By Jennifer Pund
Joe Elkins insists you don’t have to be a whisky drinker to enjoy Elkins Whisky. With the help of his two partners, Alabama native McShan Walker and Nathan Taylor of North Carolina, the Georgia native and Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado-Greeley is crafting a true Colorado corn whisky, from Colorado gain, Colorado water and distilled at the front door of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and Mississippi watershed.
Elkins describes the company’s flagship product as a white whisky, but is clear it’s not moonshine. “I think when people see our product, they think it’s moonshine because it’s clear, but vodka is also clear, and so is rum and white tequila. All distilled spirits are clear to begin with,” he said. “We are made with all grain, and we are not made with sugar, that makes this different. Our product is double distilled, which makes it smooth.”
According to the distiller, moonshine is an “act,” a product where most of the alcohol is from sugar cane from bag sugar. “They will throw corn in there, or fruit for flavoring, but it’s a really crude form of distillation that usually only needs one distillation and the by-product is rough and really very high alcohol content,” Elkins said.
Walker, who developed his love of whisky thanks to a southern heritage, agrees it is a spirit for everyone. “Whisky has a wide range of possibilities. People walk in and say, ‘I don’t drink whisky.’ I say, ‘slow down and let’s see what you like.’ Just tell me what you like to drink, and we will show you how we can make that with [our] whisky,” he said.
According to Elkins, it surprises people how adaptable whisky can be. “If they like spirits, they are probably going to like ours because it’s just really versatile,” he said. “It is also made to the highest ethical standards we can afford to have, so we have put a lot of effort into making sure our grain supply is not harmful to the environment, and I don’t know of many other whiskys that are like that.”
Some of the credit goes to their handmade still. “We get the most flavor out of the pot still, ours is pretty robust and very smooth,” Elkins explained. The Appalachian-style, 120-gallon still and its steam injector and coil were created by a friend, Matt Thomason, at Angry Iron Metalworks in Georgia.
Elkins’ interest in distilling comes from a place of pride. “Whisky is both authentic to where I am from, and it’s the American spirit,” he said.
He came to Colorado in 2008 after UNC in Greeley conducted a nation-wide search for a professor and hired him. He again found where he lived had a connection to whisky, and much more “enterprising” distilling laws.
“There is a very natural and obvious brand association between whisky and Colorado,” he explained. “I was interested in the craft of making whisky from grain, as opposed to just making hooch… and in particular using things that were local. I wanted to see if I could tie whisky production to the local terrain. That is why sugar didn’t really interest me. On the Front Range, it is really grain country, so I wanted it to be tied to that.”
Elkins Whisky is made from 80 percent Colorado corn from the town of Nunn and 20-percent fossil-free malted barley.
Opening the first and only legal distillery in Estes Park, and being the first to use water in the watershed are all points of pride as well. “To be the first distillery making a corn whisky from Colorado corn out of Estes, at the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park, and the first use of water in the Mississippi watershed… I don’t know. I like the sound of all that. It’s pretty cool. It’s a unique product,” Elkins said. “We are making every drop that we sell right here in the mountains. We take the craft of it seriously, but we are not whisky snobs. There is no wrong way to enjoy it.”
Elkins was introduced to distilling years ago while living in the deep South, and found it peeked his scientific curiosities. “It was a project that turned on all areas of my scientific mind. It was something that was new. I had to build the equipment, and it involves several aspects of science, from chemistry to physics to biology, technology and engineering,” the geologist explained. “So, it was a novel thing that was going to be scientific in nature and the outcome was making booze.”
Although Elkins found reasonable success distilling at home, he warns there are no mentors, so you have to teach yourself. It is not something he would recommend. “Every step of the way at home distillation, there is nothing there to encourage you. Your first batches are terrible, you might poison yourself and you could blow yourself up. And, if you get caught doing it they can take away your freedom. You kind of have to be hard-headed to pursue understanding what’s going on, or really determined to try this,” he explained. “It takes a ridiculous amount of time to make and you are staying up way, way, way late at night… trying to figure this stuff out, at the expense of your personal life. People you are dating don’t get it at all. You can buy it for cheaper at the store all day long.”
The hard part is now over and everyone gets to reap the rewards. Elkins and his partners have developed their distillery with a tasting room, menu and atmosphere all its own. The “quirky” tasting room is fully outfitted with “war-painted taxidermy” and walls of plaid. “We needed to add sound dampening panels, and Joe wanted to do a ‘buffalo check’ wall,” Walker explained. “The step-brother of one of my very good friends, is president at Woolrich, the clothing company, so he sent me the fabric. The wall is now covered in original ‘buffalo check’ Woolrich fabric.”
Stop in to try the company’s first product, Elkins White Whisky, beginning at noon daily. Parking is ample and the patio has one of the best views in town. The three owners are more than happy to show you how to mix their whisky for maximum enjoyment.
Elkins Distilling Company is located at 1825 N. Lake Ave. in Estes Park. Call 970-480-1848 or visit http://www.elkinsdistilling.com for more information.
Photos by Jeffrey V. Smith ©2016
Originally published in the October 2016 issue of the MMAC Monthly