Old Elk Distillery is new on the scene but already making a big impression.
In a state booming with distilleries (71 to be exact), one newcomer is making quite a splash. Old Elk Distillery, a Fort Collins-based venture nearly four years in the making, introduced its line of handcrafted spirits, including Dry Town Gin, Dry Town Vodka, and Nooku Bourbon Cream in November. The business, created by Curt and Nancy Richardson, founders of Otterbox and Blue Ocean Enterprises, has already received accolades from the New York International Spirits Competition, where it was named “Colorado Distillery of the Year”, and the World Spirits Competition—just as its spirits hit the market last fall.
Old Elk was created in 2013, when entrepreneur Curt Richardson decided he wanted to give craft distilling a try. With no prior experience with the distillation process or in the spirits industry, Richardson and his team (some of whom had worked for Otterbox and Blue Ocean) had to start at the beginning. They purchased a few stills—for small production only—and the rest, as they say, is history.
“The learning curve was pretty steep, but there’s lots of great books1 out there,” says General Manager Bill Lovell, who came to Old Elk after running OtterBox’s global supply chain. “I spent a lot of time in Louisville, Kentucky, learning the distillation business. The beauty of this industry is people are open, and they’ll share a lot with you. There have been a lot of trade secrets.”
The brand’s inspiration lies within a largely unknown piece of Fort Collins’ history. Between 1896 and 1969, the Northern Colorado city prohibited the sale and distribution of alcohol. With spirits named “Dry Town,” Old Elk is paying homage to FoCo’s Prohibition period.
While Fort Collins may be home, Old Elk doesn’t have a physical location for visitors to come by and taste the spirits—at least not yet. “When I looked at scalability, one thing I saw was that a lot of people build a distillery first and then they need to sell product to keep the place going,” says Curt Richardson. “In order to build that kind of volume, there was no way we were going to do that in our smaller stills.” Instead, the team worked with Woody Creek in Basalt, Colorado, and Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Indiana, as well as a distiller in New York to distill their recipes in their barrels and prepare for the future.
This backward (yet forward-thinking) approach has allowed the team to build up its stock while they streamline the business. They’re hoping to open a distillery later this year, on land the company already owns in the Poudre River District. “We made a decision early on that we were going to take as much time as was needed to do a great job and do it right,” says Lovell.
Old Elk Distillery General Manager Bill Lovell says his test of a true spirit is how it holds up in a cocktail. Pictured: A "Ten Four," the distillery's version of a Gin Mule, made with its Dry Town Gin.
Currently, Old Elk is crafting three distinct spirits, with more on the way. Dry Town Gin is a point of pride for the team. In fact, Lovell mentioned that one of the most rewarding parts of his job is hearing consumers say that their gin could convert them to the spirit. This especially rang true when Richardson attempted to pick his favorite Old Elk product. “I was never a gin drinker, but I’ll tell you, I like our gin,” Richardson says. “It really is fresh and flavorful.”
Kate Douglas, Old Elk’s head distiller, says the team tested around 75 single botanicals for the blend, before landing on a mix of orange, juniper, and orris root. These botanicals are soaked in Dry Town vodka overnight before being placed in a pot with the gin basket (consisting of ginger, black pepper, lemongrass, French verveine, Colorado sage, angelica root and lime peel).
The distillery’s vodka is a four-grain spirit, created with corn, wheat, rye, and malted barley and left unfiltered so drinkers can taste each of the grains. “You get sweetness from the corn, spiciness from the rye, the wheat gives it a really nice silky mouth feel, and the malted barley, which we use in all our recipes, just goes back to the brewer in all of us,” says Douglas.
But most distinctive of all is Old Elk’s Nooku Bourbon Cream. This spirit is a blend between Old Elk’s two-year-old, barrel-aged bourbon and a fresh dairy cream from Creamy Creation, a company that specializes in developing fresh cream specifically for liqueur. The bourbon, one of many to come, has a high malt concentration, giving sweet notes of vanilla, toffee, and caramel.
About those bourbons—the team is anticipating the pending maturity of a portfolio of the brown beverage, which they hope can be released in late spring or early summer. “We’re in our third year in terms of putting stuff into barrels and storing it and letting it grow,” says Richardson. If they're anything like the rest, we have no doubt that they’ll be worth the wait.
While the company is still in its nascent days, the team is already looking to the future, with plans to increase production and distribution over the coming years. But for now, they’ll be happy if you try their spirits. “Whether you pick up a bottle or try it in a cocktail at a bar. We’ve put a lot of time and love into [our spirits] and we just want to share that with people,” says Douglas.
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1 Distillation Operation by Henry Kister; Distillation Design by Henry Kister; The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers; How to Make Whisky: A Step-by-Step Guide to Making Whisky by Bryan Davis; Distilling Fruit Brandy by Josef Pischl; Distillation: Fundamentals and Principles by Andrzej Gorak and Eva Sorenson; Distillation Troubleshooting by Henry Kister