Spirits from scratch
November 30, 2011
For Syntax Spirits in Greeley, creating the company’s signature Class V vodka was a lesson in trial and error – starting with the distilling equipment.
“We’re a self-funded startup, and if you go buy some fancy still, it’s going to set you back 100 grand,” said Heather Bean, still mistress at Syntax. “That cost is enormous for a small company. It’s more cost-effective for us to buy old tanks and things from eBay and rebuild them.”
Bean said she realized early on that if she could buy the parts, she could build the equipment for a fraction of the cost.
“A lot of motivation for building our own equipment is being cheap,” she said with a laugh. “It didn’t come with a manual, so we have to try things, and if they don’t work, what we got for our sweat and time is an incredible understanding of how our equipment works and why it works.”
Through the process of building and rebuilding equipment until they got it right, the folks at Syntax have gained a huge amount of knowledge about the distilling process, Bean said.
“(Sometimes you wonder) is this all going to work?” she said. “No guarantees — we’re kind of making it up as we go along. It seems crazier now than it did at the time (when we started), but hey, it all works.”
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Read on for more about the history and philosophy of this craft distiller.
Vail Daily: How did you get started in distilling?
Heather Bean: It’s kind of weird. I was an engineer at HP, and I was getting sick of the corporate life. I’d been a homebrewer for years … It was something to try after quitting my real job and deciding to go for it. I had a background in chemical and mechanical engineering. A lot of learning on the job was done.
VD: What is your philosophy when distilling and developing new products?
HB: A big differentiator between us and some other distilleries is that it’s really important to do everything from scratch – use local sources and suppliers whenever humanly possible. We try to do everything by hand, not re-labeling of someone else’s product. (We use) all Greeley wheats, so that’s kind of why we chose to use wheat so we can keep everything here and local in that regard. That’s one of the big differences. Other distilleries contract out a lot of stuff and don’t completely make a lot of what they sell. We don’t believe in that. We’re very do-it-yourself. That philosophy carries over into new products and how we do our flavorings. We use all whole ingredients and no artificial flavors – do everything from scratch.
The primary thing I’m trying to convey is that we’re genuine. We’re not trying to pass stuff off like we did it when we didn’t really do it or that it’s a craft thing when really it’s not so much.
VD: What are your thoughts on the growth of the craft distilling industry?
HB: It’s looking good. I feel like they haven’t quite hit the sweet spot in terms of awareness the way craft brewing has. It helps the thought process that craft brewing exists to get people to try local stuff. It will definitely start taking off once there’s more out there and the public gets used to having craft spirits. In less than the year we’ve been open, people have been interested and there have been calls saying that ‘hey, we want your stuff.’ Every quarter, I think we’ve been going up 50ish percent in terms of sales and production. It’s still really nice to see our sales going up like that. Things are going to be fine, we just have to keep moving along. I’m not really worried about the business because we’ve already started breaking even more months than not and we just have to keep pushing along in the direction we’re going.
VD: What’s it like to be a female distiller in a male-dominated profession?
HB: What I think is really funny is that people don’t even imagine it’s such a sausage fest out there, and people meet me and I’m like, I’m the owner, and they’re like, NO! I think they more just seem surprised. I’m used to being the only chick in a room full of dudes from my years in engineering, and kayaking and mountain biking end up being overwhelmingly male. … It’s interesting the reactions people give (to the woman on the vodka label). Oh, but she doesn’t look like a real woman. No, she’s a cartoon super hero. I’ve been in male-dominated professions for so long that I don’t really think about it until someone brings it up. I hope that makes us a little more interesting, that people want to hear our story and will help us sell more vodka.
VD: Why do you love what you do?
HB: I’d have to say it’s the fact that I literally never do the same thing twice. There’s a few things that I do the same – reports and paperwork – but I’m always working on a new project – marketing, new equipment, having to deal with managing sales and people. It really keeps my brain happy, busy, learning constantly. … I’m ignorant daily. I’m not doing anything I know how to do. Once I got over the ego thing and said, hey, get used to feeling stupid, (then) this is really fun, getting to always try new stuff. If it doesn’t work, great, try something else next time. We’re always trying new things within reason: If something doesn’t work, don’t do it twice, but we’re all learning. Everyone is willing to take the risk; we all learn a lot more that way.