Family businesses form value-added supply chain
By STEVE BROWN
WOODINVILLE, Wash. -- What comes in the front door at Project V is wheat. What goes out is vodka and sausage.
Al and Mo Heck have found a way to continue their family's farming tradition with a suburban-based value-added operation, Project V Distillery and Sausage Co. Her aunt and uncle, Anita and Joe Sprauer, grow soft white winter wheat on a Central Washington farm that has been in the family four generations, since 1899.
Soft white winter wheat, with its high starch and low protein, is excellent for ramen -- and vodka, Mo Heck said. Most of the harvest is exported to Asia, but the Hecks cross the Cascade Mountains every month to truck 8,600 pounds of wheat to their distillery.
Their vodka is branded as "Single Silo," referring to the original storage place on the farm for their share. Getting all their wheat from the same farm gives Single Silo vodka a distinctive sweet "terroir," Mo Heck said.
When Washington state approved its craft distillery law in 2008, it opened the door to an industry that has grown into 19 businesses at last count. Under state law, licensed craft distillers may produce 20,000 gallons or less of spirits, and at least half the raw materials must be grown in Washington.
Sales can be made off the premises at a maximum 2 liters per person per day.
After building a small still and learning from brewer friends and reading online, she designed and built the stills, which she compared to big "Crock-Pots."
"We kind of MacGyvered it together from whatever we could find, and didn't buy anything new. It's not pretty," she said, "but it is."
The 2,000-square-foot facility turns out 300 bottles a week "when all the planets are aligned, nothing going wrong," she said.
They mill the wheat, plus malted wheat and cook it into "bad hefeweizen," letting the yeast eat all the sugars, as the base for vodka, she said.
Here's where Project V veers from the traditional craft distillery. The 90 pounds of grain remaining is still at 8 percent protein and makes great animal feed, Mo Heck said.
That mash goes to Bucking Boar Farm in Snohomish, where Jeremy and Sue Gross produce pasture-raised pigs from farrow to finish.
"Jeremy and Al used to work for the same company," Sue Gross said. "Now they've teamed up on this."
After nutrition tests on the mash, the Grosses blended it with a custom-mix grain to balance it, "and it's superior to what we were getting before," she said.
"Everybody seems to like the pork. Some families come back every year for a pig," she said. "Our son adds milk and sugar to the mash for breakfast."
At harvest time, Mo Heck said, "Jeremy and I take pigs and spices to a processor in Lynden to make sausage." That bulk breakfast sausage took her 12 years to develop.
"It took that long to get the recipe finally written down to get it OK'd by the feds," she said.
"We're really proud of our eclectic little boutique distillery," Al Heck said. "There's a thousand ways to do this flashier and bigger, but it's a very conscious choice of what we want to do with our lives."
The final product, which sells at a price point equal to premium vodkas, is created in 10-gallon batches, distilled four times to get it to 190 proof or higher and removing all impurities.
"Well-made vodka shouldn't give you a hangover," Mo Heck said. It is then watered back, using filtered local water, to create the five different Single Silo vodkas.
The sole flavored vodka is chai, an infusion of cinnamon, anise seed, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, honey and vanilla beans.
"I would tell anyone my secrets," she said. "It's so hard. You have to be scrappy, not afraid to make mistakes."
Al and Mo Heck
Ages: Both are 44
Hometowns: Woodinville, Wash., and Seattle
Family: Four children, ages 13 to 22
Education: Undergraduate studies at University of Washington; studied at Seattle Pacific University
Quote: "I'm excited about my family's heritage. I get to bring it into a quality product." -- Mo Heck
Project V Distillery and Sausage Co.: www.projectvdistillery.com