Old Elk Distillery is considered one of the rising stars in the American Whiskey category and it’s reputation is well-earned. The brand has dedicated its resources to distilling a high-quality premium bourbon made by former MGP Ingredients Master Distiller Greg Metze. In the latest Startup Spotlight, CEO Luis Gonzalez revealed some of the keys to the brand’s success.
Tell us about Old Elk.
Luis Gonzalez: At Old Elk Distillery, in Fort Collins, Colorado, craft is everything. To us, it’s more than just selling a bottle. We take pride in putting the time and effort it takes to create something special and innovative within our brands, products, and strategy. Our Master Distiller, Greg Metze, has over four decades of experience in producing world class whiskeys. He worked directly with our team to create the whiskeys you know and love from the Old Elk line-up today. From our signature high malt bourbon to our Slow Cut Proofing Process, it’s obvious our attention to detail is significant. We put the same amount of passion and enthusiasm into our other brands in our portfolio: Whiskeysmith incorporates American aged whiskey and combines it with true-to-taste flavors for the flavored whiskey lovers and beyond. Nooku Bourbon Cream uses real dairy. PB&W: Peanut Butter Flavored Whiskey is made with real peanut extract. Dry Town Gin is soaked for 18 hours and then vapor extracted. Our portfolio speaks for itself, it is where craft meets quality.
What sets your brand apart in the marketplace?
LG: The significant investments we’ve made in the business, have not only allowed us to build out a robust bourbon and whiskey roadmap and brand, but to create a house of brands that aligns with legacy, growing categories, and the evolving and educated palate of consumers. Old Elk is different simply because we are constantly innovating. It’s in our nature here and we just can’t help it. That’s why, back in 2013, when we first approached MGP and Greg Metze to help us start our brand, we did something virtually few others do: asked for a custom mashbills. Typically, when starting a new brand, you’re given a selection of mashbills to choose from, but we knew we wanted something different. As our first project, we asked Greg to create a premium smooth and easy bourbon that we would be proud of as a distillery. Fast forward about seven years later, we have a growing portfolio made up of five different Old Elk expressions, distributed across the country. We are proud to be recognized for our high malted barley content in our bourbon, as well as creating world-class quality products across several categories and brands. When choosing a bottle of old elk, you’re choosing to put time and quality first. There are no shortcuts for us because our fans don’t deserve that. Our vision is to make the highest quality product at the scale of larger companies, with the heart, soul, and appreciation many craft companies can attain. All of the bourbon is taken out of the barrel at cask strength. Traditionally, this process takes 24-48 hours. However, we choose to do it for a significantly longer period of time at very small increments. We call this patient technique “Slow Cut™” proofing and we’re one of the only distilleries out there who has officially made this a part of the process. Our choice to extend the life of the proofing time to keep the liquid cool allows us to bottle every last drop of flavor.
Does your business have any causes it supports?
LG: At Old Elk Distillery, it’s important to us to give back. During the pandemic, we had a massive effort in producing and donating sanitizer not only for our direct community, but for first responders, hospitals, and friends and family in and out of the bourbon community, across the country. Internally at Old Elk Distillery, we encourage our employees to take time to volunteer – each employee is given a set amount of paid hours dedicated to solely volunteer their time to causes their most passionate about. We also always look for opportunities to align in other communities nationally, to help trade professionals whether it’s mentoring or donating a platform that allows them to monetarily support their business or gain education from the industry.
What’s the one lesson you learned during the pandemic that will stick with you?
LG: During such a challenging time, serving as a leader where the solutions are not just around logistics, product development, sales, and operations, I had the opportunity to manage through a crisis that hit much closer to home. This was a time where the emotional state of all of our employees was fluid where focusing on preparation, shelter and calmness as a leader, has never been more important. We focused on the things we could control, in and outside of the business, constant and clear communication, as well as putting our employees and their families first. When COVID hit our nation, we knew we had a call to answer. Aside from it simply being the right thing to do, Old Elk Distillery prides itself on innovation and its community in and outside of Colorado. During the pandemic, our team knew it was a no brainer to start producing hand sanitizer. For us, the major lesson we learned is that we are only as strong as our community. We worked hard to put our community first – which means take our employees needs into consideration, lifting the spirits of our fans and consumers, and keeping communities safe through the production and donation of hand sanitizer, across the country. If you’ve spent time with any of our employees, then you know our company cares deeply about others and is always seeking for ways to help.
What is your best business finance tip for other brand owners?
LG: In our business and every other business in any industry there is always a choice to make: “vanity” or “sanity.” What I mean by this is, a lot of times when someone is starting a brand, their focus is on the new and shiny things, such as equipment or facilities early in the game. What I believe is that it’s important to invest time and money behind your company’s culture, people, brand, inventory, and strategic business plan. When starting a business, behavior is everything. Focusing on “sanity” vs “vanity” allows you to build and work the plan, allowing the numbers to follow. When you chase “vanity” or numbers, the behavior changes and the financial landscape changes.
What is your best advice for a mutually beneficial relationship with your distributors?
LG: The key words you used here are “mutually beneficial relationship.” The distributor has many brands to focus on and as a supplier you have to be ready and able to own your brand and scale the business to match the distributor’s reach and power. As the supplier, we strive to make sure our distributor partners are supported by Old Elk everyday. My best advice is to ask yourself “what can we do for our distributor partners that is adding value and what are we doing that is distracting to the plan” instead of always thinking “what are they doing for us?” It’s important to take a step back and ensure it’s a two way street. What is also important to acknowledge is when entering a new relationship with a distributor there is more at stake than just your brands and portfolio. The focus on supply chain and operations is a key element to being complementary and supplemental to their portfolio and not distracting to their portfolio or credibility to deliver. As a new or existing brand if you cannot provide the line of sight to planning the financial growth of the company, you may cause issues by not being ready to deliver on that growth. If you are asking your partners to grow alongside you, you need to be able to show them the confidence in your culture, investments, planning, and execution of your current opportunities, and future road map.
What has been your most successful strategy for pitching a new retail partner?
LG: We ensure that every step of the way is supported from start to finish by adding value to the shelf set and utilizing our tools to move the product. Some of these tools include staff trainings, geo targeted ads, consumer samplings, and POS items that add an element for consumer education. It is important to respect the financials of your retail partners and position the products that they will be successful with. In our eyes, “vanity” is load in and “sanity” is sell through.
What are the resources you can’t run your business without?
LG: Our business is a well oiled machine and it would not be successful if it weren’t for all of those parts so it’s hard to identify just one. We’re extremely grateful for our team, distributor partners, and consumers who are constantly working on bettering and supporting the business. Without the focus on investing into the scalability of the portfolio and the right distribution partners, you may find yourself spinning your wheels and dollars just to get to the next step.
Do you have a go-to book on business or leadership you recommend?
LG: My two favorite business books I refer back to are The E Myth by Michael E. Gerber and Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.
If you were starting a new venture today, what’s the first thing you would do?
LG: It all starts with perspective. It’s invaluable to gain perspective from all levels of positions within the industry you’re entering. It allows you to, early in your plan, fact check your own perspective and beliefs and make early adjustments as you’re continuing to explore the opportunity and find truth.