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.
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.”