"Being born and raised here and loving Colorado Springs, we really just wanted to create a space and a product that people can sit down, enjoy, and chill out with each other — to get to know each other or keep building on a relationship."
Casey Ross is the owner of Axe and the Oak Whiskey House and Distillery in Colorado Springs. Every day, Casey and his team embody the mission to cultivate a welcoming space for visitors to enjoy meaningful conversation, laughs with good friends, and of course, a quality drink.
In this episode, Casey dives into life as a Colorado Springs native, touring on the road with Batman and Bob the Builder, and the things that are most important to him. Listen to our conversation to hear how this combination inspired Casey to share his passion and serve his community.
For more entrepreneurial interviews, be sure to check out our full library.
Joe Dudeck: Welcome to Metaphorically Speaking, the very first one of 2020.
Shannon Jirik: Wow, it’s crazy. We made it to 2020. I thought maybe we’d have a Y2K, but for 2020.
Joe: You thought everything would shut down? What were you, like three when Y2K happened? How old were you?
Shannon: I was three, you’re right, yeah. Wow.
Joe: Wow, I was seriously –
Shannon: I have vivid memories of my parents stressing for the apocalypse so …
Joe: Were they hunkering down? Have a bunker in the backyard?
Shannon: No, they didn’t care at all.
Shannon: Yeah, we were all going to get wiped out and they were like, “Eh, it’s fine.” 2020, anyway …
Joe: I’m glad we made it to this decade, yeah.
Shannon: Me too.
Joe: We got a new episode to start off the year. We’ve interviewed Casey Ross at Axe and the Oak Whiskey. Great conversation, I love just getting to know this guy. Met him coincidentally at a whiskey and cigar night…
Shannon: That about sums him up right there, whiskey and fireside chats.
Joe: I don’t think he talks unless there’s whiskey in the vicinity, I think.
Shannon: You did have some in your vicinity during this conversation, didn’t you?
Joe: He was gracious to bring it … Again, nothing would have happened, we would have stared at each other for 45 minutes, it would have been awkward, so we appreciated him bringing that. Good conversation … That’s their tagline, right? It’s sharing stories one drink at a time and this is what we do.
Shannon: Yes. That’s exactly what happened, yeah. Now, what I love about this conversation is … I mean he totally encompasses the Axe and the Oak brand that he represents, it’s passion for good whiskey, the outdoors, good conversation, and I know that’s something that you and I value a ton, as well. And so, it just seemed like an awesome conversation between you guys.
Joe: Yeah, he definitely embodies the brand that he’s created, it isn’t like just what he’s wanting to get to, it’s very much a continuation of who he is as a person.
Joe: It was a good conversation talking about the risks of starting a business, sort of the fears associated with that, I loved his honesty …
Shannon: Yeah, it was awesome just because we saw him be an example of somebody who took a leap into entrepreneurship, which is super scary, and as we talked about in our last season, we went through fears, and we went through these scary stories where people are like, “This is what I want to do but I have this stability or this security that I’m coming from, so is it worth the risk?” Casey is a perfect example of somebody who kind of answered that call and it’s paying off. He loves what he’s doing, he’s successful, he’s made a name and a brand for himself and his team. It’s so cool to see that success story happen and I loved just how he kind of walked us through his whole career and what brought him to where he’s at today.
Joe: Yeah, it’s exciting. Looking forward to see where his business goes in 2020, and he shares a little bit about that too, what’s next for the business. It’s exciting to hear as well.
Shannon: Absolutely. If you’re in the area you have to stop by this year, and I need to get out there myself.
Joe: Yeah. We were out there, we did a little holiday trip over there with some friends who were visiting with us and loved it over there, loved the vibe at the whiskey house, and … You’ve definitely got to trek back out here and we’ll make sure we stop in there for sure.
Joe: Cool. Hopefully you enjoy the conversation. Grab a bourbon, sit down, listen, enjoy.
Joe: You’re like a, kind of a like a rare Coloradan, from my perspective at least, I’ve only been out here about six months, so I haven’t met a lot of people who are native to the area, especially Colorado Springs native.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Yeah, the rare breed.
Joe: Yeah. You were born and raised here, right?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: I was indeed, yeah. It’s home, I love it. Been all over the world but I don’t see myself ever moving anywhere else for sure.
Joe: Yeah. What was life like back in the day? Like I said, I’ve got six months under my belt, but what was Colorado Springs like back in the day?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: It was great. We were fortunate enough of kind of grow up in just a cool little community downtown, below UCCS in the Cragmor area, and I still have super, super close friends, really tight relationships from way back in the day. Yeah, it was good. I remember it snowing, the snowstorms being a lot more fierce, but that might be because I was just smaller. I just remember getting pummeled when we were little, it’s been pretty mild as of late, the last several years. Yeah, it was great.
Joe: I had the same thought, because I grew up in South Bend, northern part of Indiana, we used to get a ton of lake effect snow off of Lake Michigan. In my memory every time it snowed it’d be nine feet, and we’d be out there, no school for three weeks. I was just thinking, just recently, if that was just sort of my … I didn’t log away the sunny days when there was no snow, so was it really as snowy as we remember or …
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Probably not, yeah.
Joe: We could have the whole global warming conversation if we want but …
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Yeah, true.
Joe: What kind of kid were you growing up? Were you pretty quiet, pretty introverted? Precocious? How would you describe yourself?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: No, the Ross bros, we were kind of all … We were ornery and all over the place. My parents were hard workers so we would get out of school, and go to the park, and play basketball until dinnertime. It was basketball, bikes, and out hiking around, playing with buddies. That was it.
Joe: Bicycles, bikes, and … Wait, what’d you say?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Basketball, bikes … Yep, yep.
Joe: Basketball, bikes, and breakdancing, actually, is what you told me.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t really talk about that much anymore, but yeah, that was part of it.
Joe: I just found out … You had just read that recently and you told me about that, I just found out it’s going to be an Olympic sport in the 2024.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: That’s nuts. It’s crazy to see how far it’s come and … Yeah, my family, especially my little brother, Rocky, has been really heavily involved and was in a lot of different breakdance crews, and won some competition … It’s just really neat where that sport’s gone.
Joe: Yeah. What kind of a family were you in? Was it fairly conservative, pretty liberal, I mean politically but also maybe religiously? I mean, how would you. . .
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Yeah, Christian now, didn’t grow up in Christian home, but had two wonderful parents, my parents were awesome. They ended up divorced when I was about 12. We were kind of in the middle of things, were weren’t very, super conservative, super liberal, we were kind of just right smack dab in the middle … Yeah, just hanging and loving on people.
Joe: Yeah, that’s awesome. You were the middle child, right?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: The middle man, yeah.
Joe: How have you seen that middle spot affect kind of the way you live your life, how you look at things?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: It’s funny because when I talk to other people that are the middle sibling, sometimes we’re dead on, we’re the same person, or we’re like, “Who are you?” Yeah. It just depends. It was great growing up, I have two awesome brothers, they’re both here in town, we still get along really, really good. Some siblings can’t stand each other and we … Thankfully we live less than a mile apart from each of them and they’re wonderful, they’re a lot of fun.
Joe: That’s awesome. That’s cool you guys still stay connected. My family, we’re kind of spread all over the US, so we do well when we’re with each other but there’s not a whole lot of interaction now between visits. That’s cool you guys can … You like being around each other and stuff still.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Love it, yeah.
Joe: Yeah. What was the age gap between the three of you?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Let’s see here … About two years on my … A year and a half on my little brother and about two years on my big bro.
Joe: Yeah, that’s awesome. How did the divorce kind of affect … What kind of role do you feel like you took on in that kind of birth order for your brothers and for yourself?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Yeah, that one … We kind of all hunkered down with mom and dad kind of went and did his thing. We weren’t too keen on my dad for a while, after all that, for about four years. I can honestly say he is one of the coolest guys I know. Grateful for the restoration of our relationship, but yeah, he’s Pops and … He’s, yeah, super strong man, super, just like even keel, nothing gets to him, and love him to death.
Joe: Yeah. Mom and dad are both alive?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Both alive.
Joe: That’s awesome. They’re both local to you?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Yes, sir.
Joe: That’s cool, that’s pretty cool. What kind of a student were you?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Awful.
Joe: Were you?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: I was the worst student. Yeah, besides probably girls and basketball, hanging with my buddies, I was the worst. I was the worst student.
Joe: Always, from … Not just, the divorce or stuff like that didn’t affect, you were just always sort of …
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: No, I was always … I just wasn’t into sitting down … I guess I’m too impatient. I could never grasp a lot of what was going on, didn’t have the capacity or the want at the time, I just wanted to go have fun and do what I wanted to do.
Joe: For sure.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Yeah, I remember my mom holding all of us back in first grade. I think it was probably a good thing for the Ross bros. Like my son, he’s five, we’re starting him late because we need all the time we can get. We’re not the brightest bunch, that’s for sure. No, it was good, but I had my … I had a ’65 Chevy as a freshman in high school and so I didn’t spend much time at school, I was just always … All my friends were older so I’d go and … It was crazy, just go and do my thing. Then I think at the end of my sophomore year the counselor sat down and was like, “Mr. Ross, I don’t think you’re going to graduate if you stick to your current plan.”
Joe: Your current drive off campus plan?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Oh my gosh, yeah, it was bad. It was bad.
Joe: Oh, gosh.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: After that I hunkered down and-
Joe: It did kick you in the butt a little bit.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: It did for sure. Graduated with the best grades I had ever had in my life, literally. Then I went to trade school, automotive school and that was something that I was passionate about that I really, really loved. I did really well.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Yeah.
Joe: That’s awesome. When did you start? I know you went off to Wyoming Tech up in Laramie. When did you sort of get into the trade? Was that in high school? That was when you started getting interested in that?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: It was. My dad can barely replace a battery in a car. My mom, she was a total gear head, amazing cars.
Joe: Oh, really? That’s awesome.
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: She had … Let’s see, she-
Joe: That’s how you got the ’65 Chevy, through your mom?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: Well, it was a … No, we’ve always been a Chevy family. I have two uncles. I grew up tinkering and taking lawnmowers apart, it was just something that I always loved. I always loved racing, grew up kind of racing dirt bikes and cars and … Yeah, that ’65 Chevy was my first love. That’s kind of where I got it, was my family, my mom and my uncles, yeah.
Joe: A Chevy what? What was it?
Casey Ross, Axe and the Oak: It was a ’65 Chevy Biscayne that I bought it … It was a two door post, small block, kind of a grocery getter, a grandma car, and I turned it into a high horse — horse monster. Did a lot of drag racing in that car.
Joe: Interesting. I have a half brother who’s 12 years older than I am, 14 years older than I am, and he … I remember him and my dad, so it would have been his stepdad, out tinkering with the cars, because we didn’t have a lot of money growing up so they would get a junker and just spend some time fixing it up outside. By that time I was just five or six years old, I wasn’t that interested, and we didn’t have a garage so they were just sort of out on the street, just doing what they could out there. I just didn’t get blessed with those things … My dad would always try to pull me in and, “Hey, let’s work on the brakes today,” and of course I was just like, “I need to be out playing with my friends,” wasn’t interested. Now I kind of wish I still had some of those skills, just to save a few bucks and do some of that stuff.
Casey: Yeah, it always helps.
Joe: Even though of course nowadays it’s harder to tinker on cars than it was back in the day.
Casey: For sure, yeah.
Joe: Then you went … What kind of brought you up to Laramie? What was it about that tech school? Were there some friends going up that way? How did you …
Casey: I did have some really close friends going up with me, and so all throughout high school, so for four years I was working at a shop here locally called Super-Lube and-
Joe: When you were in high school and stuff?
Casey: Yep. Then graduated from Lawson, a month after that I packed up the truck and moved up to Laramie. Wyoming Tech was … It’s kind of an automotive school that’s really well known, I went to Phoenix a couple times and toured UTI. The cool thing I liked about Wyoming Tech was their street rod program. I went with the goal of going and working for Boyd Coddington, Chip Foose, the Brizio brothers, or coming back here and opening up a speed shop. I got engaged and went straight into management, it was really funny, but that’s why I went to that school. I got a lot of knowledge and hired straight out of school and stuff, but I didn’t follow my-
Joe: Your goal path, yeah.
Casey: My goal path, yeah.
Joe: Interesting. Is it a two year school, four year school? What is it?
Casey: It was a two year, yeah.
Joe: Okay. How did you meet your fiancee at the time, up there in college?
Casey: Yeah, I was trying to get a macho automotive job, but everybody in town was going to that school and already had all those jobs picked off. I was the coolest bakery boy at Albertsons you’d ever meet. I worked there as a bakery boy, and there’s always a deli girl.
Joe: Interesting. It’s the old story we all know.
Casey: Yeah. We fell in love and ended up moving back here, and blah blah, that’s a long story.
Joe: She’s from this way?
Casey: She was from Wheatland, Wyoming. We kind of split, and then I found my current wife that’s amazing, Mundi Ross.
Joe: Yeah. Then you came back here after school … What kind of career did you get into? Obviously you kind of, a different path than you wanted to get into after college. Where’d you land after that?
Casey: Yeah, I got hired straight out of school by Saturn of Chapel Hill, and I worked for Phil Long Ford for Chapel Hill, I worked for Bob Penkhus, Volvo, Mazda, and then I got into entertainment and all that stuff, the entertainment industry.
Joe: What kind of stuff did you do? Just sort of autobody repair?
Casey: No, I was a service advisor, service manager.
Joe: Oh, okay, interesting. Yeah, talk about that transition from that industry into the …
Casey: Yeah, it was kind of a weird, weird thing, but talking about my little brother being a breakdancer … We kind of all danced. He got a job on Bob the Builder, a theater show, touring the US, Canada, and Mexico. He called me one night, he’s like, “Hey, they need a head carpenter.” I was kind of at the point of getting burnt out because I wasn’t using my hands, I wasn’t working on cars, I was dealing with people all day, the heat and … I was kind of over it. I flew to Dallas to audition in a room full of agents, and actors, and portfolios, and blah blah, and I was the little guy in the corner like, “Why am I here?” I went, I can’t act, I can’t dance, but I can drive anything, and part of it was that you had these million dollar animatronic hydraulic electric machines. I got the part of Roley the Steamroller.
Joe: Nice, I can see that for sure.
Casey: Then they cross-trained me to be the head carp for the tour. I kind of just, yeah, fell in the right camp, and my production manager was Jake Barry, and he’s the one that got the Stones touring here back in the day. He’s done everything in rock and roll. Did that tour and then … Kind of a career man, I just have bounced all over the place, from fire, to marketing for healthcare campuses, to just all these random things, and many, obviously, automotive jobs in between. Then I just kept getting calls for the road, for theater, and so I did Bob the Builder, then I did Walking With Dinosaurs, then I did as Batman’s production stage manager. I toured all over the world with those. Then I got back and in between tours I would work for a company here locally, based in Belgium but headquartered in Black Forest, Colorado — named Stageco. They built the largest black steel rock and roll staging in the world. I would weld and fabricate for them in between theater gigs, and then when I finished Batman they hired me as a project manager, and so I would kind of just work with the production teams and get some staging ready for these big tours.
Joe: How did you process sort of just jumping from career to career, industry to industry? Did that sit well to you? Did it feel like you sort of had no path? Were you happy with the change of pace a lot?
Casey: Yeah, in high school working all four years at the same shop, same job, I thought I would be that guy that would graduate from automotive school and just be there for the rest of his life. God kind of, really took me on a whirlwind career-wise. Honestly it’s been great, I’ve met some incredible people through it all, I have amazing friends in every realm, every career path, I have some solid friends in each of them.
Joe: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Casey: I wouldn’t change it for anything, that’s for sure.
Joe: Let’s transition into your current role. What kind of crossroads kind of met to make that happen? As you go to your website it’s five guys sitting together over a fire and you’re talking about sort of the … Transition a little bit into this touring the world, into distilling … That’s a jump so I’m sure you did some stuff in between there, right?
Casey: Yeah. When I was on Batman, one of my closest friends in the world are some of my partners, so like Jason Jackson and Eric Baldini. I’d come home off the road for two weeks every three months or so and we’d go to Jason’s out in Black Forest, and we hunt so we’d cook up a pig or an elk, we’d play some washers or some corn hole and then grill up some food. A lot of it, literally some people, some businesses just say, “Oh, yeah, it started around a fire,” this one actually did.
Joe: It actually did, yeah.
Casey: Yeah, just having a good time, barbecues with friends out in Black Forest. We started making beer, and then we kind of started making moonshine, and then. . .
Joe: All just for yourself, not for a living?
Casey: Yeah, just tinkering. Then I would go back out on the road for three or four months, and come back, and products that just started getting better, and better, and better, and better. Everyone was like, “Gosh, this is good, you guys need to do it.” I really wanted to start a family and move forward with things here locally.
Joe: At that point you were married …
Casey: Yeah, I had been married for 10 years.
Joe: 10 years, okay. Just to transition a little bit off that story, had she traveled with you? Was she sort of staying here at home? What was her-
Casey: No, she did. She didn’t do the first … We met after my first tour, and then a year into our marriage Jake Barry, the production manager, kept, he was just persistent, and I turned him down four times. I tend to turn things down four times, I turned the blind date down four times for my wife before I met her.
Joe: This podcast you turned down four times ’til you finally said “yes.”
Casey: Totally, then I was like, “Ah, he’s pretty cool.” Yeah, turned him down four times before I actually took the job. My wife, Mundi, she’s amazing, super hard worker, and she had never worked a day in her life in theater. We were doing rehearsals for Walking With Dinosaurs in Tacoma, Washington, and I went to Jake one day, it’s probably about two months in, and I’m like, “Jake, I’m not going to last long. I’ve been married for a year. I just want to let you know that I’ll probably get you through to rehearsals and stuff, but if I can’t get my wife out here to tour with me I’m going home.”
Joe: Yeah, for sure.
Casey: I could just tell, Mundi was lonely, she was just … We were both hurt and we had only been married for that stinking year, and I just took off. She stepped onboard that tour, which was 36 tractor trailer loads … It was a big theater show. She walked on as the assistant stage manager.
Joe: Interesting, okay.
Casey: Yeah. It was Australian-based, all the dinosaurs were built in Melbourne, Australia, and most of the crew came from there, and the assistant stage manager was heading back to Australia for another gig. It just, the timing was perfect. She stepped on as the assistant stage manager, she worked up all the way to assistant company manager, and then … Yeah, she did that tour with me, and then she came out on Batman with me, and she got to dress all the Batmans.
Casey: And Sam Heughan, which is on Outlander, which is the sexiest man in Scotland.
Joe: Oh, that’s who my wife’s really interested in right now, yeah. Interesting.
Casey: We used to . . .
Joe: I’m sure she really struggled through that part of her career.
Casey: Oh, it was rough for her, very rough, yeah.
Joe: That’s hilarious.
Joe: How did you guys actually meet?
Casey: Yeah, we met a guy at a men’s retreat, and kind of … That was over the weekend, Wednesday we hooked back up just to do a little recap with the dudes, and this guy’s name was Jeremy Bakel, and he goes … He was talking to my dad when I got there and he was like, I didn’t hardly know this guy and he was like, “We need to find Casey a wife.” Three minutes later he’s like, “I got the perfect girl.”
Joe: Oh, wow.
Casey: He was like, “Come out with us Friday,” and I said no. He called me three other times and I said no. Then the fifth time I think I was like, “Okay, cool. You’re persistent, I’ll go out, we’ll have a good night, blah blah.” I had no idea about this girl, I didn’t even know her name. Then Friday rolled around and she calls me. She’s like, “Casey, this is Mundi, are you coming out tonight?” I was like, “Who is this?” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m coming, I’m coming,” so I picked her up at her condo that night, and we had a blind date with that other couple, a couple date. Went to the Olive Branch, which is now Red Gravy, downtown, and had a good night. Both of us walked away with a lot in common, knew a lot of the same people, but we were like, we’ll probably be like mountain bike buddies or hiking buddies.
Casey: Then, yeah, it’s kind of a crazy story, but over the weekend her ski rack fell off of her car going to Copper Mountain and her car got kind of jacked up. I’m a mechanic, she calls me, and she’s like, “Hey, can you look at my car?” Looked at her car after work, and she was like … I was pulling out of her driveway and she’s like, “Hey, do you want to go get dinner in Manitou?” We were there for four hours, just talking about stuff that we shouldn’t have been talking about, like life goals and blah blah blah. Then the next week-
Joe: It’s not really a date, it’s just her hanging out …
Casey: It was just hanging out, yeah. Then the next week she went to a wedding, she was from Oklahoma, she went to a wedding, one of her friends got married in Oklahoma. She drove back through this nasty blizzard. I bought my first house down in Pueblo West, so she stopped by my house, chilled out for a little bit, and I followed her back to the Springs, went to a restaurant, stayed there for four or five hours, just talking, talking, talking. Well, this is at two weeks. Two and a half weeks, her parents drive up from Texas to meet me, so everything was moving super fast and everything. I proposed at three weeks and we-
Joe: Sounds like it was moving at the pace you wanted it to, though, too.
Casey: I proposed at three weeks, and then we got married at six months — March 4th, got married September 4th, 2005.
Joe: Okay. How old were you at that …
Casey: I was 25.
Joe: Okay, interesting. That’s crazy. I was married at 24, didn’t have the same sort of experience you had. Mine was much more, almost … I wouldn’t say matched, we were matched through our parents, but it felt a little bit like we were doing a lot of things based on our parents’ desires for timetable and who we’d have in the wedding, all that kind of stuff. We often talk about redoing the wedding altogether because we felt like it really wasn’t ours to begin with. I always thought that was because of my age, but you were 25, you were making some decisions for yourself. That’s cool.
Joe: She went on tour with you and then you were on … Let’s go back to sort of … Now you’re coming back to Black Forest, you’re doing some stuff with some brewing, distilling, that kind of stuff.
Casey: Yeah. Got off the road, I was working for Stageco, and then we kind of fired Axe and the Oak up. It was a hobby that we were like, “Let’s just try something.” We had no idea, no idea what we were doing at all.
Joe: Okay. In distilling or in running a business or all of the above?
Casey: Kind of all of the above. My goal before the whiskey thing was getting off the road and starting a fabrication shop, and building cars, and motorcycles, and custom furniture, and all that stuff. I had everything all set up and situated, all the tooling, and got my LLC, and blah blah. Yeah, we decided to push forward with the whiskey, and before you submit your application you have to have your brick and mortar, you have to have all of your equipment, so it was a gigantic risk for us. We didn’t have a huge amount of money into it, but for us, we had a lot of money in it.
Joe: Yeah, this isn’t a work out of your house, kind of a business.
Casey: We sat on that for nine months, we had to pay on that for nine months, we couldn’t touch the equipment. We finally got our approval, man, and we just kind of got rocking and rolling. Yeah, I guess we were about three months in, no one knew us at all. For a marketing thing I entered the Denver International in the North American Bourbon and Whiskey competition, not expecting a thing, be like, “Hey, we’re little Axe and the Oak.”
Joe: Yeah, you could at least promote that you were in the competition, right? You of course didn’t expect to win, but, “Hey, we’re competing in this.”
Casey: Yeah. We did, we took two silvers in two really big competitions. Since then we’ve taken stuff in San Francisco International, and New York International, and our rye the last two years has won gold in Whiskeys of the World, our bourbons took silver in Whiskeys of the World.
Joe: Which those awards, I mean that’s confirmation that you’re not just having a buddy saying, “This is good stuff.”
Casey: “Yeah, it’s good, bro.”
Joe: Yeah, it’s like your mom or dad saying, “Wow, you’re really great at this,” and it doesn’t mean a lot … I mean it means something, but you just know you’re not getting that objective you …
Casey: Exactly, exactly. The competitions that you hit two years in a row, and then the second year it’s best in class … It’s pretty neat.
Joe: What do you attribute that success to? Is it just dumb luck? I mean, you kind of described it a little bit like we didn’t know what we were doing, so how do you . . .
Casey: We just kind of buckled down and really honed into our craft. I guess it was about three years in, we came to a point where we tripled production, quadrupled sales, and we started depleting our barrels. The system that we were on wasn’t keeping up. Really didn’t have the beaucoup bucks that everyone else has going into distillation so …
Joe: You didn’t have any investors at all? It was just your own money thrown in?
Casey: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. We had to make a hard decision, we never wanted to do any blending, but in order to keep our doors open we had to. I really felt bad, and I have some really good friends in the distillation industry, and it was one of those things where I reached out to a bunch of them and I was like, “Man, it really stinks, but this is what we’re going to have to do.” All of them were super supportive, like, “Of course, yeah, do it.”
Joe: Yeah. Had they had to do the same thing at one point too?
Casey: Some of them had. There’s been a few of them that have been able just to crank and hold down the fort with making their own product, and I’m super happy for them, hats off to them. I was really nervous about all that because I was like, “Well, we’re bringing in a sourced bourbon, a sourced rye, how are we going to stay consistent?” We’ve become … I don’t know if we have the schooling or the title to call ourselves master blenders, but we can blend our asses off. We’ve become really, really good at it, to where if some of these other distilleries ran into the issue that we had, they’d have a lot to learn, because it’s not super easy. Yeah, we’ve been able to keep our product consistent, blending our product in with our sourced, and … Honestly it’s been a lot of fun doing it that way. Yeah, it was just like a, man, a huge weight off of our shoulders, a breath of fresh air. At the time, bro, it was nerve wracking.
Joe: Oh, for sure. I mean that resiliency of an entrepreneur, even if you got to find a way to make that work.
Casey: Got to do it.
Joe: What about … What I’m curious about, though, too is … You talked about having, you’re all set up to sort of get into that auto industry, and you had all the equipment, and ready to go. There’s a lot of shit that’s talked about over a fire, “Hey, we should do this,” and of course as more drinks come it’s like even better ideas you run after. What was it about this idea that it was, it seemed viable enough to sort of step away from what you’re wanting to do and actually run after it versus just another great idea around a fire? What about it was worth running after? Especially since you didn’t have a ton of … You had some dabbling of your own experience, but nothing professional.
Casey: Nothing professional, yeah. I think it was probably, at the time it was the individuals that were in the mix, Jason and Eric and Scott. I have another partner, Mike Helwidge, and … Yeah, we’re just … I don’t know, man, it was just one of those things where we made it happen. It was nerve wracking and I have to say, when I started this I had a full-time job with benefits. I had a side gig with my furniture custom company, it was called Camp Fabrication. I had some backups at the time that I started.
Joe: Yeah, some fallbacks.
Casey: Some fallbacks for sure, but the whole thing was like … It was nerve wracking, for sure, but exciting.
Joe: Was it also nerve wracking to kind of go in with some friends? You’ve got some support with these guys who you’ve known a lot, but was that also a little scary, of like, just going to impede our friendships, are we going to put those at risk for the sake of this business? Did you not even think about that or care about that? Did you know the relationships were solid enough that they were going to fight through this?
Casey: Yeah, I didn’t want to have a lot of partners. It kind of started with Jay and I, and then Eric, and then Scott wanted in … It just kind of … I was like, “Oh, man, I don’t …” Honestly it wasn’t something I wanted or we wanted, it’s just kind of how it happened. Man, I’ve heard some horror stories in business, in small business. I am so thankful for the partners that I have and the way that we’ve been able to work through different issues. There’s never been any crazy blowups or anything like that, and I met with two of them yesterday before a big meeting, and then I’m driving down to Texas to pick him up with my buddy Jason tomorrow.
Joe: That’s awesome.
Casey: Yeah, still really close friends, and doing well. It’s not always the case but I’m really happy and thankful that’s how it’s worked out for us.
Joe: That’s great. Yeah, I’ve had a couple clients who have been friends and have made me leery of taking on them as clients, or to have friends as clients, which can be different than partnerships, you’re serving them and they’re paying you for your services. You hear the stories, as you said, and you’re hesitant sometimes. Paint a little picture about the … You kind of had this desire to put a product out there but it sounds like it was a little bit more driven by just your desire to create it. Did you also, though, see a need in the industry? What was the landscape back then? Were you competing against a lot of people? Was there, like we need this in this space, or where were you at back then?
Casey: Yeah, when we first got going 291 had released. 291, Michael Myers was the first one here in the Springs, and then Lee Spirits and Axe and the Oak, we kind of came on at the same time. Now there’s, shoot, 11, 12, 13 distilleries just here. We saw a need and we saw … We were like, “Man, if we can kind of pull this off we’re going to be right ahead of the curve.” As far as the fire department and all the code and everything here, the first five distilleries were, we had to have a five year grace period on coming up to code. The fire department, when we first started they had no idea what to do with us. Colorado Springs Fire Department’s been really great, and been working with us, and if they had to put in that code they would have put every distillery out of business type of thing. They’ve really worked well with us. Yeah, it’s neat, and I’m grateful for the time we got in. If we got any later it would have been a lot more difficult for us.
Joe: Yeah. How about buyers or consumers? Where were they at in that space? There’s much more demand for that product nowadays I feel like, but 10, 15 years ago it was sort of a niche sort of experience. What was the marketplace like that for consumers? Were they ready for that? Did they need to be persuaded, like what is this product, why do you need it? Where were they at?
Casey: Yeah, I think when we first got in, I think everyone was ready. They had been on the craft brew thing for several years, and cool, all these whiskey distilleries are coming in. The good thing about Colorado is they support local like crazy. We thought it was going to be, “Oh, man, we’re going door to door, we’re going to have to … It’s going to be really hard to sell …” First couple liquor stores, we walk in, it was just like, “Yeah, you’re local? You’re from here? What are you talking about?” It was just like, “Take my money,” type of thing.
Joe: That’s awesome.
Casey: Then selling to them, and then getting a reorder … It was like, “You can call me.” What are you doing calling me? This is cool.
Joe: That’s awesome. Just the name too … Can you give me a quick … Is there a great story behind the name? Is it sort of like you were sitting next to an axe and you saw an oak?
Casey: No, we wanted to be looking at whiskey, and this is one of the conversations around the fire, but we wanted to be kind of geared around the prohibition era. All the federal agents had an axe with them to puncture all the distillation equipment, and bust up all the barrels, so on our first business cards I have the original photo of a federal agent with an axe over his shoulder walking through the woods in Kentucky looking for a makeshift distillery. That’s what we’re … It was, we were looking for spaces out in Callahan, because we were looking for cheap real estate for the distillery. I was in the truck, I was like, “Guys, what about Axe and the Cask?” We got back to the house that night and we had a couple drinks, and it didn’t come out as Axe and the Cask, it came out as something very different.
Joe: For sure.
Casey: Axe and the Oak is what we settled on. Yeah, it worked out good.
Joe: That is a good story. I just always found those fascinating, about how people get to the name of their … Keyhole, I’m always … People ask about Keyhole, how we got there, but it’s actually from a Bob Dylan lyric I heard on the way back from a flight from Wyoming, I think. The picture isn’t always the greatest picture, he talks about like he’s on his knees looking at a girl through the keyhole, but what I like about it was just that visual of helping businesses get to the other side of the door, like trying to get to the things they want to do, and the things they want to accomplish, and how do we help you get to that. You can see it, but how do you get to the other side of that?
Casey: That’s cool.
Joe: It comes from that picture. It’s not always the best story I want to tell, but at the same time it has a good visual. You talk about wanting to create an opportunity for people to sit around, share some stories, share life … Are there other things that you’re intentional, other than just sort of creating a great product which is a huge step, are there other things you’re intentional about with your brand to create those opportunities for people, to create that experience for people?
Casey: Yeah, that was a big intention. We wanted people to sit down, have a glass of whiskey, and talk. That’s why you go down to the whiskey house, there’s no TV, there’s nothing to sidetrack you except for music, which it just helps the vibe.
Joe: Yeah, it generates conversation sometimes, for sure.
Casey: Exactly. We’re all about that. Being born and raised here, loving Colorado Springs, loving how far it’s come in the last five to 10 years, seeing where it’s going currently is really exciting. We really just wanted to create a space and a product that people can sit down, and enjoy, and chill out with each other, and just want to get to know each other, or keep building on a relationship type of thing.
Joe: Yeah. That’s interesting from that perspective, because obviously you’re a business owner so you’re loving the growth that’s happening in this area. As a fairly new person here I get mixed reviews on that, you get a lot of people who have been here for a long time and it’s getting too busy, and the traffic’s kind of crazy, which again, it’s all relative, because I lived in Chicago, I lived in other cities, and the traffic isn’t close to that.
Casey: No way.
Joe: Even as a native who’s seen it in a quieter time, you’re loving kind of where it’s going, though?
Casey: Yeah, and I’m kind of a … Being an outdoorsman, I love mountain biking, I love hiking, I love all of what it has to offer here in the Springs. I could be perfectly content if no one ever moved here ever again. My wife and I, when we got off the road we were looking at moving to Denver, Fort Collins, just because it was more vibrant and that’s what we were kind of wanting at the time. We were looking right before we started Axe and the Oak and I’m really happy we stayed, because there are some really cool things going on here. The youngsters that are graduating from Colorado Springs are staying in Colorado Springs and not moving to Chicago, or LA, or whatever. It’s just been fun to watch. Yeah, I used to race dirt bikes out on Powers and Marksheffel, there was nothing here. I do have to say, it was stagnant for a long time, and it was hard for youngsters out of high school or college to stay focused.
Joe: Yeah, you had to go somewhere else to get going.
Casey: Yeah, have fun. If you weren’t into the outdoors, the nightlife, the food, the beverage, it was just … It was dismal.
Joe: Yeah. I can relate to that, that’s part of the reason we moved to Chicago after we got married, just to get our careers going. There wasn’t much where we lived in Indian in certain towns, to kind of get going on a good start that’s where you had to go, to the large cities, to get those opportunities. It’s nice when they have … The industry, the world has changed so much since back then. I mean, again, you can start businesses out of your house, and do some stuff like that, you don’t have to go work for the brick and mortar, work for the man, some things have changed a lot.
Joe: Last couple questions, just thinking about family life a little bit, and we’ve talked a little bit about faith … You’ve been married 15 years I think, right?
Casey: Yeah, September will be 15.
Joe: Yeah, you mentioned that the other day. You’ve got a five-year-old … I know that your wife, you talked a little bit the other day when you and I met. She owns ALMAGRE, and she’s had her hands, or started some other businesses over the years.
Joe: What’s it like … It definitely seems like that entrepreneurial bug’s not going away for either one of you either time soon. What’s it like in your house, having both entrepreneurs, husband and wife, also being parents, though? Is that a chaotic experience? Do you try to create some peace and tranquility in there as much as possible? How does that …
Casey: For sure, yeah, it’s been very chaotic at times because things are really busy at Axe and the Oak, and Mundi’s starting a completely new thing, having the five-year-old … The last five years have been pretty wild, but we have a pretty good balance right now, I eat breakfast with them every morning, I eat dinner with them every night. Mundi and I are running so fast, and we’re running in different directions but we still make time … Our communication’s still, I ain’t going to lie, it ain’t the best, but we make it work. I just love them both dearly, and we have a lot of fun, and, man, my son, Walker, he’s just the coolest kid ever. He’s just so much fun.
Joe: That’s cool.
Casey: I’m really excited for Mundi, she’s got some good stuff going, she’s got a good business partner, and it’s doing well up there.
Joe: Yeah. Maybe I’m asking more for advice … My wife works out of the house and I have my own business out of the house, and we have a six-year-old, so he’s at school now, he just started kindergarten … Do you guys, do you try to sort of create some barriers around your house, where that’s a sanctuary space, or does everything sort of bleed into itself? Do you have work that kind of gets in there or do you try to protect certain areas of your space?
Casey: Yeah, I think how we’re geared, Mundi’s geared where we’ll get off work, we’ll have dinner, we’ll chill out as a family until 8:00, 8:30, and kind of the beautiful part is my wife and my son go to bed at the same dang time.
Joe: Nice, nice.
Casey: I’m a night owl so if I have to do anything work related, it’s after they’ve already hit the pillow.
Casey: I’ll be up ’til 2:00 in the morning, and we’ll get up at 7:00 and have some breakfast, so it’s cool.
Joe: That’s awesome, yeah. When you think back kind of on your life, you talked about a lot of people who have stuck through a lot of different times of life, friends from high school, from junior high. Who are some of the people who you look back and think those were hugely influential on your life and kind of where you are today?
Casey: Yeah, obviously mom and dad. My bros have been through a lot of crazy situations, good and bad, and I’m so thankful for my bros. They’re just good dudes. My stepsister. My wife is like, she’s just a great sounding board. Most of the time I’m doing something stupid so she’ll talk me down, or I’ll be like, “What about this?” And she’ll just have the perfect answer. Yeah, she’s great in that sense. Then I do, man, Joe, I have such good friends, such good family. My dad’s side was huge and so I have a million cousins on one side, and then on my mom’s side I have one cousin, so it’s really wild. Yeah, I’m very close friends from elementary, junior high, high school, and then every tour that I’ve ever done … It’s special.
Joe: Yeah, it is.
Casey: It really is special. John Morris, and Gary Laxson, John Lane, yeah, I’ve had some great people in my life.
Joe: Yeah, it’s awesome to have them come into your life and just stay there for a while, which is great. We talked a little bit the other day about just faith, and where it sits in our lives, and I think we’ve both kind of, pretty quickly expressed the tension we feel within the church, and the issues I think we’ve personally had in our own lives from time to time. I guess, how would you describe where faith sits in your life today? Does it mean a lot?
Casey: Yeah, faith really means a lot for my wife and myself. Cool seeing Walker in church now and everything. Yeah, I think in the church it gets very over complicated at times, so I’m at the point in my life, in my walk, that I love God, I love Jesus, but I want to keep things simple, and just love people. I don’t want to put on a show and I just want to realize that, man, God’s here, God saved me, God did all these things, and I kind of … It’s kind of weird saying I want to leave it at that, but I think Christianity has been spun in a very weird way. People are looking for certain things, and wanting to build their little box.
Joe: For sure.
Casey: Yeah, man, I just want to … I want to believe, and I want to help people, want to love people, and that kind of it.
Joe: It’s really about that simple. I mean that’s the thing … I think that’s what we talked about the other day, it was just stripping off a lot of that, the extracurriculars that we like to throw into that mix, and it can be a lot more simple than we make it.
Casey: Oh, man, yeah. It’s crazy.
Joe: Yeah. How do you let your faith impact your business? Is it intentional to kind of put those things together and bleed them together or sort of, do you try to separate them in some respects?
Casey: I think once you believe, like a lot of people that I deal with on the daily know that I’m a believer. I think if you believe sometimes it turns into a forceful feeling, “Oh, what’s this guy doing? This is just another guy, he’s got the fish on his car,” or whatever the case may be, but I don’t want to be that … I want to be kind, I want to respect people, and I want to meet people where they are. Through my lifetime, through my walk I’ve been, religion, or Christianity, it’s been forced upon me. I never want that. I definitely want to just meet people where they are. People are in some … This life that we live is hard. Yeah, if I’m able to just chill out with some people, cool.
Joe: Yeah. Do you think there’s … It’s always hard to define sometimes. I’ve worked at some organizations who led with that Jesus fish and it got to be so forced, and it got to be a little unreal. It is hard, I’m kind of the same tension you have of, I don’t want to deny it and not put it into the business, but I also don’t want it to necessarily be stamped all over the place, and come across as the wrong motive, the wrong intentions behind it.
Casey: I wasn’t a good dude. Thankfully I found Jesus. I work, I have a lot of employees now, we have a lot of employees now that don’t know Jesus, we work everyday with people in every sector. It’s just like … No, no, let’s just … Let’s be nice, one, and hey, if that door opens there, cool. Yeah, there’s so many people and such different seasons, it’s really hard to go there.
Joe: Yeah, this whole area is interesting. My wife and I really enjoy that because it’s open to those conversations … I guess it probably depends on your perspective. For us it seems to be a good balance, it’s not an oppressive area. Other people might have a different story based on their own background and their own stories, but we’ve found a good mix of people who are open to that conversation, and also those who are fine with staying away from that conversation too, but also aren’t ready to cut you off just because you brought it up. It’s good. What is it about this town, just as we kind of close this up, you’ve been here your whole life … What is it about this town that makes it so special to you?
Casey: A lot of people would say it’s not very diverse, but I think it’s very diverse with all the people flowing in and out of Colorado Springs with military. I think with all of the religious base, Christianity base, it’s huge here. Then, yeah, I just haven’t … It’s pretty wild thinking about, but I just like that aspect of how diverse it is. People are like, “Well, you have a million military bases there, and you have a million Christian organizations there, but you have this, and this, and this, and that going on as well, and you have all this outdoors stuff going on, and it’s beautiful …” Yeah, it’s funny where social media’s gone these days, and just where all these chats spike up, and … Man, people are all over. They put themselves in this little pocket, and they’re cursing that sector, and this person’s cursing that sector … It’s funny. I just kind of hang back. I love it.
Joe: You, it seems like you’re very intentional about kind of giving back to this community. Why is that important to you? Whether it’s just your own personal involvement as a business, I mean …
Casey: Yeah, I want to see Colorado Springs succeed, that’s it. I want Colorado to succeed because I have awesome friends and family here, and I have an awesome family here, and I plan on staying here for the rest of my life, honestly. We’ll see, my wife, she’s one of those gals that wants to pick up and move to Fort Collins, and then this place … We’ll see how it goes. I could very easily never travel again and stay here in Colorado and be completely content.
Joe: Content, yeah. What is next for you, for the business? Anything new on the horizon you want to share?
Casey: Let’s see here. Yeah, we’ll have a lot of releases in 2020. It’s going to be a great year. We’re doing a big barrel project, so we’re going to have a port finished, and a cognac finished, and a tequila finished. Then we’re working on a couple gins, we’re working on butterscotch liqueur. Man, just all kinds of fun stuff. My family down at the whiskey — the whole crew that works for us — they’re family. I love working with them and I love what they’re doing down there. They’re very, very, very talented. Just really incredible mixologists. They’re working on this peanut liqueur. It is literally like a salted … It is the best thing I have had.
Joe: It sounds very good!
Casey: It’s really good. We’re just always concocting different things and trying to have as much fun as we can. We’re going to try to, in 2020 or 2021 we’re going to move the distillery into a bigger location. We’re about to purchase a bigger distillation system that would triple our current production. Yeah, we have a lot of stuff happening in the next year or two, and it should be, yeah, just a wonderful year. Personally, my wife and I just bought a little property and a little cabin in Westcliffe, Colorado. I’m still a gear head so I’m building a car for Bonneville 2020.
Joe: 2020, okay, yeah.
Casey: Yep, so August.
Joe: Awesome. You’re going to be racing in that?
Joe: That’s awesome. Good luck with that.
Casey: Yeah, it’s going to be fun.
Joe: Cool, man. Thanks so much for the time today. It’s been a lot of fun.
Casey: Thank you, yeah. It’s cool.
Joe: I’ll be over at your place pretty soon, I’m sure, again.
Casey: All right.
Joe: Just over there not too long ago but I’ll have to get back.
Casey: Good deal.
Joe: Good to see you, man. Thanks.
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