Inside her small Woodinville warehouse there are no big shiny industrial-sized stills or assembly lines. Instead, she fashioned her stills out of large cooking appliances that “all had previous lives” in places like Seattle public schools and a Florida prison. The piping around the stills has numerous twists and turns, the result of her tinkering to fit everything perfectly in the space. And because she modified all the machinery herself, if something goes wrong with the electrical system, she is the only one who dares to touch the electrical panels.
The comparison to MacGyver is apt. But she’s also got a hint of mad scientist in that, when creating her signature spirits, she often resembles a slightly obsessive chemist. “I work really hard at making it taste beautiful, so there’s a certain amount of scientific work throughout the process,” says Heck.
For example, she painstakingly experimented with 48 recipes of gin, handpicking the spices for each batch, before getting to the final Douglas County Gin that has notes of almond, orange peel, rose, honey and, of course, juniper. “I’m really proud of it,” says Heck. “At number 34 my husband said, ‘This is good enough. We’ve got to start selling product.’ But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t something I could stand behind.”
Heck released her first batch of gin in early November, and as of press time, she has plans to release her very first batch of whiskey in January. But her distillery and her unique approach to creating spirits all started with very small batches of vodka she started making in her garage about seven years ago, while working as a bartender and server.
Actually, according to Heck, the real story of how her distillery came to be started hundreds of years earlier. “I get all the wheat from my grandparents’ farm. They homesteaded in central Washington in the 1870s. They started clearing the land and were farming by 1889. They have been farming continuously since then, which is a big deal for it to be in the same family all those years,” says Heck. She often makes trips to the farm for wheat with her children and husband and helps with the harvest every August. And in this way, she is part farmer, too.
She says the distinct, white winter wheat grown on the farm and her diligence in preserving its flavor are what set her product apart. “It’s soft and sweet. It’s not harsh because I don’t filter it to the point of neutrality, where all that’s left is ethanol and water. I leave it with a lot of character … I can’t take all the credit for my vodka flavor, though; there’s something left in the soil where the glacier passed through that’s giving the wheat that flavor, and then I’m just being really careful to preserve it.”
The other great thing about the wheat and Heck’s process is that after she cooks all the starch out of the grains, the plant protein remnants make perfect feed for animals. Taking advantage of this, she partners with friends Jeremy and Susannah Gross, who run Bucking Boar Farm, to provide the animals with high-quality feed. Going completely full circle, she then gets the pigs back from the farm and uses them to make her signature sausage, which she also sells at the tasting room in her distillery.
“I buy the pigs and wheat at market value because I want all of us to be able to sustain our businesses,” Heck says of her belief in collaboration.
But back to the vodka in the garage. “We weren’t selling it at first; we were making small quantities, and I was really just figuring out what distillation meant. And trying to figure out how to ferment,” Heck says. A little over three years ago, Heck decided she knew enough to get legal and start producing vodka for real.
But although she had access to great wheat, building a new business is hard, and this is where Heck says she had to get a little “scrappy.” When she first began, before liquor stores became privatized in 2011, the state was making up about 40 percent of Heck’s income; the rest came from the distillery’s tasting room sales. When that income abruptly stopped and private stores could not yet sell, Project V almost came to a close before it even had a chance to take off.
“By February of the next year, we were sunk; we couldn’t pay our rent,” Heck says. But it was the salesperson side of her that wouldn’t give up. She knew she had to find new places for her product—and fast. With a bit of luck she was able to get a meeting with the spirits buyer for Haggen/Top Food and Drug stores. But the night before her 8 a.m. meeting, it snowed two feet and the highways were a mess. She had to deliver pigs up to Lyden anyway, and so she was determined to get her product out there, no matter the risk.
“We made it to the meeting 15 minutes early, wet, smelling of pig. And when he showed up, he looked at us and said, ‘What are you doing here? Everyone else cancelled.’” Heck says the only thing she could say back was, “Will you still try it?”
And it only took the one taste for him to buy in. Heck says that’s usually how it happens; all people need is one taste and then they get it. Since then, not only is Heck’s Single Silo Vodka in the Haggen/Top Food and Drug stores, but Heck also just received their largest order to date, from Fred Meyer. The spirits are also available in a handful of local restaurants. And it seems things are getting sweeter for the company with every batch.
“We call it Single Silo because my uncle Joe does really keep the wheat in the silo that’s on the label.” Now that you know the story behind the name, here’s how Heck recommends you drink it: “I would recommend you taste it by itself first because it has such a different flavor, and then try whatever you think would be fun,” she says. “I love Single Silo with honey and lemonade, or I make something called the Dutch Henry (after the Dutch Henry Draw, on the family farm), which is pink grapefruit juice and cucumber simple syrup.”
Single Silo Vodka
Single Silo Chai
|Single Silo Ultra
Single Silo’s Distiller’s Cut
|Douglas County Gin
the tasting room
“A craft distillery license allows for a tasting room if you make your product out of 51 percent or more Washington-grown ingredients, so people can come in and see you and taste your product and see the crazy stills that you built. They can see it’s not just another bottle on the shelf and know where it came from and what it is.”
Project V Distillery’s tasting room is open Tuesday through Saturday, 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.
For more information, visit projectvdistillery.com.