”

Tad didn’t have a wealthy family and he didn’t have any investors as he launched Ransom in 1997. He had some savings built up and was determined to do it himself. But the amount of capital needed to ramp up was beyond what he had in savings, so he did what most businesses did at the time and applied for a commercial loan.

He realized pretty quickly that the qualifications needed to acquire a loan didn’t line up with where he was as a business venture. Both the length of time the business had been around and the lack of necessary collateral were serious negatives in the eyes of the banks, and Tad was unable to get a standard commercial loan.

P1060832“Whether it’s spirits or wine, more so with spirits, you buy your raw material and do your fermentation and distill, and then you have this time lag where you’re building this inventory. Your inventory’s aging before you can sell it, which is this crushing financial situation to be caught in if you don’t and one that banks are not fond to invest in. If you could raise $80 million like the tech guy then it wouldn’t have been a problem, but I don’t know of any startup wineries or distilleries that raise that kind of money.”

Unable to get a loan from the bank, Tad turned to another option.

“That was back in the days when you got a credit card offer in the mail every week or maybe several weeks. They would be the ones that had phrases like -’You can get so much in unsecured loan and you can transfer this balance with a zero percent.’ And I thought, well, you know, these things sound crazy like a scam, but the bank is not gonna loan me any money anyways.”

Since this was before the internet, Tad called up Capital One and inquired about applying for one of their unsecured loans.

“They said, how much do you want?’ I said, I’d like to get $36,000 and they replied that they’d call me back, which they did, and two days later I had a check for $36,000. That’s crazy, you know? And at 4% it was a lower percentage rate than the commercial loan, which if I had qualified, would have been around 11%.”

So with money in hand, Tad got to work.

In 1999 Ransom was producing small batch fine wines, eau de vie, brandy and grappa – with Tad P1060831doing it all. As someone who is focused on the production side of things, he handled the fermenting, distilling and bottling. But as he started to bottle more and more he had a realization that there was this whole other critical aspect to running a business called sales. Tad was always in the cellar which became very clear on a business trip to Chicago. He had his first bottles of eau de vie, which included eau de vies made from pinot noir, riesling, and muscat – all bottled separately for each respective varietal.

“I’d go to high-end restaurant guys with bar programs and they were like, ‘Yeah, this is great, we’ll buy some of that.’ I think I was in Chicago for three days, and I sold probably six cases of eau de vie and 200 cases of wine.”

Tad went back in 2000, and visited some of the restaurants he had sold some of the eau de vie to. The buyer welcomed him back to Chicago and mentioned that they still had the bottle of Gewürztraminer eau de vie he had sold them a year earlier. The bar staff had been drinking them behind the bar because the customers didn’t know what to think of the eau de vie. The realization hit Tad – there was very little consumed, and therefore no turnover on the product.

At about the same time, the dot-com bubble burst and the economy took a slide. Tad was sitting on a lot of brandy with the stark realization that he was most likely not going to sell it. So he sold that brandy in bulk to wineries who used it to make ports and fortified wines, and took that income and bought more grapes that he fermented but didn’t distill.

“I started bottling a bunch of wine and that really started to change the financial picture, you know? People like to joke about starting a winery –  you start with a big fortune to end up with a small one? But when you have nothing and you’re able to sell something, it was good.”

But the early years of Ransom took a toll on Tad. For the first eight years he did everything himself, and he still had a full time job. He was still working for other people making wine, plus trying to run Ransom. This led to 70-90 hour work weeks, and the business was still hemorrhaging money.

“It was really extremely difficult, you know? I think that the long hours are one thing, but I think once that I started to recognize that it could work economically, it made it tolerable. I mean for a few years I really just thought I should bail out, but once it started to show promise around 2004, I realized this can work. You have to get to the point where you have that inventory that’s aged and ready to sell, whether it be winery or distillery. And you have to be able to sell it. Find people who want it, distributors who wanna buy it, or if you’re doing your own sales, and I was doing my own sales here in Oregon, making the rounds to all the bars, restaurants, wine shops and liquor stores – a huge amount of work. It took a toll. It definitely took a toll.”

Things started to change when he started doing more wine than spirits, and focusing on his own wine brand.  And in 2005 he hired his first employee.P1060826

Crafting the spirits

Around 2005, Tad was shifting from a focus on brandy and eau de vie in the distillery and towards gin and whiskey. This shift was the result of realizing the fact that gin and whiskey are more in line with what a broad mix of Americans drink. The spirits are more popular as stand alone drinks in tumblers, and people in bars use them in cocktails.

The early recipe for what would be one of his signature cocktails was connected to someone from his past, a friend back in New York named Dave Wondrich.

“I had left and I was living overseas for a while. And I came back, I think it had been like a year or something. And I called Dave up but he had moved and his phone number was different. This was before the internet. So, it wasn’t like now where you just need someone’s email address and you can find them wherever they are in the world. It’s like, if you lose someone’s address and phone number, that’s it. But then I started seeing Dave Wondrich’s name on spirits articles and cocktail articles, and it was around 2005 and started wondering if it was the same Dave that I knew.”

Tad tracked down Dave’s email and dropped him a note, and learned it was indeed the same person, which was pretty incredible to think about. Both of them were on totally different paths in the late 80’s and they went in their own directions. Then more than 15 years later they reconnect and both are involved in spirits; Dave as a historian and writer, and Tad on the producing end.

The two ended up meeting for lunch in New York with Tad bringing him up to speed on where he was with Ransom.

“I told Dave that I was trying to make brandy and eau de vie and it was not really working economically for me as I kept losing money. So I mentioned that I was going to start working on a gin recipe and he mentioned that he was working on an article around old time gin and classic cocktails. So he provided me with a lot of information and we worked on the old time gin recipe together, which was a huge help for me because I had never made gin before.”P1060850

But the switch to spirits did take some time for Tad to wrap his head around. He had experience working with grapes, berries and fruits and it all made sense to him. But working with grain was a completely different process. So he reached out to some brewer friends who reassured him that if he could make wine then he could make the spirits.

In 2006 Tad started working on the recipes for the gin and whiskey. Ransom released their first gin, which is the old time gin, around 2008. It was the old time gin recipe that he and Dave had worked on a few years before.

The first whiskey Ransom made was the Whippersnapper. It’s one that is unique to Tad.

“We believe the whippersnapper cannot be placed in one category of whiskey. It is clearly different from any one single style, with the best of the parts from several distinct styles. Whippersnapper is then hand bottled, hand labeled, and hand waxed. Meticulous attention is paid to achieving perfection both in the bottle and out.”

After that, Tad starting moving more into other grains besides barley and corn, and started working on the Emerald in 2009 – 2010. The Emerald was another collaborative project/concept with David Wondrich, the same partnership that had produced the Old Tom Gin. More recently, they released “Rye-Barley-Wheat”, which is a mash bill made up of several different malting levels, and also a mix of unmalted barley and rye.

But no matter what Tad and his team at Ransom are making, they never stray from the attention to detail and craft that has gotten them to this point.

“We lean strongly towards putting grain dominant whiskey in the bottle, and try to steer away from putting oak dominant whiskey in the bottle. It is our preference to focus more on the ingredients and how they affect aromatics, flavor profile and mouth feel, rather than focusing too much on the barrels that we use for aging. We only use 53 and 60 gallon barrels, the vast majority of which are used. Only a very small percentage of new barrels are in the distillery.”P1060837

Crafting with care

As with all of the steps in his journey, Tad did not approach the making of spirits from an efficiency standpoint. He started out making them in a very labor intensive way, and continues to do so to this day. The spirits are distilled in a hand-hammered, direct-fired alembic pot still which truly look like pieces of art in the production facility and are pieces of equipment Tad has been slowly acquiring over the years.

“I bought one, made one, bought another, and then bought the one here. Not counting the original one that I built to experiment on before I had a license. So technically five stills.”

One still in particular has an interesting story.

Tad was getting ready to purchase a direct fire basic still from Vendome when a friend called and said there was an alembic still for sale in California. The one in California was 10 hectoliter (300 gallons) and he was looking to ramp up to a 900 gallon pot from Vendome so in his mind the one in California didn’t make sense, but he called the guy and realized it was a dream still from the manufacturer he thought made the best pot still on the market. The one he couldn’t find 20 years prior was just sitting there in California, and according to the seller, never used.

Tad went down to California to look at it, and some of the pieces were missing, and so he negotiated the price down to what was a great deal and bought the still. He canceled the order with Vendome, who weren’t happy. But Tad didn’t have enough for two stills and he knew that he’d probably ever find another one like the one he just purchased, even if some of the parts were missing.

“So this is one of the last years that they made these from hand. This is a ’78 model and I think in the mid-’80s sometime they switched to different technology where a lot of these parts are spun, and it’s just made in a higher tech way. And I wanted one where you could see all these little dimples that are the result of hammer strikes on sheets of copper.”

He got the still back to the facility and began thinking how he could get the missing pieces fabricated, which didn’t seem too daunting except the pieces are sized to fit on the metric system, and many local fabricators are not set up for metric fabrication.

But a funny thing happened when he started to get it all unpacked.

P1060822“I was taking everything apart, laying everything out, and this preheater was sitting on this old beat up palette, and the guy gave me the blueprints. The blueprints confirmed it was a 1978 model that was made in France and shipped to a guy in California for some other guy who was supposed to use it in Tahiti.  I had all the documentation and I still didn’t believe that it was never used, because it had areas of discoloration. I looked inside the swan’s neck and could see some residue, but knew that even with the use I got a great deal. But as I cut the straps and started pulling it off the palette, and inside this pedestal’s hollow, that’s where those missing parts were, still wrapped up in original wax paper. And I was like, That guy was not bullshitting me. It’s like maybe the swan’s neck for some reason they sent that one part that had been used to this guy who bought it in California, and then they lost that and bought another one, I don’t know. But he wasn’t bullshitting me.”

And whether on that still, or one of the others on Ransom’s farm, Tad still does all of the cuts in the production by hand, and while it’s much more labor intensive than using technology to do it, the end result are spirits with a greater aromatic intensity.

And as far as new opportunities Ransom is chasing, well, Tad has a response you don’t hear very often.

“I think we’re done. We’ve just released a new whisky in October. A whiskey we’ve been working on for the last four years. The only other thing that we would do, and I’m sure we’ll do in the future, is to release a hundred percent barley and malt whisky. Because most of our mash bills are more kind of multi-grain. What we’re focusing on now is more on the grain-based, we’re gonna stick to that. But the dry gin is barley, rye, and corn, but different malts of barley, un-malted and malted rye. So, I think those, for me, are complex mash bills that make a more complex spirit. Not that I don’t like malt, malted barley whisky, because I love it, but I think from creation point-of-view, I’m trying to maybe push the boundaries in some respects and try to take whisky to a different place.  I think there’s a huge future in whisky. I think for us, and on the craft end in United States, there’s this huge spectrum of what can be done with whisky and I think it’s starting, and it’s starting in a good way, with limitless possibilities.“P1060834

Ransom Spirits grew pretty exponentially for a while, and while as Tad states above, they will never stop experimenting. But from a production standpoint they are leveling off. They are at a good size and the current equipment works for them. Growing and expanding is not something on Tad’s radar.

“For me to say ‘let’s take this to the next level’ would then require us to get a new mash done. Let’s get another bigger still. Let’s build another building where we can put more barrels. My goal is never to become a super wealthy person. I wanted to make a good living fermenting and distilling.”

Today, Ransom Spirits is one of the most well respected producers of spirits on the market, winning numerous awards. And looking back over the years, even with all the ups and downs, Tad has few regrets.

“I’d like to think that our path, like whatever it is, was our path. And that makes where we end up where we are, and hopefully, we’re happy with where we end up. So, if you change things, maybe you wouldn’t end up where you are, but I’m happy where I am now. So, I would say the only thing I might have changed would be to start doing gin and whisky in 1999 instead of 2006. But luckily for me, my other half has a good job and I didn’t lose any weight for seven years when I was hemorrhaging money -there was always food on the table.”

And accompanying that food on the table was always a carefully hand crafted wine or spirit.

For more information, visit www.ransomspirits.com, like them on facebook, and follow them on instagram and twitter.

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