- Associated Press - Saturday, May 10, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - There’s a new vodka in town.

Though Syntax was founded three years ago 40 miles from here, its line of spirits only recently started appearing on the shelves at a few of Cheyenne’s liquor stores.

Behind the vodka’s label of the fantasy woman striking a heroic pose with a kayak paddle is a product that’s just about 100 percent pure Greeley, Colorado.

If that sounds like a bottle of you-know-what, that probably comes from driving southbound on U.S. Highway 85 a time or two, an experience that can assault the senses at certain times of the year: eyes watering from the fertilizer fumes, nostrils pinched while passing the meat plant.

But turn left at the first light in town, head into the industrial area and stop at an old cement factory. An entirely different kind of Greeley ag experience awaits.

It’s less factory farm, more fun. Because, as Heather Bean says, drinking should be fun.

Three years ago, after Bean left her job at Hewlett Packard, she and friend Jeff Copeland started selling spirits from their distillery.

It’s a true “grain to glass” operation, Bean said. They buy the corn, wheat and barley grown by local farmers from a grain elevator in Eaton, Colorado, loading them into the bed of her 1959 GMC pickup truck.

“Lots of grain grows around here, which makes this a great location for the distillery,” Bean says.

And the grain is turned into spirits right there in the old cement warehouse. The grains — type and combination varying based on the type of alcohol they want to make in this batch — are ground, mashed and fermented. Then the resulting alcohol is distilled — impurities removed for smoothness — diluted to drinking strength, bottled, labeled and boxed for shipment.

And just beyond an art fence is the tasting room, where you can sip on cocktails made from the small-batch spirits and homemade infusions.

The tasting room has the vibe of a comfortable coffee house. There’s art for sale on the walls, local music plays on weekends, and the din is low enough for conversation.

Even the children playing with a beanbag toss on a recent Saturday night — their parents sipping cocktails on a sofa — didn’t seem out of place.

There you have it, Greeley’s version of unlocking spirits from water and grains.

Syntax is part of the growing craft spirits movement.

A decade ago, sharing a six-pack of your favorite microbrew was like bringing your favorite album to a party. It was a chance to express yourself through your tastes and experiences.

Yet a bottle of big-name vodka in the liquor cabinet was fine. As long as it didn’t reek like nail polish remover and burn on the way down, it was the good stuff. For most, spirits were spirits.

Back then, there were fewer than 100 craft distilleries in the U.S., according to Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute. Today, his mailing list has swelled past 600, and he says there are another 100 craft distilleries under construction.

The idea of creating and appreciating small-batch spirits has spilled over from the popularity of microbrews, Owens said. And given the popularity of craft beer in Colorado, craft distilling is a growing market along the Front Range.

The institute’s online map shows 26 craft distilleries in Colorado.

But it’s not just microbrews fueling the enthusiasm for small-batch sprits. This is part of a general backlash against the Walmart mentality, said Cobey Williamson, publisher of MicroShiner Magazine.

“We’ve become so disconnected in our personal lives,” he said. “We don’t know the person who makes our shoes.”

But if you go to a place like Syntax, you can meet the people who made your bourbon, buy a bottle and serve it to your friends, regaling them with your experience. The bourbon is not only delicious and unique, it has a story.

“People are really attracted to that at the moment,” Williamson said.

Bean, who is 39, is not unlike the type of craft distillers that Owens talked about. For many who get into the business, this is a second career.

She grew up in Northglenn, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. When she was 6, she started helping her mother make wine.

“She would pick every piece of fruit in the yard, commandeer every trash can in the house — she would wash them very well — and she would make wine every year.”

And, she adds, with a hit of dry humor, “I’m not saying it was delicious. I’m just saying it happened.”

But it planted this idea in a factory food world that you could, if you wanted to, make it yourself.

She grew up and got a job at Hewlett Packard as a mechanical engineer.

After 14 years at HP, she was ready to call it quits. Production was sent to China and India, and Bean’s duties shifted to software and firmware engineering. Eventually, nearly all of the engineering was outsourced.

For a hands-on person like Bean, this made work much less fun and satisfying.

A home brewer since her mid-20s, she thought opening her own microbrewery sounded fun, but only in theory, because that market was saturated.

“Someone who is in the industry just told me a couple weeks ago there is a craft brewery bubble growing again. So many new ones have opened that they can’t all possibly be making it,” she said.

But then, while traveling on business to Portland, Oregon, friends turned her on to something new: craft spirits.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this market looks a lot newer and kind of like what craft brewing did in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It looks like you can get in small. It looks kind of unheard of yet,’” Bean said.

As much as she loves beer, she’s “an equal opportunity lush.” So, spirits it was.

Syntax borrows from the localvore playbook. In the tasting room are 20 different infusions made from produce, herbs and spices — all local, when possible.

For instance, the cherries come from Loveland, she said. And the apricot-habanero infusion, which goes into a tiny batch of vodka served in the tasting room, is also local.

And borrowing from the craft brew playbook, Syntax has plenty of personal touches.

Several of the bottle labels featuring superwoman-esque women posing with the kayak paddles and the snowboards were based on Bean.

“That is totally what I look like in my head,” said Bean, who is an avid whitewater kayaker.

Or at least until she started working 16-hour days running a distillery, she says.

(If you’re into pinball, you might be interested to know the labels were illustrated by Greg Freres.)

On the bottles of whiskey — or, whisky, as Syntax uses the international spelling — the orange feline dressed like an Prohibition-era moonshine gangster is based on her cat, Gustav. When he’s not greeting visitors or lounging in the tasting room, he’s catching the mice that enter the old cement factory to eat grain. And he’s good at it: It helped him survive his feral cat days.

Bean also has many tales of frugal, do-it-yourself victories that helped build the business. Nearly everything is built, used, modified or repurposed.

The curving, lagoon-like bar top in the tasting room? That’s made from concrete, which was poured on-site, then stained and sealed with epoxy.

“This is the largest, cheapest bar I can think of,” she said proudly. “It cost $750 for literally everything.”

And the two-minute dishwasher that keeps them in plenty of clean glasses on Saturday nights? It was busted when she bought it on eBay for $200, but they fixed it up for $20 in parts. Brand new, it would have cost $4,000, she said.

Owens talked about the great expense in starting a distillery. Only a handful of companies manufacture the costly equipment, for example.

But the equipment in the distilling room was designed and installed by Bean herself — with help from some friends. She and Copeland bought items used from Craigslist and eBay, converting stainless steel tanks into stills. The still columns were built from scratch. Bean did all the steam system design, steam-fitting and plumbing.

“It’s immensely gratifying to see it work every day,” she said.

Bean hopes the distillery will one day be large enough to run itself. That is, she would like to add staff to the team of three so she can actually take some time off.

Asked about expanding, she said she’d like to one day open a second tasting room in downtown Greeley, or perhaps Loveland, where other craft distilleries are up and running.

She sees Syntax staying in the industrial area where it began. There is one advantage to its rural location: Syntax can have that appealing, converted industrial look without the big city markup.

And it’s small enough for spontaneity. Last year, a friend dropped off a batch of potatoes, from which they made potato vodka.

People are starting to notice Syntax. Sherman, whom she hired away from Crabtree Brewing not long after Syntax opened so she could spend more time on the business, is now a better distiller than she ever was, she said. He developed a bourbon recipe for Syntax. That bourbon recently scored 89 points at the Beverage Tasting Institute.

“The highest score I’ve seen for a craft whisky was 90 points,” Bean said. “I don’t know what the difference is in that one point, but it’s really solid.”

Last year, the distillery moved a total of 500 cases of spirits. Even though this is a small operation, Bean said that’s still too small. She chalked it up to distribution problems.

“Big distributors get a lot of perks from big alcohol, so they won’t push your stuff,” she said.

To grow sales, Bean and the team are now “doing our own sales and driving it ourselves,” she said.

Yes, it is more work, she acknowledged. But it’s “going so much better.” It’s a chance to tell their story.

“People respond to our excitement about our product,” she said. “There just hasn’t been a substitute for that.”

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Online: http://www.syntaxspirits.com/

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Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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