“I just want [Elkins] to be a place that people come back to, to be part of that annual tradition. We’re very thankful for the state of Colorado and the nature of what we get to make and do here.”
Estes Park is the entryway into Colorado’s beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as home to The Stanley Hotel (remember The Shining!?). Its landscape and history draw visitors from all over the globe, but many may not know about Estes’ deep knit community of breweries, restaurants, coffee makers and (the subject of this week’s spotlight) distilleries. Just 4 years old, Elkins Distilling Co. has become a focal point in this charming mountain town and we’ve been lucky enough to be able to work with them since the get-go (you’ll likely find an Arryved team member dropping in year round.) From making moonshine in the backwoods to legally making some of the best whiskey in Colorado, Elkins is a must-visit treasure that thrives off of the Estes Park community while making every visitor feel like a VIP.
Meet McShan Walker: Co-owner and wearer of many hats at Elkins Distilling Co. McShan walked us through Elkins’ journey, from a group of friends drinking homemade whiskey around the fire in Alabama to opening a tasting room in the mountains of Colorado. Their collaborative efforts make this a gem of a tasting room to visit and a must read story.
Nancy Trigg (President and CGO of Arryved): Remind us what your position is at Elkins?
McShan Walker: I’m the owner and sales/brand manager but there’s three of us. Two here in Colorado, Joe Elkins and myself, and then Nathan Taylor, our third business partner who is out in Asheville. For me, the hat changes constantly, and there are a multitude of them.
Joe Elkins (left), Ollie (center), McShan Walker (right). Image courtesy of Thomas Kolicko.
N: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you guys ended up with the idea of Elkins Distillery?
M: We all met through the process of my little sister getting married. She married one of Joe and Nathan’s best friends in my parent’s backyard out in Alabama. After the wedding, we all sat around the fire drinking whiskey, just talking. Joe is a professor of Geology at the University of Northern Colorado and he had been tinkering with making whiskey at home—he happened to bring something he created as wedding favors. You always kind of perk up when you see that, especially since we all grew up in a dry county in Alabama where everybody knew somebody that made moonshine in the woods. He had been talking about opening a distillery, around the time when Birmingham, Alabama just changed the [beer] brewing laws, this was 2011 or 2012. We had seen how the new breweries were changing life in cities around the South, in areas that used to be just completely downtrodden but were becoming the new hip places because of craft beer. Our idea is that if you can be a little bit ahead of it in the craft distilling scene then maybe you have a chance, especially with just three guys throwing a bunch of nickels together hoping to open a business.
Joe has a background in science/chemistry and so does Nate. Nathan now runs a CBD extraction business in Asheville so he is doing a different kind of distillation out there. My history is in marketing, advertising, and sales and I jumped in to help sell. We just started talking about it over the next two years about once every six months. We hit roadblocks when talking about the two towns that we were looking at, Asheville and Athens, due to local and state regulations. Then I started looking in places where the laws were a little bit more clear for young people who did not have a giant backing and who might be able to get a shot by using hustle as a down payment. Colorado became a clear spot. Distilling had always been illegal in Estes Park, that is one reason why there hadn’t been a distillery here before but in about 4 or 5 months of even thinking about Estes Park, the laws changed to allow it. In 2015 we started leasing a very small building and waited 13 to 14 months to even crack the doors open because of local city code.
We chose out here for other obvious reasons: it’s beautiful, we have great water, I get to distribute to every single state from one location and everyday people from all over the country are here.
N: How do you provide service to your guests? Tell us what you do to expand and educate their taste palates?
M: None of us had ever done anything like this when we cracked the door open that first day, July 4th, 2016. None of us had even made a drink outside of our living rooms. We had each other, we had white whiskey, and a bunch of different things that we considered mixers. Everyone asked us, “Why the white whiskey? Why don’t you make vodka? Why don’t you do this..” etcetera. We learned early on what the difficulties were going to be in terms of being in a tourist town with people from all over with a variety of tastes and a variety of experiences with spirits. We needed to have an expanded portfolio of things to ease people in and we wanted to have a very welcoming environment. We ask people what they enjoy and match them up with something we have instead of telling them to choose something and go. Early on we were so slow we could spend a lot of time with our guests and really learned how that conversation goes.
This model was still relatively new to people who were coming to our town. Colorado is packed full of distilleries now and so is the US but early on, it blew people’s mind that we had a bar and didn’t sell Crown and Coke. We started with one base, the white whiskey, and we started aging it in a variety of ways but that takes time. As we go on, we come up with different combinations of things that might ease people in. The first one that was really the big hit is our apple spice liqueur which I refer to as our gateway whiskey. It is a very flavorful whiskey by the fire drink. Now we have 8 products and half of them lean toward the sweet flavorful side and the other half are traditional whiskey, rye, bourbon, things of that nature. 90% of our products come from one base spirit, one mash build that is grown 25 miles away down at Root Shoot Malting down in Loveland. We’ll also do tours and I’ll show people the process from grain to glass inside our one little building. Along the way, our business model has changed 5 times as we understand more about our customers, about our products and our industry. We try to find some crossroads between what we want to do and what the public wants us to do.
Ollie, the 4th founder of Elkins Distilling Co. Image courtesy of McShan Walker.
N: What is your favorite thing you make?
M: I am a huge fan of our Rye Whiskey. Growing up in the south, bourbon was always king and I’ve never been a huge fan of single malt in comparison to bourbon. Root Shoot had a bunch of rye and we thought we would give it a shot. We did about 11 or 12 barrels and it is mostly all gone. I’ll make an Old-fashioned or Manhattan with that and the nature of the grain really comes across in those drinks.
N: How do you invite people into the tasting room? What are you doing with social marketing? What is it that you’re using to drive business?
M: The nature of the businesses in Estes is that we work well together. We had an advertiser come in early on and he was trying to sell me on something in a local publication. He said he won’t put us next to any of our competition. I was like man, you don’t understand. Who do you consider my competition here? Those are all my best friends. I don’t have any competition here. Between the breweries and restaurants and all those places, there is a really close knit group of people that want the customer tourist experience in Estes Park to be really good so you come back. We’ve seen a massive growth of visitors from the Front Range who are younger and who were previously underserved in this town. They’ll come up to do fun things in the mountains and then spend an afternoon hitting the breweries and then coming by the distillery. First of all, that town relationship has been super important to us and just wanting visitors to have a good time. My favorite thing to do is to circle a few restaurants in the restaurant guide and then write down all the people at the breweries to talk to.
Outside of that, social media is probably where we spend most of our time advertising. We do a lot on instagram and facebook and we’re in a beautiful place for that. I’m very spoiled in terms of how easy it is to take a bottle of whiskey and a camera and come up with something that looks like you paid a lot of money for but it’s just the nature of the beautiful place that we live.
And then word of mouth in the industry has been huge. I spent a couple of years doing our distribution, driving around the state and meeting everybody, handing out coupon cards for the distillery and telling people just to come visit us. It seems like most of this state ends up in Estes Park at least once a year and I want to be on that list, or maybe the reason that you come. That has been our goal.
Image courtesy of Eddie Clark Media.
N: What makes you proud of where you work and who you work with?
M: We have been so lucky early on up here that recently we just put our first job posting up. Until now, everyone that we’ve hired has been someone in the establishment who asked if we were hiring. That has always been a huge benefit to me. The thing that I preach to everyone is that I cannot control whether or not the people who come in love our whiskey, but I can control the exchange they have with whoever is working. 90% of what people remember here is how they were treated, so our staff is not only responsible for being a good steward of our business but a good steward of this town. We make sure these people have a good time. Most of the staff did not have a background in whiskey so we’ve been able to sit down and do these teaching nights where we try a bunch of different things and understand what different types of spirits are—that helps the interactions with guests. We’ve been super fortunate to have a bunch of people who really understand the customer relationship piece. When you talk back about advertising, that is probably the best thing that we have done in advertising, making people feel special when they come in.
N: Is there anything you have done to stay afloat during Covid that you feel is worth chatting about?
M: We’ve been trying to do a lot of local collaboration—we recently did a barrel aged coffee. We are trying to make things we could ship and incorporate a lot of businesses in this town that are in the same boat. Everyone is trying to figure out how to scratch a few dollars together. We did a combination barrel aged coffee with Kind Coffee in town—we put a bunch of their coffee in Rye barrels and then left them in there for a couple weeks and bagged them up. We’re doing a similar project with Jackie’s Java out of Fort Collins. We also joined with Rock Cut Brewery, Kind Coffee, Bird and Jim, one of the new hip restaurants here in town, to do gift card packages—with one transaction you get a bunch of gift cards for here in town. That worked out really well to bring in business.
Image courtesy of McShan Walker.
N: What is your plan to transition back? Are you starting to think about opening for more than retail?
M: It’s tricky. We had to look at it from a bunch of different angles. Our biggest issue last summer was a lack of production or not having enough production capacity but we’re in an interesting boat now. The winter is the down time in Estes Park compared to most of Colorado so usually we scale back. This year we decided to ramp up and put the bank into Whiskey Barrels… instead of the bank. We are in good shape in terms of how much whiskey we have on site but that bank is not as easy to withdraw from. It was the right plan but due to unforeseen situations, we have to adapt. We have to figure out how we can promote things once we get back going and, unlike the breweries, to go cocktails aren’t something we ever prepared for. We also chased hand sanitizer for a while and then we got creative and started making coffee and adjusting to go cocktails. We’re trying to be ahead of what the regulations are going to be when we open back up, to get to a point where people feel safe. It’s been tricky for sure.
N: What is a positive take away you all have learned about your business operations that can benefit you long term?
M: I think it gets back to one of the pieces that has been our benefit since the get-go, which is the community. We have a pretty tight-knit group of retailers, especially in the craft industry. The first meeting we had about all this was with all of the local breweries at Rock Cut. We were all asking, “What are we going to do? This is coming around, what is going to happen? Who is going to do what?” The nature of being not competitive but more a collaborative environment in this town is encouraging.
It has forced us to look into our processes and cut the fat. How do you do things better and how are you more efficient with what you’re using? You sit down and take a look at where we are actually making money. We’ve been in business now for three years and it’s been hit-the-ground-and-go from the beginning and now there’s time to reorganize and take a sharper pencil to everything—to understand how you got here today and be a better version of that going forward. We found a lot of things that we could do better efficiency wise and cost wise. We look at everything we’ve done and say, all right, what’s been effective, what has been good, and how can we be better prepared for things like this in the future? Things were better than I could have ever imagined two weeks before [Covid] happened. This place was packed on a Saturday in February when it is usually just a dead zone. Then something like this hit and we have to be more adaptable. The joke was always fire and flood in Estes Park, those are the two things that can get you shut down and now we added another one to it. Being more cognizant of day to day stuff so that we can be as efficient and resilient as possible in any scenario. Be prepared for these things, the best that anyone can.
N: From your perspective in your role, how do you predict that the craft industry is going to change over the next few years? What do you see is the next horizon?
M: That’s a completely different answer now than it would have been a month and a half ago. I was really hoping that this fall was going to be my fall to get out and travel because the one thing that I’ve done poorly for us is that I haven’t left this town much in the last year and a half. Visiting other distilleries and getting an understanding of what they’re doing is one of the biggest things you can do to help your own business. That is how we found Arryved. I found you at Spirit Hound—I stop there all the time just to see what is going on. I love those guys. Distilleries have been growing at an astronomical pace for what anyone would have predicted and I see new brands.
I think quality is going to stand out in craft going forward. People are going to be more distinctive in terms of what they like and we’ll see some brands win out nationally. I just want to be the best whiskey in Estes Park, today. It’s pretty easy because we are the only ones with a license right now. The hard part about our industry—unlike beer where you can turn out something pretty amazing in a couple of weeks, it takes time for us. People often ask if we have anything that is aged 10 years—we’ve been in business for 4.5 and we’ve sold all that stuff so anything that is in barrels right now is not that old. That is not something we are super proud of but that is just part of it. We have to create ways to sell products today that will allow me to sell the really really aged stuff in a few years. It’s a long game for sure. I’m going to keep an eye on what’s going on and be open to change. Whatever needs to happen to keep people happy, keep people coming in and keep the doors open.
Image courtesy of McShan Walker.
N: Let’s end with you telling us what’s awesome about Elkins?
M: I just want us to be a place that people come back to. We’ve been very fortunate in the community that we blindly picked early on. It has been an amazing experience to meet so many people from so many places and get so much feedback on what we’re making from all over. It’s great if I like what we make but it is so much better if the people coming in like it too. We’ve been fortunate to be able to use our tasting room as an R & D lab. Let the people tell me if the direction is right, how we’re doing and be a place to come and have a drink, sit outside, and look at the crazy beauty we have up here. Elkins is one of those places people come back to every year. In 4 years, I’ve watched kids grow up. To see them with their families every year. I just want us to be part of that annual tradition. A good place to come back to each year and to see how we’re maturing as well. Very thankful for the state of Colorado and the nature of what we get to make and do here.