Industry: Brewing & Distilling
With smart new labels and a hyper-focused portfolio, owner Heather Bean is ready to write the next page of her award-winning distillery's history.
"I've always enjoyed the fermentation arts," Bean says when explaining how she wound up as a distiller after a 25-year career spanning chemical, mechanical, and software engineering. "My mother let me start making wine when I was about eight years old. I won't say it was good, but it was actual wine. Then I started making beer."
When Hewlett-Packard -- where Bean worked in digital camera design -- began to outsource manufacturing, it was just the impetus she needed to make a transition into the engineering of spirits. "The job just wasn't nearly as fun as it had been 10 years before," she explains. "I always joke that it drove me to drink. And being a good engineer, I had to learn to make my booze cheaper, so I started a distillery."
In the eight years since the inception of Syntax Spirits -- named after Bean's love of syntax as well as a play on the phrase 'sin tax’ -- she says she's learned a lot. In fact, all of that hands-on education recently led to some major changes.
"We started out with pinball art on our labels," Bean says. "We thought it would be super fun, and at the time, we expected the field would go the way of craft beer and become more whimsical. We were wrong, and we found ourselves with labels that were not serious enough. People thought our spirits must suck because our labels were goofy and fun."
Syntax's new labels feature chemical formulas, which Bean says is "a nod to the backgrounds we have going on here. I have the engineering stuff. My production assistant has a degree in physics. And Jeff, my partner, is an atmospheric scientist."
While still on the quirky side, Bean says the new labels come across as much more high-end. "So far, we're getting great responses," she adds.
In addition to rebranding, Syntax Spirits has pared down its product selection. "We wanted to refocus on what is popular right now," Bean explains. "While all the basic spirits have a certain eternal popularity, they definitely wax and wane."
She decided to discontinue the distillery's flavored vodkas and white spirits -- which included white rum and white whiskey -- and add in a dark rum as well as a gin. "Our four primary products are now a plain vodka, a straight bourbon whiskey aged at least two years, a rose gin -- which is kind of floral rather than juniper-focused -- and a dark rum that is really rich," she says.
As she describes her distilling process -- which is entirely hands-on, uses hyper-local ingredients whenever possible, and is authentically grain-to-glass -- it's easy to understand why Bean's precision spirits have become such award winners.
Syntax's Straight Bourbon Whiskey garnered gold medals at both the 2015 and 2017 Wizards of Whisky awards in the UK, and the Crystal Vodka has gold medals from the Beverage Tasting Institute and the MicroLiquor Spirit Awards.
"The grain-to-glass aspect of our spirits is a really big deal," Bean says. "The vast majority of craft distillers in some way purchase outside spirits that come from a larger distillery. They may taste fine, but they're all going to taste the same. Because we're using local grain and handcrafting each batch, our product is more unique. There are little variations between barrels that a lot of people find charming."
Bean estimates she produced around 55 three-gallon barrels of whisky and rum last year as well as about 500 cases of other spirits.
"We've been in a bit of a hibernation phase the last couple of years as we've retooled and redirected," she explains. "We're probably not going to do too much more production this year. But things will start going bigger in 2019, once we get through the move."
Challenges: Bean purchased the historic Greeley Elevator Building on 6th Street, about three blocks south of Syntax's current location, in April 2017. She has spent the last nine months cleaning and preparing the building for renovation while continuing to produce spirits and operate her distillery's cocktail bar. A few weeks ago, she found out the building she's currently leasing had been sold. Syntax now has to move to the new space by May.
"I had not anticipated that we would have to move so soon," she says. "It has completely refocused my thinking. My goal now is just to get us over there, get up and running, and make the other changes I was planning later so we can minimize any gaps in production. We're lucky we started the process when we did."
Opportunities: While preparing for the move is Syntax's biggest day-to-day challenge, Bean sees the distillery's relocation as one of its greatest opportunities as well. "It's such a cool building," she says. "It's historic and funky, and people are curious about it. Even just in terms of the local Greeley area, I think we're going to be able to do amazing tourist traffic and make it an interesting destination."
She's also looking forward to expanding distribution. In addition to Colorado and parts of Wyoming, consumers can now find Bean's spirits in Oklahoma. "We have nine other distributors interested in other states," she adds. "If even half of those decide to take something, we'll be increasing our distribution substantially. We have interest from international clients as well."
Needs: "I need 38-hour days," Bean laughs. "The hard part when you're small like we are, is you have to get to a point where you have extra resources to hire another person. But until you get to that next level, you don't have those resources. It's like a bad chicken-and-egg problem. I think that's how a lot of small business people just end up working themselves to the bone."