One of the more intriguing wine-pairing dinners I've attended featured libations that were as innovative as they were interesting, produced by Tad Seestedt of Ransom Wines & Spirits. It was hosted earlier this month by Finca owner Scott Evans, Chef Phelix Gardner and his Finca restaurant crew, and attended by Seestedt himself. By the end of the event, I was more than happy to have been held for Ransom for an evening.
Seestedt started Ransom Spirits—the wines would come later—near Sheridan, Ore., with "a small life savings and a fistful of credit cards." Hence, the name Ransom, chosen "to represent the debt incurred to start the business," according to Seestedt.
Ransom began producing small-batch Grappa, Eau de Vie and brandy in 1997 before adding small amounts of boutique wines in 1999, then crafting grain-based spirits like gin, vodka and whiskey. Most recently, Ransom has added dry vermouth to its roster.
So, this wasn't any ordinary wine dinner. Food and drink pairings ran the gamut from an opening cocktail made with Ransom Old Tom Gin and Ransom Dry Vermouth with compressed melon, cucumber, verbena curd, smoked honey, almonds and espelette, to Gardner's delicious amberjack crudo paired with Ransom 2012 Riesling. We ping-ponged throughout the evening from wines to spirits and beyond.
Since then, I've had the opportunity to sample a range of Ransom products, including an amazing Gewürztraminer Grappa and an equally incredible Ransom Sweet Vermouth. What makes Ransom spirits so unique is, for lack of a better word, their historicity. Technology has changed the way wines and spirits are made in the 21st century, but Seestedt consults with historians and makes his spirits the way they would have been produced in the past: distilled in a hand-hammered, direct-fired alembic pot still from France, for example. The idea is to produce gin, whiskey and such that looks and tastes like what our ancestors might have drank.
To that end, Seestedt employs ingredients that you probably won't find in most modern spirit brands. Ransom Dry Gin ($22.99), for example, is built around a core of intense botanicals—not only juniper, as you would expect, but also caraway, coriander, cardamom, Oregon Marionberry, orris root, star anise, Angelica root, orange peel and more. The result is a dry gin that is unlike any you've ever tasted, and one that is absolutely beautiful served with a single ice cube.
For a slightly different gin experience, Ransom Old Tom Gin ($31.78) is fashioned after the predominant gin styles of the mid-1800s, and developed in collaboration with mixology historian David Wondrich. It's a gin with subtle maltiness—a perfect cocktail candidate. Use it for making a Tom Collins, a Negroni or a gin & tonic—or just sip it straight.
I normally eschew Grappa, which tends to set my tongue and tonsils afire with its high-alcohol intensity. However, Ransom Grappa ($19.97) is a different beast entirely. It's produced using lightly pressed Gewürztraminer pomace, which lends it fruity and floral qualities. I've never tasted Grappa as smooth or as pleasant as Ransom's.
As for the wines, they also are unique: true expressions of their terroir and varietals. The Organic Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Gris ($15.29) actually tastes like Pinot Gris grapes and not like an inflated, overly oaked Chardonnay substitute. Ditto the Ransom Brooks Vineyard Riesling ($14.29) I tasted.
Don't get the idea that these excellent wines and spirits, made with historical accuracy in mind, are simply intellectual exercises. To the contrary, they are made and priced to be enjoyed—and I'm pretty certain you will.