Distillers Sitdown Series: Heather Bean of Syntax Spirits

The 1st Annual Colorado Distiller’s Festival will be held on September 18.  As part of the roll-out, we will be interviewing the participating CO distillers to feature in the coming weeks.

Syntax Spirits

Heather Bean from Syntax Spirits

Today, we’re featuring Syntax Spirits in our sit-down with Heather Bean.

Biographical information

Full Name
Heather Bean

Current Location
Greeley, CO

Name of Distillery 
Syntax Spirits

You and your distillery

Where did you grow up?
Northglenn, CO

Syntax Spirits

Jeff Copeland and Heather Bean

How old were you when you had your first drink of a spirit? What was the story behind it?
Smallish, maybe 9.  I desperately wanted to make a recipe for some kind of rum-soaked dessert that involved fire, and my dear long-suffering mother (who does not drink) bought me some Bacardi 151.  I suspect that it was awkward for her to walk into a liquor store and ask, “Which thing here burns best?”   I still love fire, but not in the distillery.

What’s your favorite cocktail?
It varies, varies, varies.  Nightly, seasonally, moodily, you name it.  I can say in general that I favor savory rather than sweet cocktails.  I love a martini (gin or vodka) with great olives, and a lemon drop with no sugar (other than something in girly pink, blue, or green on the rim, of course).

What cocktail best showcases your distilled spirit, if applicable?
Our vodka is really lovely for sipping straight, so a nice martini with crunchy, fresh olives and just a touch of dry vermouth shows it off very well.

What food pairs well with your spirit, if at all?
Our vodka has a very delicate, sweet flavor that people often relate to cocoa or coconut.  It goes very well with fruit flavors, and is pleasant with most dishes.  Our hometown, Greeley, is home to a wide variety of fantastic Mexican Loncheras (lunch trucks…but usually out on the streets well after midnight), our favorite food pairing around the distillery is Class V vodka and Street Meat.

Why are you Colorado-based?  If you moved to Colorado to start your distilleries, why?
Everyone who works at the distillery is either from Colorado or fell in love and relocated a long time ago.  Everyone kayaks.  Everyone bikes.  Everyone rides.  Nobody wants to leave.

How long have you been distilling?
I plead the fifth.

Now, how long have you really been distilling?  (By that, how did you get into it?)
I seem to recall ending up at the Colorado State Science Fair when I was maybe 10 or 11ish with a project entitled “The Distillation of Wood.”  Now, clearly I’m not applying that specific knowledge at the moment, or I’d have gone blind well ahead of our customers.  But it went well, I think I won a prize, and I was obviously encouraged.  Who knew that my destiny would play out 25 years later?

How did your distillery get its name?
It’s a bad, bad pun.  We’re fond of sin, we pay our fair share of tax (literally and figuratively)…Syntax, Sin-Tax.  But, dude, it’s also deeper than that.  (Here, take another hit.)  The founders Heather and Jeff are both computer programmers (syntax is important, get it?) and Heather also made a living as a writer (more syntax!) while starting up the distillery.

Your distillation process

Syntax

Heather Bean in the Mash Cooker

What’s a fond memory you have of distilling?  Please as many details as you’d like.
When I was starting up the stills for the first time, it took some trial-and-error to get things to work and get a stable process nailed down.  And by trial-and-error, I mean a couple of sleepless months.  There was plenty of office work to do by day, and there were a lot of nights where I’d sleep on my office futon and get up every two hours to check on the stills.  At my age (neither young nor old, btw), I know a lot of new-ish parents.  What with everyone being up in the middle of the night, we’d end up texting. “Dude.  The still just puked again.  Goddamnit.“  “So did my daughter.  Goddamnit.” “Going to clean up.” “Yeah.”

Where do you get the ingredients for your distillate?
Mercifully locally.  The Greeley Grain Elevator is 4 blocks south of the distillery, and H’s 1959 GMC pickup can make it that far with a ton of wheat in the bed.

How do you make your neutral grain spirit?
We grind our Colorado wheat on-site, and then mash it with a few enzymes to facilitate starch liquefaction and conversion.  The spent grain goes to the pigs down the street, and we ferment our wash for 2-4 days.  Next, we do two distillation runs through our fractionating column stills (removing stuff and things appropriately, of course) to produce a very nice, high-proof, neutral spirit.

What’s your favorite spirit to make and why?
VODKA! It’s a very simple spirit in theory, but when done well it can taste very complex.  The flavors in vodka have nothing to run and hide behind, they have to be good.

Do you filter?  If so, why?
We do filter.   Being near the base of the Rockies, our water can vary dramatically.  It’s always delicious, but Colorado’s highly-variable runoff can result in a lot of particulates at times, and chlorine levels can vary accordingly, so we filter primarily to remove those things.  Aside:  That whole notion that you can filter bad vodka and make it delicious?  It doesn’t work for me.  I’ve tried.  I would have spent a great deal fewer sleepless nights last year if I could just make crappy vodka and carbon filter it to awesomeness.  Alas, I just had to learn to make really good vodka.  <Sigh.>  That aside, I have noted that there are some very specific flavors that carbon filtration can soften.  This can be helpful, depending on the flavor profile that you’re going for.

What’s your philosophy on heads and tails removal?
On cats, absolutely not.  But it’s essential for vodka.

What do you listen to while you brew/filter/distill?
Girl Talk, gangsta rap, classic rock and new wave, funk, Bollywood beats…. usually punctuated by the chatty meowing of the distillery cat (greeter, goodwill ambassador, mouse catcher, masseur), Gustav.   Nice people say that we have eclectic taste; others accuse us of no discrimination.

Tell us about your still.  Is it a column or pot still?  Does it have a name?
We have two fractionating column stills, Biggie and Smalls, and they get along really well these days.  It was a little bit awkward at first, there were claws and some hissing, but now we see them spooning together at night.

Vodka

Vodka

Class V Vodka

Tell us about your water source.  Where is it?  Why did you select it?
Our water is from Colorado’s only federally-designated Wild and Scenic River, the Cache la Poudre.  Greeley, Colorado has first water rights from the Poudre and the thinly-disguised snowmelt/whitewater that we use is excellent water for vodka.  It’s also excellent for our collective kayaking hobby, but that’s another story entirely.

What is your vodka distilled from?
Weld County wheat that we get from the Greeley Grain Elevator three blocks away–and nothing else (aside from the aforementioned water and a few enzymes).

What is your filtration system like?
It’s much like a small, cheap filtration system.  Actually, it IS a small, cheap filtration system.  Our vodka doesn’t require a lot of filtering; we’re primarily filtering for particulates and chlorine with the kind of filter that you might use for your house…if you live in a better neighborhood than we do.

What (if any) flavoring/bittering agents do you add?
Zero.

How do you like to drink your vodka?
Regularly, neat.

Wrap-up Class V

Are there any other less than mainstream products that you distill?
I am a beekeeper, so there’s an occasional surplus of honey that we use to make honey vodka when we have enough.  We also have random yard-produce (horseradish, mint, lemongrass, chilies, hops, etc.) that we mess with for our tasting room infusions.

If budget was no issue, what would you like to try to distill?  Yes, bacon is an acceptable answer.
Bacon makes everything better, so… bacon? More bacon?  Bacon-flavored bacon booze?

Seriously, I’ve always been intrigued by an old distilling book I read that spoke of making spirits directly from (not flavored by) juniper berries.  It talked like they were cheap at the time, and spectacularly sugary.  Like, why buy wheat when you can get juniper berries by the ton?!  That’d be fun to try, but I suspect that the time for that kind of thing is long past.

What are some developments you’re planning on in the coming future? 
We’re planning to introduce a white rum for the holidays in 2011, and we’ll be adding a couple of our favorite vodka infusions to our regular product line in the near future.  Beyond that, we’re working on increasing our production capacity to meet our increasing demands.

Why should folks buy local CO spirits? 
Well, there are all the standard reasons to buy local – to support the local economy and jobs, reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint, and help keep the area unique.  Beyond that we like to think that we provide the best reason of all to buy local – making the best spirits that anyone can find anywhere.  And aren’t you lucky if they’re produced in your back yard?

A BIG thank you to Heather Bean for a great interview! 
Don’t forget to buy your ticket to the CO Distillers Festival!

About Jess Hunter


Jess is a lady and a scholar. If she's not mulling over the various names of famous mustaches and their respective bitter cocktails, she's nibbling on American Craft Singles and Cantillon. Connect with her by email at jesshunter@denveroffthewagon.com.