An hour north of Denver, Fort Collins Colorado is a charming city that features low rise buildings, the Rocky Mountains in the background, and happens to be the home of Old Elk Distillery. The distillery was founded by Curt Richardson, a name most synonymous with his first major endeavor; Otterbox, the wildly successful cell phone case company many of you probably trust encasing your phone as you read this. Established in 2013, Old Elk has grown quickly, surpassing 100,000 cases and climbing last year, and is now available in all 50 states. Old Elk operates their own distillery in Colorado, but most of the distillate comes from MGP...just not the way you might think it does.
A few weeks ago members of the Bourbon Community Roundtable including Jordan and I, Kenny Coleman and Ryan Cecil (Bourbon Pursuit), and Blake Riber (Seelbach’s and Bourbonr), had the opportunity to visit Old Elk Distillery, get to know the company, select and blend barrels, and much more. And as the layers of the company were peeled back, they revealed who Old Elk is beyond just the whiskey they are known for.
Over the past few years we have gotten to know Alex Cottle, Old Elk’s Director of Sales - Control States & Independent Markets, but more personally, someone I had gotten to know as the guy who scrambles to get single barrel samples in hand, answers any questions I have, and is on the same track as me personally with a child of the same age. Alex’s thought was simple - have everyone out to Fort Collins to pick some barrels, meet the Old Elk team, and see what the distillery is up to.
Upon arriving, a whirlwind of activity ensued. An hour north of Denver, the drive to Fort Collins is a straight shot, with flat land for miles, signs of explosive property development everywhere you look, and a clear view of the Rocky Mountains out the left hand window that stretches as far as you can see. On the way, Alex shared an un-scripted history of the company and some background on Fort Collins, particularly how Old Elk came to be and how it plays into the broader portfolio of businesses owned by Richardson.
After a quick hotel check-in, we headed on foot to The Reserve, Old Elk’s downtown restaurant, bar, and tasting room. The great Greg Metze was already there to greet us.
Old Elk’s master distiller, Greg Metze had previously spent nearly four decades distilling at the MGP distillery in Indiana, through numerous ownership and name changes. This includes Seagram’s who sold it to Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) in 2007, and then MGP Ingredients who acquired it in 2011 and still operates it today. Those familiar with bourbon know this distillery is the source for many brands on the shelves today - though this fact is not always advertised. Anecdotally I will say it feels like Greg took part in distilling the whiskey in a large percentage of the brands on the market today, as many of these brands source whiskey from MGP. Before his departure from MGP in 2016, Greg worked on a unique project with Old Elk Distillery. Instead of purchasing MGP whiskey stocks, Old Elk worked out an agreement for Greg to create unique mashbills and distill whiskeys specifically for them. Though Old Elk would later get their own still up and running in Fort Collins, the MGP distillations formed the base for Old Elk’s products and continue to be the primary distillation source at an estimated 95% of overall production.
Back to The Reserve. After we got settled, the whiskey started flowing. We started with a pour of Old Elk’s Infinity Blend, technically their first limited edition release that hit markets in late 2021. Everyone’s immediate reaction was “where can I get a bottle?” We moved onto cocktails at that point, with Billye Tamblyn, The Reserve’s mixologist, putting them together as if it was second nature. We tried the Honey Smoked Old Fashioned, Old Elk Sour, and their Sage Advice, which was a delicious combination of Old Elk Bourbon, Whiskeysmith Blood Orange, lime, sage-jasmine syrup, and fig jam.
Through the sun-filled wall of glass at the front of The Reserve, a figure emerged and headed towards us. It was Old Elk Distillery’s CEO, Luis Gonzalez. After introductions, Luis started sharing stories. One thing became immediately apparent, he knows how to grow - and manage - a business. Knowing what I already knew about Old Elk Distillery (and Otterbox), I expected this. But what I didn’t expect was how ingrained the idea of servant leadership is in everything Luis does to keep the business healthy, with people as the core focus. Fluent in both English and Spanish, Luis talked about teaching his children both languages, lessons to his oldest in taking care of her younger sister, and then shared a story about a lemonade stand he came across where he had the opportunity to inspire a few young children pursuing their very first business venture at a very young age. It turns out these seemingly small representations of Luis’ way of thinking and ultimately what translates into Olk Elk’s fundamental culture echoed through the interactions we had with everyone at Olk Elk for the duration of the visit.
As we continued our conversation, we rounded out our visit to The Reserve with a Charcuterie plate, Shashito Peppers, Elks in a Blanket, and I’m pretty certain almost everyone at the table ordered the Elk Pot Pie - braised elk shoulder stewed with carrots, onions, peppers, and gravy, and then topped with whiskey cheddar and a flaky pie crust - it was hard to resist. The food was as good as the cocktails, and if you happen to find yourself in Fort Collins, be sure to make this a stop on your way. A quick jog down the street to Ginger and Baker for a coffee, and then we were on our way to Old Elk’s warehouse.
Approaching the warehouse, the Rocky Mountains came back into view, along with a surge of new home construction to give you a sense of what the surrounding area is like. We arrived at the warehouse, which is a large unassuming building, and also home to some of Old Elk’s offices and bottling line, which is still done by hand. But what drew our attention was a machine about the size of a smart car being operated by two people. They were loading in bottle stoppers and pre-printed screens to be applied to the top of the stoppers, a process that involves a combination of precision and heat. This in-house process allows for custom bottle stopper printing, and Old Elk was prepared with pre-printed bottle stoppers that bore our individual names. Not surprisingly, the bottle stoppers themselves are custom made at the Otterbox facility.
From there we moved another room over into the barrel storage area, where we were greeted by Melanie Maddox, or Mel for short, Old Elk’s Beverage Director and Lead Mixologist. She had pulled over 20 barrels for us to sample - a combination of wheat whiskey, wheated bourbon, standard rye bourbon, and their 95/5 rye. Old Elk is upfront about the specific mashbills, which you can learn about in more detail here.
We worked our way through the barrels, starting with the wheat whiskey and working our way to the rye. Pulling bungs, thiefing, and sampling barrels takes a while, especially when you taste through more than 20 of them. The Old Elk folks were extremely patient, and really fun to share the experience with. A laid back group that enjoy whiskey as much as all of us visiting do. Thankfully after tasting through all the barrels we were able to quickly identify a favorite from each of the mashbills. BOOM, four barrels locked in. As we were tasting and talking, the idea of blending came up, so everyone had a few blending candidate barrels in mind. We agreed to attempt a blend, but it was late and would have to wait until the next day.
As the evening progressed, Greg’s down to earth nature really showed through as we moved through dinner then around town, as numerous people approached him and he treated every one of them like an old friend. And as the night drew to a close, I had a chance to talk with Greg one-on-one, learning about his whiskey distilling career: the successes…the challenges…and how his deep rooted sense of integrity carried him through his journey, eventually leading him to Old Elk. It was a rare opportunity to talk candidly with one of the most tenured and well known bourbon distillers in the industry, and one I won't soon forget.
Day 2. Starting a little after 8:00 a.m. we had our work cut out for us. First, we tasted through a handful of barrels that we had identified as potential blending barrels. We landed on three different barrels and the Old Elk team pulled 750ml samples to bring upstairs. While we were there, we decided to taste some of the finishing barrels as well (why not right?). Armagnac, cognac, and rum (specifically Foursquare) were in the mix. After a bit of debate, we landed almost unanimously on a cognac finished bourbon as our fifth barrel overall. That’s five barrels if you’ve been counting. And later that day a few of the guys dug out a 9 year old wheat whiskey hiding in the ricks for an even six barrels, that’s not counting the blend.
We headed upstairs to the conference room to blend. Beakers, graduated cylinders, plenty of glencairns, and a scale blend by weight were ready for us. Greg had a spreadsheet pulled up to run the weight calculations, and Ryan took the helm at pouring the blends. We paused to talk a bit about blending by weight - mixing different proof barrels means when you combine them the total volume actually changes, ultimately changing each component’s proportion in the blend. We started with four blends plus a fifth Ryan had worked out, and then Ryan added a sixth with a slight modification. We easily eliminated three of the six, and then focused on the remaining three. One was bombastic with a focus on wheat, one more traditional but easy drinking, and one was definitely the most complex.
As we talked through the blends, Luis shared plans for a pretty ambitious project Old Elk was considering. The purpose would be to generate community involvement, getting people more actively participating and interacting with Old Elk and their whiskey. But the concept is just at its beginnings, so the details of this potential endeavor will have to wait for another day.
We circled back to the blends at hand, debating what would be involved with such a complex blend and thought it might be a bit much to ask Old Elk to do on such a small run. Incidentally it was also Mel’s favorite, and she pointed out she’d be the one blending it, insisting that she didn’t mind at all and thought we should go for it. Her insistence on us taking the blend any direction we wanted despite whatever work that would be for her sealed the deal, and we agreed Ryan’s revised blend was the winner.
Since founding Breaking Bourbon nearly a decade ago, we’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people, immersing ourselves in bourbon culture, and learning the stories of what drives individuals and companies in this space. Above all else, visiting Old Elk Distillery was a reminder that the people behind the brand matter just as much as the whiskey in the bottle, and arguably quite a bit more. If you’re a bourbon connoisseur, or just starting out, a trip to Fort Collins should be on your list. Take the time to stop by The Reserve for a cocktail or two, and taste all that Old Elk has to offer. More importantly, take the time to get to know the people behind the brand and learn why the Old Elk name means more than just whiskey.