How Old Elk Distillery found new life in Fort Collins.

THERE’S NO QUAINT MOM-AND-POP STORY behind Old Elk Distillery, Fort Collins’ six-month-old maker of gin, vodka, and bourbon. But there is quality: In October, just two weeks after releasing its Dry Town gin (named for Fort Collins’ 73-year dry spell), the spirit won double gold at the New York International Spirits Competition. As a bonus, Old Elk was named the Colorado distillery of the year at the same festival. The new enterprise is backed by plenty of business acumen: Owners Curt and Nancy Richardson are the husband-and-wife team behind Otterbox, the homegrown company best known for making water-tight, indestructible Smartphone cases.

For the Richardsons, building a technology empire and a distillery are one and the same. It all comes down to business. “It’s about making things, it’s about being creative and building something from nothing,” Curt says. In this case, the duo set out to craft premium spirits that would launch and gain traction locally before landing on the national, and ultimately, the international stage. Winning double gold for a gin with a distinctive Colorado sage finish seems a good harbinger.

The Richardsons have done all of this under the name Old Elk, a long-ago popular pre-Prohibition brand from Kentucky that had sat dormant for decades. When Curt, an avid elk hunter and longtime Coloradan, was brainstorming names for the distillery he came across the history of Old Elk in an internet search. “It was a forgotten brand,” he says. “I like to say it was born in Kentucky but it’s growing up in Colorado.”

In keeping with their unconventional approach, the Richardsons opted not to build a distillery with an open-to-the-public tasting room. (At least not yet: the couple owns land for the future two-story project in the heart of Fort Collins’ popular district River District.) Instead, the Richardsons set up two stills for research and development and hired a crew to dream up the recipes for Old Elk’s signature vodka, gin and bourbon. It took 78 tries before the team, headed up by general manager Bill Lovell, landed on the ideal four-grain vodka formula. Crafted of corn, wheat, rye and malted barley, the elixir drinks soft and elegant and it accomplishes the mission Lovell set forth. “We needed to make a vodka that stood on its own,” he says. “It needed to be martini worthy.”

In all, Old Elk spent nearly three years perfecting its spirits before releasing the vodka, gin and Nooku, a decadent bourbon cream that is Richardson’s answer to (and improvement on) Baileys. And the very first bottles of Old Elk’s two-year bourbon will come available in April. For the Richardsons, the slow-going ways of distilling offer something the relentless technology industry never will: Longevity. “Phone cases get old within a few months,” Curt says. “In distilling, there’s value in something ripening and getting better with age.”      

Drink This: The Outlaw

1.5 ounces Dry Town Gin

.75 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice

.75 ounce amaro (preferably Ramazotti)

3 ounces ginger beer

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Fill with ice. Garnish with a lime wheel.

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