When Greg Metze left the MGP of Indiana in Lawrenceburg after 38 years, 14 of them as master distiller, he had a consulting gig lined up for what looked to be like a continuation of his old job: quietly making excellent whiskey for other people. By the time Old Elk—a Fort Collins, Colorado, distillery owned by Curt and Nancy Richardson of the phone-case company Otterbox—released its Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey in 2017, the 65-year-old Elder and University of Cincinnati grad had joined the company full time (while still living in Milford).
It’s a completely different experience for Metze: getting in on the ground floor of an upstart company, spending time on such things as sales and marketing instead of being tied down to the factory floor, and…oh yeah, actually being able to say, “I made this whiskey,” although he isn’t really one to brag. We talked to him about Old Elk’s most recent releases, pushing booze during a pandemic, and what he drinks to unwind.
You’re a Cincinnati resident who has produced whiskey made in Indiana and now you’re doing the same for a distillery in Colorado. Do you think the world has finally moved past that whole “bourbon has to come from Kentucky” mentality?
Yeah. I think [at MGP] we did a lot of work to really dispel those myths, if you will. And we did it by producing world-class whiskey. At the end of the day, that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter so much where it was made.
I assume you were going back and forth to Fort Collins before the pandemic?
Up until February 2020, I was all over the country with my boss [Old Elk CEO] Luis Gonzalez, gaining distribution in every state. At the end of 2017, we were only in two states: Colorado and California. From January of 2018 to December of 2019, we gained distribution in the other 48. Then coronavirus hit. But we just moved immediately to the virtual platform. I’ve been doing interviews and podcasts and barrel tastings and meetings with distributors nonstop.
Tell me about that first bottling. The Old Elk Bourbon was actually something you developed while at MGP?
Actually, all the mash bills were crafted and produced while I was still in Lawrenceburg. But the very first mash bill that they asked me to produce seven years ago was Old Elk bourbon. They gave me two words to work with. They said, “We want the product to be smooth and easy.” And that was it. I was 35 years into my career at that point, and that was my first opportunity to actually build a mash bill from the ground up, unrestricted. And when I say “unrestricted,” I mean from a financial standpoint—there weren’t any restrictions relative to how much that mash bill was going to cost.
I knew from experience, to get smooth and easy, I had to get the malted barley content in that bourbon mash bill up. And throughout my whole career, all the mash bills I produced always had some degree of rye, to give you that spice characteristic, which takes a minimum of 15 percent. From there, it was reverse math. I took the minimum corn content for a bourbon—51 percent—factored in the 15 percent rye that I needed for that spice characteristic, and that left me room for 34 percent malted barley.
And now there’s three more Old Elk whiskeys: a 95 percent rye in the MGP tradition, but also a wheat whiskey and a wheated bourbon. How did those come about?
We got back together again, and they said, “Well, what do you think is going to be popular six, seven years down the road?” Six, seven years ago, rye was just going through the roof in popularity, and is absolutely a different category than bourbon. I told him that, y’know, there’s some really nice wheat whiskeys and wheated bourbons on the market, but the spectrum is pretty much untapped.
The wheat whiskey mash bill, which is 95 percent wheat and 5 percent malt, I call it “The Real McCoy” of a wheat whiskey. Other ones out there on the market are probably in the neighborhood of 51 percent wheat, and probably have a third cereal grain in them. I elected to go to the extreme, and it was really leveraged off the 95 percent rye [to] 5percent malt [ratio] that we made famous down there in Lawrenceburg.
And then from there, we went to the wheated bourbon and again, to be different, we took the content in that wheated bourbon mash bill to pretty much the max. That mash bill is 51 percent corn and I took the wheat to 45 percent, and that left me room for 4 percent malt, which is just enough to get the conversion to take place.
Are you enjoying the fact that your name is openly associated with these whiskeys?
I tell folks this all the time: the way I’m wired, I need to accomplish something every day. And it can be as simple as just cleaning up a dirty garage on a weekend, where it starts out a mess, you get it all cleaned up, and you can look back on it, say, “Man that looks really good.” And I take pride in that and get a lot of self-satisfaction out of it.
Every day that I left the distillery in Lawrenceburg, I knew I was making world-class quality products, for many, many brands, under the radar. That really fit my personality, and that was enough for me. Since then, the notoriety has grown, and the publicity has grown. And that part is a lot of fun as wellbut it’s not something I thrive on. It’s a bonus, obviously. But I’m really built to just accomplish that mission and take satisfaction out of it.
What do you reach for at night yourself most frequently?
Well, I’m obviously proud of the Old Elk mash bills. Everybody always asks me what’s my favorite, and I really can say, honestly, that I don’t have a favorite. On any given day, I could have a bourbon, I could have a wheat whiskey, a wheated bourbon, or the rye. And ya know, if I go outside of having [whiskey], I’m gonna have to fess up: I also drink a lot of Coors Light.