Innovation is not just product, it’s a business philosophy.
Do you know how much work goes into that glass of bourbon you enjoy after a long day of work? It’s distilled and aged over years and years, yes, but there is so much more to it.
Setting the right plan and strategy for the distilling process. Compiling centuries of wisdom and expertise to create the perfect product. Hiring the right distiller and staff. Choosing quality ingredients. And we haven’t even distilled a single drop of liquor yet.
It can be a long process to set a brand in this industry up for success. But when you have a team with the passion, innovation, and drive like Old Elk Distillery does, things tend to move a little quicker.
Curt and Nancy Richardson, bourbon lovers and entrepreneurs, founded the nearly five-year-old Colorado-based distillery. You’re probably familiar with a few of these entrepreneurs’ other brands, specifically Otterbox and Lifeproof protective phone cases.
The couple’s family office and umbrella company, Blue Ocean Enterprises, is the central hub of their many businesses. But how did the couple go from tech accessories to liquor? Enter Old Elk Distillery —the purveyor of Old Elk Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Nooku Bourbon Cream, and Dry Town Gin.
“Nancy and Curt are, first and foremost, really passionate about people and innovation,” said Luis Gonzalez, CEO of Old Elk Distillery. “Any opportunity they get to investigate a category and bring innovation in the form of a new product or strategy, they do it.
“It’s a challenge in this industry: in the U.S. it’s over two centuries old, so how do you bring something new? Our aim is to build products and brands that elevate the category.”
It also lends itself to the cause that the Richardsons, along with the rest of the Old Elk Distillery staff, have a passion for bourbon and creating premium brands.
Getting the Right People
Four years is not long in bourbon time. In order for Old Elk Distillery to classify their product as “straight bourbon”, it must be aged for at least two years in a barrel. And yet, the company is already receiving accolades for its product portfolio, including being named the 2016 and 2017 Colorado Distillery of the Year at the New York International Spirits Competition.
A lifetime of passion for bourbon isn’t enough to guarantee success in the liquor marketplace. Hiring the right people, however, is a good start.
The Richardsons brought Gonzalez over from Otter Products to run the business. The leadership and ownership teams also pursued some of the best in the industry for their wisdom and expertise, as well as their employment.
“The thing about this industry is the majority of people are incredibly friendly and experienced and willing to help,” Gonzalez shared. “We partnered with people early and established strong industry relationships.”
Leadership knew that if they didn’t have the right team in place taking accountability of their roles, their dream wouldn’t materialize.
“It all starts with servant leadership and encouraging individual ownership of roles throughout the organization. Accountability and integrity are important to us, especially because we are just starting our national launch, and accountability and integrity keeps the customer forefront in all we do.”
Bringing on talented master distiller Greg Metze set the stage early for how seriously the Richardsons and Blue Ocean Enterprises were taking Old Elk Distillery.
“Our relationship with Metze started in 2014 when he was consulting with us about the business. He had the opportunity to be embedded in the culture of the business and the vision of the founders. He realized this was a brand that was going to grow, and one that he could have a big impact on the products and the distilling team.”
Metze has four decades of experience in the industry and has been eager to share his knowledge with the rest of the team at Old Elk.
“He’s been helping young distillers learn his blending strategies and the criteria for selecting the right blends. Like our ownership, he has a passion for making the best bourbons in the world. When character and passion come through like his, it’s contagious to the entire team.”
Building Inventory Before the Building
While there are many successful brands in this industry that build a distillery first, Old Elk knew they wanted to take a different direction.
“We did start with a R&D distillery,” Gonzalez clarified. “Our hope is to see several generations drink and enjoy our spirits. This meant heavy investment upfront, right away—not in the distillery, but in the products and brands.”
Particular to bourbon, it was important to the team to get the product into barrels to start the aging process, so that they had enough inventory for customers to imbibe in the future.
The mash bill—the mix of grains that are cooked and fermented to begin the bourbon-making process—was the key to the strategy at this point.
“It puts customers in an unfavorable position if you can’t provide predictability and planning around inventory. An available supply is critical to extended growth and scalability. Planning alongside our business partners facilitates this and allows for confidence in Old Elk to grow and support the individual spirit categories.”
Old Elk Distillery focused early on building up its mash bill inventory for its global launch. Also, this approach allowed the team to focus on building a distillery at the right time.
“It was all very intentional and methodical. And now we have an ample supply of bourbon aging that allows us to deliver a road map of quality bourbons and whiskeys. Instead of having to focus on the number of bottles we had to sell to keep the distillery open, we were able to focus on our customers and plan. If you build and work the plan, the numbers will come.”
Machinery and Ingredients
It’s unusual for a craft distiller to have top-of-the-line equipment, but as you’ve seen, Old Elk Distillery isn’t your average company. Gonzalez believes that, aside from top-line equipment, what’s really important is the method of distillation.
“It’s about how the clean heads and tails are cut, capturing the best of that clear spirits run—we go the extra step at every opportunity.
“We use the best ingredients, some locally sourced, and water from the Rockies to cut our bourbon. We’re very strict with our quality standard for consistency’s sake. We don’t take shortcuts to reduce costs.”
Gonzalez shared an example of their practices, bringing in Old Elk Distillery’s gin brand, Dry Town.
“You see a lot of gins that use concentrated oils. We source fresh botanicals and perform the vapor extraction process to allow the true flavors and taste to come out.”
The Secret to Success
Old Elk Distillery knows that in order to be successful and establish a brand with the longevity its leadership wants, the team needs to do more than just sell a bottle of bourbon, gin, or bourbon cream.
“From the beginning this venture has been about staying true to customers, and creating premium brands and products for our partners,” Gonzalez shared.
To do this, Old Elk Distillery focuses on putting people on the streets in a grass roots marketing campaign with focus on both the trade and consumers. At industry and lifestyle events, Old Elk Distillery staff can educate consumers and provide an initial experience with the taste of their product.
The company’s digital strategy isn’t just about the product, but understanding it.
“We want you to be educated on the different ways you can enjoy our spirits,” said Gonzalez.
Collaborations have also proven to be valuable for the young brand as well. Currently, Old Elk Distillery is working with Odell Brewing Company and has introduced its barrels into their brewing process.
The result is Bull Proof Bourbon Barrel Stout.
“Partnering with the right brand in the right category elevates the brand and consumer experience. We look at strategic partnerships as one of the main pillars of our business. When there is an opportunity to do something just a little bit different but with purpose—and it makes sense in our integrity-driven environment—we go there.”
Success in the Rockies
So where to next? Gonzalez and the ownership at Old Elk Distillery want to see the brands grow in the U.S. and globally.
“We want to continue with growing our relationship and value with our distribution partners and consumers. We’ll continue to craft premium products and focus on strategic partnerships that add value. You’ll see the evolution of our bourbon cream. And you’ll absolutely continue to be 100 percent customer centric, to make sure what we are doing is adding value.
“We will continue to innovate. Not only with our products but with our business philosophy.”
Old Elk Distillery—named Colorado Distillery of the Year at the 2016 & 2017 New York International Spirits Competition—is founded by Curt and Nancy Richardson, the innovators who created OtterBox and Blue Ocean Enterprises. Old Elk Distillery follows the Richardson’s tradition of innovation by crafting spirits unlike any others. Led by an experienced and passionate team, Old Elk prides itself on developing premium products that consistently deliver on taste and experience.