It takes enormous personal sacrifice, commitment and discipline to serve in the United States Armed Forces. It’s also an endeavor that embraces camaraderie, something vital both in the military and to kick-start a career in the spirits business. From former compatriots in arms, to friends and family, these seven veteran-led spirits makers are the perfect way to toast Memorial Day, from sea to shining sea.
Travis Barnes, Hotel Tango Whiskey
When the events of September 11th occurred, Travis Barnes was an undergrad at Purdue University’s campus in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“I’d just turned 19,” says Barnes, co-owner of Hotel Tango Whiskey in Indianapolis. “I dropped out and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I feel like I had a calling.”
Barnes was part of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, the first troops to enter Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003 (“The tip of the spear, essentially,” he says). He completed three tours in his four-and-a-half years as a Marine.
“I wasn’t Rambo by any stretch, but I was a gunfighter and that’s what I did,” he says with a laugh. “By my third tour, I had my own six-man team, all of them fresh-faced 18-year-old kids, and I was the old man at 23. That’s like 96 in Marine Corps years.”
By 2006, he was reacclimating to civilian life. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, then enrolled in law school, where he met his wife and business partner, Hilary.
Law school didn’t stick, but Hilary did. When she saw him tinkering with distilling in her parents’ backyard, the two decided to give it a go.
In September 2014, armed with a trio of 26-gallon capacity stills, Barnes opened Hotel Tango. The name represents the first letters of his and Hilary’s names using the military’s International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet.
Today, he makes vodka, gin, rum, rye whiskey, a Bourbon, orangecello, limoncello and a cherry liqueur.
“I like that distilling is a manifestation of my artistic and creative side, as well as the science part that I find fascinating,” he says.
He also has a five-acre farm where he grows the ingredients for the tasting room’s cocktails. Last summer, they cultivated more than 40 varieties of produce that fueled everything from custom Bloody Mary mix to garnishes. A secondary partner of Hotel Tango Farms is nonprofit Indy Urban Acres, a project of the Indianapolis Parks Foundation.
Willie Blazer, Willie’s Distillery
Willie Blazer grew up around moonshiners in western North Carolina, but he never thought it would be part of his future.
“I was always around it,” says Blazer, owner of Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana. “It was common. [Famous moonshiner] Popcorn Sutton was friend of the family.”
But before his Carolina roots would inform his future, he spent 14 years in the Army, and served in the 3rd Ranger Battalion Infantry and the 19th Special Forces Unit in Afghanistan. Upon his discharge in 2006, Blazer and Robin, his wife who grew up in the grain business in Montana, began to investigate making spirits.
“We’d been playing around making our own beer and wine and stuff,” he says. “Spirits were up and coming, so we thought we’d give it a shot.”
They opened Willie’s Distillery in 2010 They launched with the corn, oat, barley and wheat-based Montana Moonshine, released in 2012. It also eventually headed to barrels to become the source of their Bourbon.
They also make honey moonshine, corn-based vodka, two cream liqueurs—huckleberry and coffee cream—and chokecherry liqueur.
“It’s a wild berry that grows out here in Montana,” says Blaze. “We have some on our property here in Ennis. We pick the berries every year.”
Kelly Everhart, Royal Foundry Craft Spirits
“I put positive out, I get positive back,” says Kelly Everhart, co-founder of Royal Foundry Craft Spirits and a 10-year veteran as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps attorney, the legal arm of the U.S. Army. “I truly believe that’s the only way to be.
“I was a defense council as my first job, handling court-marshal cases,” she says. “It’s scary because someone’s life is in your hands. As new lawyers in the military to have that responsibility to do something you’ve never done, you mature very quickly. But those leadership skills I learned translated well into real life. I learned everything I am using now in the Army.”
It’s what makes her a great leader at Royal Foundry in Minneapolis, which she owns with Nikki and Andy McLain.
“I run the business,” says Everhart, “That’s my forte. I’m the CEO. I handle the finances, sales, human resources.”
Everhart was approached by the McLains to join the company, and she soon jumped into the distilling world with both feet. It encapsulates her core strengths: a combination of solid planning and hard work, combined with faith in her instincts. That formula is also kind of how she wound up in the Army.
“For me, going into the Army was somewhat of a whim,” she says. “I was just out of law school, and I wanted to have practice interviewing for jobs. I was born in a military family. My dad, grandfather, cousins—we have a long history of military service.
“When I interviewed [with JAG], I was offered a job. I thought about it and said, ‘Why not?’ It’s great pay and fantastic experience out of the gate. And I did my service, too.”
The 15,000-square-foot distillery, event space and cocktail room leans toward the British roots of Andy, who serves as distiller.
“We’re making Plymouth-style gin, rum and American single-malt distilled in the Scottish tradition,” says Everhart, the latter of which is scheduled for a 2022 release. “Good whisky takes time,” she says with a laugh.
Brian Facquet, Prohibition Distillery
“I always wanted to make something bigger than myself,” says Brian Facquet, who opened the doors to his distillery in Roscoe, New York, in 2008. “I wanted to build something I could be proud of and my family could be proud of, and I did that.”
Facquet launched the farm distillery with his New York corn-based Bootlegger Vodka. Its bottle is imprinted with a poppy, the World War I symbol for fallen sailers and soldiers. He’s added two gins, one of which is barrel-aged, as well as his Bootlegger Bourbon.
Facquet, who enlisted in the Naval Academy at 17 years old and served four years in the Navy, comes from a family line of military service that extends to the Civil War.
Among his business investors are 27-year Navy veteran and pilot, Commander Nicole Battaglia and Lieutenant Commander Joseph “Smokin’ Joe” Rizicka, a F-14 Tomcat pilot whose uniform hangs in the tasting room. There are also several investors who served in the United States Marine Corps.
Rather than charge for tastings and tours at his distillery in Roscoe, New York, Facquet seeks donations for worthy causes. Annual beneficiaries include the Third Option Foundation, which works with the CIA special operations community and their families, and Chefs for Kids’ Cancer, which aids children with cancer and raises money for pediatric cancer research. Last year, he donated $25,000 to Third Option.
“I know that I’ve been able to help people in the military, and children with cancer, and made an impact through the distillery,” says Facquet. “That to me is what life and service to this country is about.”
Kevin Kurland, Smoky Quartz Distillery
It was in 2008, between the crash of mortars in Baghdad, that Kevin Kurland began to dream of distilling.
“My area was relatively hot,” says Kurland, a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “Every couple of days, there was a rocket mortar barrage and everything would just shut down, and you had to sit there twiddling your thumbs.
“So one day, I picked up the Wall Street Journal and read a story on craft distilling, about how the next big thing in tourism was going to be craft distilleries. And I thought, ‘Well, that sounds like fun.’ ”
Kurland served three years with the U.S. Air Force, and 20 more with the National Guard. By the end of 2008, he was back home in Seabrook, New Hampshire, hard at work on a business plan for Smoky Quartz Distillery.
By 2013, he plunked down $70,000 on credit cards, applied for a Patriots Express Loan, found a building and engaged help from other vets in his family to get Smoky Quartz off the ground. It opened for business on May 30, 2014.
“I’m an engineer by trade, and that helped,” he says. “I did all the design. My dad and uncle are retired pipe welders. My stepfather is an electrician. My brother is a general contractor. Between us, it took about 10 months to get up and going.”
Kurland sources local ingredients as much as he can. He makes a corn-based vodka and whiskey, both white and aged, a rum and a line of barrel-aged maple syrups. The most popular spirit: his V5 Bourbon, a New Hampshire corn-based Bourbon aged 15 months. The name honors the five veterans who helped launch the distillery and subsequently thrive.
Kurland plans to triple production within the year. He added an 800-gallon mash tun and a new 600-gallon still, all as he worked full-time as an engineer.
“I just take it one barrel at a time,” he says. “But it’s really been great.”
Chase and Aaron Lesher, Chronicles Distilling
For the Lesher brothers, Chronicles is an apt name for the road that led to the launch of this family distillery in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Both veterans of the Marine Corps, Aaron enlisted in May 1999 as an infantry rifleman. Initially, he was selected for presidential guard detail, and he eventually deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Chase followed in his brother’s footstep in September 2008, after the owner of the company that Chase worked for offered to pay the difference between his salary and Uncle Sam’s pay if he enlisted. He also promised to save him a job when he got out.
“I always wanted to join the military,” says Chase. “I’d listen to these old boys at work talking about all the things they never did and I thought, ‘I need to do this.’ ”
From 2008 through February 2013, Chase served as a machine gunner and squad leader with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. As a member of the “Alpha Raiders,” he specialized in amphibious assaults and training foreign military troops. “I traveled to 14 different countries on two different deployments—some of them twice,” he says. “I got to see the world.”
But a string of misfortune led the brothers to feel untethered. Their mother passed away after a long illness. Work for Aaron, meanwhile, literally dried up in the oil fields he worked following his discharge. Then, the brothers lost their father.
“We were lost and didn’t know what to do,” says Chase. After a stint in Afghanistan and backpacking through Europe, they decided to help at a friend’s distillery in Nebraska. And everything came into place.
Chronicles formed in January 2017 to produce corn-based vodka from Wyoming and white whiskey, with Bourbons slotted for release about within five years, says Chase. A Cheyenne-based tasting room and bar is scheduled to open by the end of the summer, where the brothers will be pouring out both spirits and stories.
Scott Neil and John Koko, American Freedom Distillery
Scott Neil and John Koko met as Horse Soldiers, the Green Beret Special Forces unit that was among the first to enter Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks. In 2015, Neil asked Koko for business advice while on a month-long horseback trip through Yellowstone National Park.
During the trek, the two visited Grand Teton Distillery. Its owner offered a tour of the distillery and talked about the process. By the time they left, the idea for American Freedom Distillery was born.
“We’re authentic,” says Neil. “We’re not a laboratory creation or a canned story. I’m proud of how far we’ve come. Five years ago, we had zero experience, and no one knew what we were doing. We are very expeditionary entrepreneurs.”
Neil and Koko traveled throughout the U.S., Scotland and Ireland, where they visited distilleries and even worked in a few. The two men teamed up with their other founding partner, Koko’s wife, Elizabeth Pritchard, and fellow Horse Soldiers Bob Pennington and Mark Nutsch, whose stories inspired the 2018 film, 12 Strong. All have undergone training to be able to jump in at the distillery in Ohio where they currently rent time to make their Bourbon and rum.
“[The distillery arrangement] allowed us not to have to deploy millions of dollars on equipment out of the gate,” says Neil. American Freedom plans to open its own space soon in St. Petersburg, Florida, where most of the partners live. It’s slated to house a tasting room and distillery, where they’ll make vodka, gin and rum.
“As Special Forces, we’ve led our lives in the shadows,” says Koko. “No one knows the fate of the first men into Afghanistan. For us, our spirits are something that our name is on. It’s our legacy.
“We’re not only leaving a foot locker full of war medals, we wanted to live the dream we’d been defending.”
Last Updated: May 5, 2023