On the Job With Master Distiller Greg Metze

Old Elk Distillery master distiller Greg Metze brings nearly four decades of unmatched bourbon experience to Colorado.

Old Elk Master Distiller Greg Metze | On The Job | Denver Life Magazine
Photo courtesy of Old Elk.

When master distiller Greg Metze first began working with Old Elk back in 2012, little did he know that he would one day become the iconic Colorado distillery’s master distiller. At the time, Metze was with Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, and Old Elk was a client. Metze was tasked with creating and producing custom mash bills (the combination of grains used in a distiller’s recipe) for the Old Elk brands—his first opportunity to create new products from scratch in his long, storied career. He has subsequently crafted and produced an impressive 13,000 barrels of three unique mash bills specifically for Old Elk. We asked him to tell us more.

What does a typical day look like for you at the distillery?
My role has shifted from being an “in the trenches” master distiller, overseeing the processes, equipment and people at the Lawrenceburg Distillery as I did for 38 years, to a role of contributing to building Old Elk brands. I was never a part of distribution, marketing and sales until I joined the Old Elk team. It has given me the opportunity to round out my career, learning a new side of the business. A typical day involves barrel sample sensory analysis for quality purposes, creating new blends for Old Elk brands, blend calculations for existing Old Elk brands, virtual and in-person tasting events, brand ambassador events, distributor training, sales team support and production team support.

What is the most exciting part about your role?
Having the opportunity to work with the best people in the business, building a brand from the ground up. The Old Elk company is made up of young, smart, passionate people. It’s really a family, where everyone has different responsibilities but no one is more important than the others. This culture starts with the Richardson family [the brand’s founders] and carries through the entire organization. It is quite special and defines why I left a facility where I had been for 38 years.

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Tell us a little bit about your background.
My background is in chemical engineering. I actually had no idea what I was getting into when I joined the Seagram Company in 1978. I didn’t even know what a master distiller was at the time. I was 23 years old and going to work for a company that made whiskey. I thought that was very cool. The special piece that I was unaware of was that I would get the best training in the world from the Seagram Company relative to becoming a master distiller. I grew up in Cincinnati in a small house with my parents and five siblings. I attended Elder High School and the University of Cincinnati. I joined Seagram’s Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery directly out of college and spent 38 years there. I acquired the role of master distiller in 2002 and held that position until 2016 when I left the facility to join Old Elk Distillery.

Old Elk Master Distiller Greg Metze | On The Job | Denver Life Magazine
Photo courtesy of Old Elk.

Why is Colorado the perfect place to be a master distiller?
Old Elk currently has a small craft distillery, blending facility, bottling house and tasting room—The Reserve by Old Elk, in Fort Collins, Colorado. I think it defines the western spirit and heritage. It also has clean air, clean water, the lore of Colorado whiskey and the Rocky Mountains.

What is something about your profession that people don’t realize?
I would say a majority of folks don’t realize how difficult it is to produce world-class quality whiskey products on a daily basis. Fermentation is the absolute key to producing fine whiskey. There is always competition between the yeast that produces the alcohol and flavors and the airborne bacteria that produces lactic, acetic and butyric acids that create quality defects. A master distiller earns their keep by controlling the quality of fermentation.

What is next for you?
I want Old Elk to be my legacy. I am starting my 45th year in the business, and I want Old Elk brands to be my crowning achievement.

What is your advice for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
The best advice I give people is to go to work for a distillery and learn the business from the ground up. Book knowledge will only take you part of the way. You have to live in the trenches and experience the problems that occur with the processes, equipment and people. You then have to have the ability to analyze and correct the problems quickly to maintain quality and throughput. Experience and knowledge provide the solutions.