Old Elk: Fort Collins’ Mystery Distiller Emerges
The Coloradoan | Pat Ferrier | December 1, 2016
In a nondescript warehouse in northeast Fort Collins, a handful of people work in obscurity, without a name or logo to betray the activity inside 1713 Lincoln Ave.
Few Fort Collins residents probably even know they’re there, at least not yet.
This is Old Elk Distillery, a craft distiller that recently launched Dry Town Vodka, Dry Town Gin and Nooku Bourbon Cream. It is the latest venture by OtterBox and Blue Ocean Enterprises founders Curt and Nancy Richardson.
Old Elk, best known for the large distillery it plans to build in Old Town Fort Collins, has been quietly developing its recipes for nearly three years, General Manager Bill Lovell said.
The company purposely tried to fly under the radar, he said. “We wanted to make sure we did it well. Our goal was to do it right, not do it fast.”
Even today, after the launch of its first products, Old Elk is guarding its privacy. Distillery leaders declined a Coloradoan request to allow a photographer inside their operation.
Still, after years of work, the company has started to come out of the shadows and into Northern Colorado’s crowded field of craft distillers.
Old Elk went through 75 recipes before settling on the gin, vodka and bourbon cream it now sends to most area local liquor stores, Lovell said.
Thus far, the brand has seen success despite a limited online presence and light promotion.
“It’s very good quality, up there with larger brands as far a quality,” said Mat Dinsmore, owner of Wilbur’s Total Beverage, 2201 S. College Ave. “And for a startup they have their stuff together.”
Dinsmore said his Midtown Fort Collins store has sold out of its first three cases of Nooku Bourbon Cream. The first case of six bottles was gone within two hours.
Dinsmore surmises much of what was sold went to OtterBox and Blue Ocean employees who shop at Whole Foods, next door to his store. He also helped sales along by featuring Old Elk products in a Coloradoan column and emailing news about the launch to customers. “We do things that help introduce people to new products.”
Dry Town gin and vodka have also sold well amid stiff competition, he said. Wilbur’s stocks more than 270 vodkas and nearly 150 gins. “In the state there are probably near 100 craft distilleries, all producing something similar.”
Fort Collins alone has six distilleries.
The reception to Old Elk at Pringle’s Fine Wine & Spirits in the Drake Crossing Shopping Center has been more subdued. Phil Pringle said the tepid start is not unusual for a new brand trying to break into a crowded field, “because people don’t know it’s out there, yet.”
Pringle hasn’t tried the product yet, but likes the fact the gin “is at a healthy 92 proof. It’s not low on the alcohol spectrum if you want a strong martini.”
That’s exactly what Lovell said Old Elk was striving for — “a vodka and gin that were martini-worthy.”
Pringle expects interest to ramp up. City residents “in general are pretty supportive of things made locally,” he said. “The packaging is really good, and if the product is good people will pay the price.”
The suggested retail price for the three products ranges from $27.99 to $31.99, according to Old Elk.
The company has hired Breakthru Beverage Group, the largest distributor in the state, to get its product on to liquor store shelves.
Its liquor representatives “are really excited about the brand and it doesn’t always happen that way,” Dinsmore said. “Gin and vodka are the two most competitive categories because anyone can produce it.”
An homage to history
Old Elk’s brand name — one among more than 100 that were considered and discarded because they were already in use — pays homage to Fort Collins’ 73-year history as a dry town before and after Prohibition.
“I’ve long been fascinated by the distilling process and the bootlegger history during Prohibition in Fort Collins,” said Curt Richardson in a written statement. “I am excited to share my passion for distilling and the growing craft spirits industry by introducing Dry Town — in our hometown of Fort Collins and across the Front Range.”
From 1896 to 1969, Fort Collins was dry, forcing locals to rely on bootleggers for their libations, according to Old Elk. But once Prohibition was lifted, locals only had to step over the county line to indulge in their favorite spirits.
The Old Elk products are inspired “by the outlaw spirit that surfaced during the 73-year alcohol ban,” the company said in a news release.
Plans for River District
The city of Fort Collins approved Old Elk’s plans to build a two-story distillery on Willow Street in May, but the company is not in a hurry to build.
Instead, it is concentrating on ensuring its distribution is operating efficiently and servicing the state market before it expands, Lovell said.
He won’t discuss sales volume or expansion plans, but said the Lincoln site has room to grow. Currently, it’s running one shift.
Exactly when Old Elk decides to develop the Willow Street site it owns will depend on market growth, Lovell said. Blue Ocean will sit on the property until it needs more space for the distillery.
The development includes two buildings — a 10,251-square-foot, two-story building facing Linden Street that would include a restaurant, tasting room and retail sales, along with a nearly 33,000-square-foot building for the distilling operation.
The second building along Willow Street would range in height between three and four stories. The project includes a 95-foot-high water tower, grain silos, two courtyards, patio dining and a second-floor bridge connecting the two buildings.
What Old Elk is selling
Dry Town Vodka uses a four-grain mash (rye, wheat, corn and barley) that is left unfiltered to “heighten the expression of the grains and maintain its distinctive finish.”
Dry Town Gin starts with finished Dry Town Vodka, which is then distilled with fresh botanicals through a soak and vapor extraction. Juniper, orris root, orange, lime, angelica root, black pepper, ginger, lemongrass, French verveine and sage give the gin an “herbal, piney, citrus-forward” flavor.
Nooku Bourbon Cream is crafted from bourbon whiskey and fresh dairy cream from Batavia, N.Y.
Original article at coloradoan.com