If you see Sylvan Ellefson hoisting a glass of whiskey or bourbon at a farmer’s market this summer, don’t be alarmed. He hasn’t gone off the deep end since retiring from nordic racing earlier this spring; he’s just doing his job.
At the end of last season, the 27-year-old Ski and Snowboard Club Vail member and Team HomeGrown founder decided he was ready for a change. Born and raised in Vail, Colo., he wanted to stay there, but the income he was reaping as a professional skier wasn’t cutting it. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, had been his carrot, enticing him over the last several years (and his career) to train harder, race faster and hopefully make the U.S. Olympic team.
But it didn’t happen.
The night before the 30-kilometer freestyle mass start at U.S. nationals in January, a race which Ellefson considered his best shot at proving his stripes for the Olympic team, he wrote himself a letter, which he posted on Facebook when he announced his retirement on March 31.
“Skiing began on a whim,” it began. “A suggestion from Duncan as something I might be good at. … Here I am, a night out from the biggest race of my entire life. Have I put in enough work already to help get me bid to the 2014 Sochi Olympics? I have no idea…
“Success is such a subjective thing,” the note continued. “I have to do this for me. As much as I want to do this for everyone else, I have to remember that I am doing this for me because it is what I love. It is my passion.”
The next day, Ellefson remembered feeling completely relaxed lining up for the 30 k.
“I knew I was just out there doing what I loved to do,” he said on the phone from Vail last month.
He won the race by 2.8 seconds over Brian Gregg of Team Gregg/Madshus. It was his first national title.
Exactly two weeks later on Jan. 22, the U.S. Ski Team named its Olympic squad. Ellefson wasn’t on the list.
“I’ve never been so anxious my entire life for a phone call,” he recalled. “And then I didn’t get a phone call, I got an email, and then I returned the email with a phone call and I got another email back after that. I got so bummed out about it for a couple days. It took me to read that letter I had written to myself that night before the 30 k to really remember why I was doing it.”
His had been so concerned with the end goal rather than the process, he said.
“The reason I skied for so many years is because it’s so fun and I’ve met so many good people, so many good friends,” he added. “… Then it caught back up with me again when I didn’t get selected to the Olympic team and I was so angry for a while and just sad, and just maybe 5 percent relieved that it was over.”
Ellefson took nearly a month off racing, resuming the SuperTour circuit in St. Paul, Minn., then the American Birkebeiner on Feb. 22, in which he placed 21st. As a mid-season SuperTour leader, he earned World Cup starts in March in Lahti, Finland, and Drammen and Oslo, Norway. In those four World Cup races, he posted a best result of 67th in the Drammen classic sprint.
“It was good for me to take a little time off after the Olympic selection,” he said. “It was good for me to do things I liked to do — I went skiing and I kind of stopped training for a while and I enjoyed my life here in Vail. I knew I was going to finish out the season as much as I could … I did want to ski a couple more World Cups just because the feeling of skiing a World Cup is pretty awesome. My results weren’t fantastic, but just to be over there and experiencing it was good for me to remind me, and now I miss it again.”
The Holmekollen 50 k classic mass start in Oslo was Ellefson’s last race. He didn’t finish, and when he began contemplating a trip to Anchorage, Alaska, for the final SuperTour races of the season, Ellefson knew he was ready to hang up his racing boards. Not for good, but for the time being.
“I chose this life path a long time ago,” he said. “Getting married and knowing that I wanted to live in Vail for the rest of my life, I kind of started realizing this year that in order to do that I had to make life more sustainable here. Unfortunately a skier’s income is hard to pay all the bills with so that kind of slapped me in the face, made me realize that maybe not necessarily an entire withdrawal from the sport, but putting it on the back burner a little bit was probably in the cards if I wanted to continue living here.”
In contention for an overall SuperTour podium for 2013/2014, he spoke with his coaches Eric Pepper and Dan Weiland about whether he should finish out the season in Alaska.
“That was kind of the point in which I was like, yeah I want to go to Spring Series because this is what I do at the end of every year — it’s fun, it’s the end-of-the-season races you get to be with all the people you’ve been racing with all year and have a good time afterwards,” Ellefson said. “Then I kind of had to get out of that mentality and think about whether it actually made sense.”
If he wasn’t planning on racing next season and wasn’t concerned with improving his SuperTour standing or International Ski Federation (FIS) point profile, it didn’t. And so he made his decision, and now it was time to get to another line of work.
The Whiskey Man
“… I am a current 10th Mountain soldier who has multiple deployments to Afghanistan and I am extremely proud to contribute to your endeavor. You have paid tribute to the soldiers that have come before and forever persevered their legacy. Thank you and CLIMB TO GLORY!” — Ben Coon, a current 10th Mountain soldier based out of Fort Drum, N.Y., in an email to 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company. According to The Bourbon Review, Coon will probably be amongst the first to enjoy one of the original batches once they’re released this summer or fall.
After stepping back from skiing this spring, Ellefson took a job overseeing the property management and service department at his friend’s masonry company, Avignon Stone and Outdoor Living in Vail.
His days were long — often 7 to 7 — but Ellefson had an end in sight. He was already a partial partner with Christian Avignon, the owner, and Ryan Thompson, one of Ellefson’s high-school soccer coaches, but not in the masonry business.
Avignon and Thompson, who owns the West Side Cafe in Vail, had been working on creating a craft distillery — the 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company — for the last two years. The business was homegrown, promising locally sourced whiskey and bearing the name of the 10th Mountain Division, of which Avignon’s grandfather Fred Vetter was a medic in during the 1940s. At the time, the U.S. Army trained at Camp Hale, about 30 minutes away from Vail.
“The patriotic men of the 10th brought diversity, courage, and hope to the Rocky Mountains when they arrived in the 1940′s to train just a few miles south of what is now Vail,” the 10th Whiskey’s website states. “They were part of the greatest generation of men, wanting to make each day count and each day better than the last. The mentality they had was strong after being shaped from the rigors of mountain warfare, their ego’s humble.
“The 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirit Company is an extension of the mountain lifestyle, bringing together the old with the new,” the statement continued. “Generation after generation, men and women alike, all share this same passion, enjoying it for a day, a weekend, a lifetime, or somewhere in between. No matter how long it’s embraced the combination of friends, mountains, memories and spirits, bring people together like no other.”
The two founders approached Ellefson late last summer with a proposal, in full support of his racing career, letting him know they’d have a job for him at the distillery later on if he was interested. As Ellefson understood it, he would assume a range of jobs and responsibilities in the early days of the business (including social media, event planning, and merchandise design and ordering), and eventually become the tasting-room manager — “somebody who’s going to meet and greet the people and hopefully cause customers to come back and help create that brand loyalty,” according to Ellefson — at their tasting room in Vail.
The 7,000-square-foot distillery, where the alcohol is made, would be at a leased space in Gypsum, Colo., about 30 miles from Vail, and Ellefson confirmed both the tasting room and distillery were in place and planning to open mid-summer. As of now, they’re waiting on licensing and all the necessary paperwork to be approved.
In April, the Kickstarter online fundraiser Ellefson put in place raised nearly $28,000 dollars, well over the company’s $25,000 goal. A day before the campaign ended, he wrote on Facebook that an “Angel donor” pledged $10,000 for a personalized 53-gallon whiskey barrel and bottles containing a whiskey named after the donor.
While the money Kickstarter raised wasn’t essential for 10th Mountain Whiskey’s development, it’s a good chunk of change toward establishing their business, estimated to cost at least half a million dollars, according to Ellefson.
“The reason we did the Kickstarter is because we are starting mom-and-pop style,” he said. “We really wanted people, even before we had a product to feel, especially in this small town, that they were a part of something like this.”
The craft distillery will be the first in the Vail area, with another distillery about 45 minutes away in Breckenridge and some smaller distilleries down the valley from Vail, he said.
“The neat thing about craft distilling is there’s not a ton of competition. If anything it’s more craft distilleries working together to compete against the Jim Beams, the Jack Daniels, the big guys,” he explained. “It’s kind of cool to see a couple craft distilleries help market each other and make craft distilling a cool thing, especially in the state of Colorado.”
He learned there were more than 250 craft breweries in Colorado, a boom which distillery owners are anticipating will hit their industry. Adding to the hype, there’s a possibility that 10th Mountain Whiskey could be featured in a reality TV show about startup craft distilleries, although Ellefson wasn’t sure of the details.
“We are a sponsor of the GoPro Games in Vail, CO coming up June 5-8 and will have a tent with all of our spirit accessories including whiskey barrels, rocks glasses, pint glasses, t-shirts, hats, flasks, stainless steel mason jars, etc.,” he wrote in an email.
And this week, he’s fyling to Kentucky — Bourbon Country — to pick up some barrels and drive them back to Colorado, and plans to post updates about his road trip on Facebook.
As for the farmer’s market, Ellefson said that’s a possiblity since Colorado allows distilleries to sell liquor from different locations simultaneously (i.e. a tasting room and a farmer’s market).
“I love whiskey,” he said with a laugh. “You definitely have to know your product so to be able to taste other bourbons and whiskeys … I’d say in the month of April I was a pretty avid whiskey taster.”
He’s also taken an advanced distilling class to learn about the process, but none of the partners will actually create the product. Thompson and Avignon attended Moonshine University in Louisville to learn the ins and outs of whiskey making, but will hire a master distiller to do the dirty work.
They plan to purchse a still from Vendrome Copper & Brass Works, which could cost around $150,000 to $200,000 for a 500-gallon tank.
According to The Bourbon Review, they’ll start off with a corn moonshine, a rye whiskey, a Bourbon, a potato vodka and a sage infused, peach-vanilla cordial.
And whenever Ellefson’s not promoting the business, he’ll be off enjoying some of what he’s missed over the years, like Colorado hut trips in the middle of the winter and back-to-back-to-back weekends with friends in Moab, Utah. Earlier this month at the Greenland Trail 25 k in Larkspur, Colo., Ellefson placed ninth in 1:48:23.
“I’ve been pretty excited to start a new life,” he said. “Especially doing it with [my wife] Sarah [who graduated physical therapy school in May], because we’ve never been able to spend a ton of time together. … Even the little times when we get to do these backcountry skinning trips or these little bike trips, we’re just like, man if we could just do this all the time, it would be so fun and so awesome. Now that we’ve been able to do that a little bit, I’m happy that I made the decision that I did.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.