BIN Magazine | Amanda Schuster | January/February 2018 Issue

What does the word “innovation” mean to you? For most, that word is associated with modern technological advances – new phones, new cars, new cooking gadgets, medical breakthroughs, faster ways to access information, or even how to order food on the internet. For entrepreneur Curt Richardson, his career in innovation technologies began with OtterBox, the company he founded in the 1990s that is best known for its line of waterproof and shatterproof phone cases. It turns out many of the same visionary sensibilities can be applied to starting up and marketing products from a craft distillery, which since 2013 he has set out to do with Old Elk Distillery – producers of Dry Town Gin, Nooku Bourbon Cream and Old Elk Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

From the outside, it may seem that the only similarity between Old Elk Distillery and Otter Products is that they are both based in Fort Collins, Colorado. However, speaking to Richardson is an eye-opening lesson in what can make products as timeless and common as gin or whiskey seem innovative. “In ways, there are many similarities in creating consumer products in different industries. So for me, we approach products that we’re making at Old Elk very similarly as Otter’s products – we focus on the consumer and developing premium brands,” he says.

Technology trends move at breakneck pace. The moment a new phone comes to market, its upgrade is sometimes only a few months in the future. Explains Richardson, “The difference between Otter and Old Elk is Otter is like a gerbil wheel on steroids. The refreshing thing about spirits in a lot of ways is it takes time, and that time is appreciated.”

The notion of “craft” when it comes to spirits has many associations. Old Elk aims to set itself apart by positioning their craft as one for experienced people who have honed their trade. Says Richardson, “We put as much time into the business and the brand, as we have with the actual liquid, which I think is refreshing. I’m excited to see what the outcome of all that work, time and labor produces in the long run.”

But why open another Colorado distillery in the first place? Richardson identified certain unmet needs. “Our town is huge in the beer industry and has some great smaller distilleries, but for me, it wasn’t about jumping into either of these spaces. I wanted to do something new and innovative, and I wanted to do it on a whole other level.” That other level involves a measured amount of patience. “We did a lot of work for three years before we ever came out with the products… We didn’t want to be marginal or short ourselves on time.”

Of course, behind every great spirit is a great master distiller. Enter Greg Metze – a long time veteran of the storied Seagrams Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. He was initially brought in to consult on Old Elk Bourbon in 2014. However, he says “After working together, when I had heard that Old Elk was looking to expand into global markets and build a distillery, I expressed interest in joining their team. I joined Old Elk in June of 2016.” Since then, he has become a vital member of the company as well as a mentor to many of the people working at the distillery, a number of whom graduated from the local Colorado State University brewing program. “They put together a really fine team of smart, young, passionate, hardworking folks.” A big draw for Metze was the focus Old Elk has on building new and innovative products, building everything on integrity, values, and craftsmanship, and their experience in growing global brands.

Can bourbon actually be innovative? Richardson is very confident that it can be. “We’re really looking for those timeless products. When we thought of bourbon we thought, ‘Well how do we create a really good bourbon?” One of the ways this is achieved is that Old Elk Bourbon uses a high percentage of malted barley in its mash bill – 34%, which is four times more than traditional recipes. “We invested in a higher malted barley recipe to deliver a unique flavor profile which has a spice similar to a rye, but smooth characters from the malted barley,” Metze explains. “We were very intentional to use the minimal amount of corn, to allow for this larger quantity of malted barley. The high barley malt content adds almond notes and a sweet, smooth character, the rye adds a bit of spice, and the corn provides the robust bourbon foundation.”

Time also plays a meaningful role, but in this bourbon it is not just in terms of barrel maturation, it also means a significantly longer proofing process than a typical bourbon. This slow cutting process requires repeat cuts and resting periods. Of course, the water used in the cuts also significantly affects the flavor profile, according to Metze: “Our slow cutting technique for our bourbon uses water sourced ultimately from the Rocky Mountains.”

Along with Old Elk Distillery’s innovative approach to the production of bourbon, is their plan for used bourbon barrels. They have partnered with a local brewery which is utilizing used bourbon barrels to produce aged beer with a collaborative marketing approach. This downstream approach allows for the barrels to be used in a variety of ways and extends the opportunity for Old Elk to work with leading local and regional breweries.

Bourbon is also the key ingredient in Nooku – a Native American name for the white snowshoe hare – a nod to the surrounding Rockies. One might think a cream spirit is not reinventing the wheel, but according to Richardson, it is entirely new: “With Nooku, I don’t even look at it as a faddish thing. It is not technically categorized as a cream liqueur because we do not add any additional coloring, sugars or supplemental spirits.” He elaborates, “People look at it and are intrigued by the title ‘bourbon cream’, but initially think it’s just like a traditional liqueur. But it’s not. It’s totally different. It’s made completely differently. That’s the innovation side of the product… It’s new, but it’s very simple, the perfect balance of real bourbon and real cream.” The concept has clearly worked. It has won prestigious awards, including a gold medal in the 2017 New York International Spirits Competition in which all spirits are judged blind by category and price by industry buyers and bartenders. It has also won silver in the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Presenting new American whiskey products is enough of a challenge, but a spirit such as gin, which is made all over the world, has to really set itself apart, including its name. Dry Town is a nod to Fort Collins’ own history – it had remained a dry town after Prohibition until 1969. Since so much new gin is associated with high end cocktail culture, the concept of Dry Town is one of accessibility and founded in freedom. “We want consumers to feel free to drink this in any setting, any way they want,” says Old Elk CEO Luis Gonzalez.

That accessibility also comes through in its approachable, not overly junipery flavor profile. “Dry Town Gin is distilled with 10 botanicals through an 18-hour soak and vapor extraction process,” says Metze. “This technique and these botanicals [juniper, orris root, sage, orange, lime, angelica root, black pepper, ginger, lemongrass, and french verveine] were carefully selected to craft a gin that stands up in a Martini or in your favorite mixed cocktail.” Its fresh, easily quaffable flavors won Dry Town a double gold in the 2016 NY International Spirits Competition as well as Colorado Distillery of the Year and numerous other awards, including gold in the 2017 San Diego Spirits Festival.

Why the three different brand names?

“I would rather build a house of brands than a branded house. I think there’s more strength in that,” remarks Richardson.

“At Old Elk Distillery, we are passionate about building premium brands and intentionally position each product to meet the needs of that spirit category,” adds Gonzalez. “Each product in the Old Elk Distillery portfolio has a different development process, story, and character. We decided to structure the distillery as a House of Brands because it allows the spirit to showcase its’ unique identity and connect the liquid to the brand.”

He explains how each product is distinct, but also how they work together as a brand representation, “Old Elk Bourbon, being the flagship product, represents the foundation of the distillery’s line of brown spirits. The innovation behind the liquid of Nooku Bourbon Cream inspired the brand and packaging design. Dry Town, being the only clear spirit, deserved its own identity which celebrates freedom and the goal of crafting a spirit that prevails over the traditional gin.”

“You can have the greatest product in the world,” says Richardson, “but if people don’t know and connect with the brand, then it doesn’t bring a lot of value… Our philosophy is to do well with a few rather than come out with a whole bunch and not do it well. I think it’s a different philosophy than a lot of people take.”

It’s also about quality association. Says Gonzalez, “At Old Elk Distillery we craft spirits with the goal to elevate the category landscape through innovation. Whether it’s the botanicals and vapor extraction process for Dry Town Gin, the way we cut our bourbon and the investment in higher barley content for Old Elk Bourbon, the ingredients that allow for Nooku to be simply real bourbon and real cream, or packaging innovations for each brand, we are consistently driving to bring innovation into all aspects of our product portfolio and business philosophy.”

Richardson shares another important association between producing and marketing electronics accessories to producing and marketing spirits: “A lot of our learning is from Otter. From a marketing standpoint we’re using a lot of that experience we’ve gained in the consumer electronics world. If we’re going to do innovative things it’s going to be how we go to market and how we sell our products out there and introduce them.”

The key strategy is employing the right people to make the right connections between distributor and consumer. “At Otter we’ve always used a lot of brand ambassadors. We will hire people in the states we’re going into to be brand ambassadors and work alongside our distributors. We don’t want to cram a lot of product into the pipeline. People have pumped product into the marketplace and then don’t back up the distributor or customer and it gets lost in the numbers,” he maintains. “For us it really is about that true partnership with the distributor – partnering with the accounts, with the front line reps, and other strategic relationships that allow us to align with athletes, celebrities, artists, and those type of relationships – to help drive product, build a brand, make it so people just want to buy the product… The toughest part always is bringing the right people into your culture and making sure everyone is on the same page – talking to people, tastings, product placement, cocktail menu creation, all of that. It takes time and it takes dedicated people who are dedicated to the brand and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Having well made products available is only half the battle. “Servant leadership that drives a culture of accountability and integrity, allows us to do what is right for the customers while maintaining confidence throughout the organization and authenticity throughout the brands.” says Gonzalez. Repeat sales depend on a positive association with a brand’s overall character and account support. Gonzalez continues, “It’s a lot more than delivering a product, it’s about delivering an all-inclusive strategy that elevates the brand and drives it through the marketplace for our customers. We know our partners have several brands to focus on, and the holistic plans we deliver are not only about a transaction, but centered around supporting the success of our retail and distribution partners.”

Richardson draws a final association with Old Elk’s similarity to tech products: “For Otter space it’s the peg space velocity that lets us know how well the product is selling. Same will be for the spirits – how quickly the shelves are empty. For us that success will be that reorder rate. So we’ll work really hard to help our distributors and customers with that.”

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