Review: Old Elk Bourbon
Classification: Blended Straight Bourbon
Company: Old Elk Distillery
Distillery: Three distilleries - MGP in Indiana and undisclosed distilleries in New York and Colorado
Release Date: Ongoing
Age: 4 Years
Mashbill: 51% Corn, 34% Malted Barley, 15% Rye
Color: Medium Amber
MSRP: $50 (2019)
Old Elk Distillery was founded by Curt Richardson, also the visionary behind Otterbox. Joined by Greg Metze, former master distiller at MGP in Indiana, the company is currently in the final stages of opening a 35,000 square foot distillery and aging warehouse in Fort Collins, Colorado targeted for completion at the end of 2019. Their flagship product, Old Elk Bourbon, currently originates from three different distilleries located in Indiana, New York , and Colorado, but is intended to be produced exclusively by Old Elk Distillery in the future. A proprietary “Slow Cut” proofing process is used, whereby proofing water is added over a period of several weeks or more as compared with a more typical proofing process of only 24-48 hours. The intent of this process is to preserve the congeners present in the bourbon. The bottle in review carries a four year age statement, while some earlier releases do not.
Light with traces of cinnamon and cocoa which layer against traditional notes of caramel and burnt oak. While the scents are nice, they’re very delicate necessitating a good hard inhale to eke them out.
The sip enters gently and the first thing I notice is its velvety mouthfeel. It’s quite easy to roll around in the mouth with almost no burn, and it takes a few moments for the flavors to develop. An ever-so-light cinnamon spice comes into play, along with brown sugar, cocoa, and maple syrup. It’s very approachable, with a contrasting viscous, velvety mouthfeel against a modest set of flavors.
The flavors crescendo, with a brief eruption of baking spice and chocolatey caramel notes. The mild intensity quickly dissipates, leaving traces of brown sugar and maple syrup sweetness against rye spice.
On the surface Old Elk might seem like just another premium priced bourbon in an elegant bottle. But digging deeper there are some interesting things about this bourbon that require a little more exploration or knowledge about the industry.
The most prominent is the name scribed on the front label - Greg Metze. A veteran master distiller, Metze may just be one of today’s most prominent distillers you’ve rarely heard of. Former master distiller at MGP - the Indiana distillery behind many sourced brands along with their well-known 95% rye - Metze resigned from his role there in 2016 to venture into the bourbon consulting business. He now works exclusively with Old Elk Distillery.
When Old Elk approached Metze about five years ago, the goal was to create a “smooth and easy bourbon,” according to Metze. To accomplish this he lowered the corn content to the minimum 51% allowable for bourbon in order to make room for 34% malted barley providing sweet smooth characteristics, and 15% rye for some spice notes. At 34%, this is an unusually high amount of malted barley for a bourbon.
Old Elk has been distilled with the custom mashbill and aged in three different states before being blended and bottled in Colorado. Metze developed and produced the custom Old Elk mashbill, along with four other custom mashbills currently aging, for Old Elk during his time as master distiller at MGP in Indiana. The custom Old Elk Bourbon mashbill was subsequently produced at New York and Colorado distilleries. Each bourbon in the blend is a straight bourbon, and the reason the label states “blended” straight bourbon is strictly because of this, as Metze confirmed it would qualify as straight bourbon if not for the multi-state sources. But this was always only a temporary strategy to build enough stock early on, and the initial production run is now complete. As a result the existing bourbon stock continues to age, and as of November 2018 all of the inventory reached a minimum of four years old. Old Elk currently has the ability to mash, ferment, distill, and age at their distillery, and as of the end of this year their distillery and warehouse located in Fort Collins, Colorado are scheduled to be completed.
Finally, there is one thing about this bourbon that really stood out to me. The marketing and conversations with Metze consistently use one word - smooth. While some critics cringe at the use of the word when describing bourbon, it is one that comes up often. We get requests on a regular basis from folks looking for “smooth” bourbons. Admittedly, the first word that came to mind when I sipped this was “smooth,” and yes we joked about it. But there is something different about this bourbon, and it’s very subtle. I think this is attributed to the “Slow Cut” proofing process they use, which is a unique and proprietary one. While proofing is typically a 24-48 hour process, Old Elk’s process takes several weeks longer. The benefit is it preserves the more delicate congeners produced during fermentation, distillation, and maturation. According to Metze, “when reduction water is added to barrel proof distillates, heat is liberated and can drive off high volatility congeners. By doing the reduction in many stages, rather than one or two, the amount of heat liberated is incrementally less, thus protecting the congener profile.”
Old Elk Bourbon is carefully crafted and intended to be a smooth bourbon with mass appeal. The company succeeds in that goal. At $50 it is premium priced, and its 88 proof won’t necessarily excite more die-hard enthusiasts. But this is a premium bourbon intended for the masses. If there were a direct competitor the one that comes to mind is Basil Hayden’s - a premium easy-sipping bourbon with mass appeal. When comparing taste, Old Elk blows it out of the water. It’s far more satisfying, and my hunch is more carefully crafted. As someone who scrutinizes bourbons on a regular basis, I actually found myself enjoying this, and will recommend it without hesitation every time someone asks me for a “smooth” sipping bourbon.
A carefully crafted premium bourbon directed towards the masses, Old Elk is a smooth, easy-sipping bourbon with an interesting backstory.
This bourbon really surprised me. I noticed its velvety mouthfeel and straightforward flavor profile right away, and immediately it struck me as a bourbon with qualities that would lend to mass appeal. While I find the flavor a bit subdued at 88 proof, I have to remind myself that I can sip a 140 proof bourbon without hesitation. Even then, I found myself enjoying it. The fact is, this is intended to be sipped neat by the masses, and it succeeds in being a bourbon with the appeal to meet that goal.
The sample used for this review was provided at no cost courtesy of Old Elk Distillery. We thank them for the sample and for allowing us to review it with no strings attached.