UNC Professor Uses Knowledge of Geology to Start Whiskey Distillery

UNC Professor Joe Elkins discusses whiskey distilling in the tasting room of his distillery in Estes Park.

When Joe Elkins, an associate professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, started his undergraduate student career, he had no idea that he'd end up with a Ph.D. in geology, or that his training as a geologist would one day play a role in his decision to start his own whiskey distillery.

After brief stints as a sports journalism, criminal justice and history major, Elkins took an introductory geology course that fulfilled a Liberal Arts Core requirement. It also struck a chord.

With encouragement from the course's professor, he changed his major a final time, earning a bachelor's degree in geology before earning a master's in secondary science education and his doctorate in geology.

Elkins, who's been combining his passion for geology and teaching it at UNC since 2008, was living in Fort Collins a couple of years ago when he realized that the home-brewed beer he was taking to gatherings in the community "tasted like crap."

He decided to try his hand at distilling whiskey, and being a hands-on type of guy who loves to learn, he started from scratch, literally.

He planted some corn in his front yard. He took classes at local craft studios to learn how to blow his own glass bottles and make paper for the bottles' labels. He researched the history of whiskey distilling, and how to build a still and safely use it to make whiskey.

It all came together and Elkins started taking his whiskey to gatherings and giving it as gifts. When he realized that people were enjoying it and he was good at making it, he decided to open a distillery.

Having done his research about the product and where to make it, Elkins decided to locate Elkins Distilling Co. in Estes Park, in part because the geology of the area provides access to clean surface water, one of the ingredients of a good whiskey.

According to Elkins, the surface water in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park runs across crystalline bedrock and enters the town's water treatment facilities free of contamination from minerals and other dissolved elements.

That, Elkins said, makes the water relatively easy to work with and workers at his distillery just have to filter chlorine out of it before using it in the distilling process.

Elkins Distilling Co. opened Fourth of July weekend and had about a hundred people a day visiting during the rest of the summer without doing much advertising.

The distillery includes a tasting room where whiskey using corn mostly from fields north of Greeley is sold in individual sipping shots and craft cocktails, and by the bottle.

Elkins laughingly said the best part of running his distillery was being his own boss.

"On the one hand," he said. "The distillery benefits because I'm put into a place to communicate and teach employees how to effectively do a task."

One UNC student is benefiting from Elkins' new venture. Heather Heinz, a senior Industrial Chemistry major, is serving an internship with Elkins while working on her research project for UNC's Honors program.

But she's not just helping Elkins with his research.

"I think that students end up carrying on the research of their professors most of the time, and it's not like that at all with Joe," said Heinz, who's studying ways to speed up the fermentation process.

Elkins, who's a strong proponent of interdisciplinary education, also said that he's now better able to connect science with economics for students in his classes, noting that building the company from the ground up took a large financial investment.

Elkins plans to continue teaching. He said that his research on the different aspects of distilling was invigorating and that he feels a renewed passion for science after creating his own whiskey.

"I started out identifying with geology," Elkins said. "But now I feel that I more strongly identify with a scientist than a geologist."

- Monique Becker, Senior Journalism Major

Of Note

Elkins was an invited speaker in April at the American Distilling Institute's national conference, presenting on the distribution of whiskey distillers in the pre-industrial era and how the prevalence of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey could have been influenced by the geochemistry of natural waters and the temperatures of fermentation.

He also spoke at the Geological Society of America's conference in March on the geological constraints of Tennessee whiskey distilleries during the pre-industrial era.

Before this year, Elkins spent his summers working as a professional rafting guide. He's certified as a wilderness EMT and as a whitewater rescue technician.