Legendary Men, Legendary Spirits

Legendary Men, Legendary Spirits

We could say that America was built on horseback and bourbon. Our heritage and history run as hard as mustangs stampeding across the open desert of the southwest and as deep as a good barrel-strength bourbon. American Freedom Distillery’s Horse Soldier Bourbon has a story rooted in both patriotism and good spirits. The rodeo will be coming to Las Vegas during which Southern Glazer’s will sponsor a special viewing of Twelve Strong along with an exclusive tasting of Horse Soldier Bourbon which you won’t want to miss. 

We were just fearless,” said Scott Neil, Co-Founder of American Freedom Distillery, Horse Soldier Bourbon. 

There stands a monument at Ground Zero honoring twelve brave Green Berets who entered Afghanistan just days after 9/11, a day that needs no introduction or explanation. It’s a day when we as Americans collectively skipped a heartbeat. Their bravery changed the scope of a playing field that was warped in unfair disadvantages through treacherous Afghan mountain terrain. And they did it on horseback. All twelve came home as true American heroes. But the story doesn’t end there. “The same group of guys went into Iraq and we fought for almost 20 years … we went back altogether 5 to 7 times and every year, we were either retired, injured or we were killed.” said Scott, his words heavy in the air. This has become by far the longest active war in American history. Their story is commemorated by the America’s Response Monument at Ground Zero and by their own creation of ‘Horse Soldier Bourbon.’ “We actually have available to us metal from steel beams and girders recovered from the World Trade Center and so we shipped 500 lbs to a foundry in West Virginia to create the mold for our bottles. We wanted it to be an all-American product,” said Scott. I believe they achieved something even better. 

Twelve courageous Green Berets entered Afghanistan on horseback with the conviction to single-handedly take out the Taliban. Their mission: overthrow the Taliban, kill or capture senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Tall orders for a top-secret mission of twelve horse soldiers carrying the heart of the nation to respond to the most catastrophic terrorist attack in America to date. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” said Scott, “We were just fearless. Some people fear even starting (a business). As Green Berets, we adapt and learn very quickly. We didn’t know anything about the business, right? We knew if we all worked together and worked hard to learn the business, we could do it. The discipline of an expeditionary entrepreneur means being in the middle of nowhere, surrounded, alone and unafraid. You can’t get into distilling easily if you don’t know anything about the distilling business, but we didn’t know that. We went in fearless.”

Having a mission may be the one most important driving factor of people in the military. As great as the mission in Afghanistan was, they have a new mission, and that’s to produce the best bourbon they possibly can. When Scott Neil retired, he and John Koko went to Yellowstone National Park for a month. Scott spoke passionately: “We journeyed on horseback to get back to nature. We climbed the Grand Tetons, went fly fishing and we entered our first distillery and thought, ‘wow this is different.’ It was science, art, passion and everything we had been missing. So, we cut our trip short and hit every distillery from Idaho to Tampa. It took three weeks to get home. We called the rest of the guys and said, ‘Hey man, you wanna be a distiller?’ It was a way to bring the guys back together for a great new purpose. We flew to Scotland to learn the art of making scotch where master distillers taught us how to operate the stills and work the mashes and yeast and then we asked the question, ‘What’s the difference between Irish whiskey and scotch?’ and took off to Ireland and from there we traveled around the world. We didn’t know what we were doing, but it didn’t stop us. We ventured to study some of the oldest distilleries in the world and that’s how we decided to start our own distillery. We took every opportunity to learn from master distillers.”

Being part of a distillery meant they were all willing to do whatever it takes to make the best bourbon and love what they were doing. The spirit of the American Freedom Distillery speaks volumes of the commitment, the dedication and the sacrifice they’ve all experienced throughout their military careers as Green Berets. “Failure is not an option,” said Scott. “It carries over in everything we do.”

They make their bourbon in Ohio and there’s a reason for that. “It’s too hot in Tampa, Florida,” said Scott. To let you in on a little bourbon lore, by law bourbon must be made of at least 51% corn and a ‘wheated’ is a bourbon where the second major ingredient is wheat. American Freedom Distillery offers four types of bourbon: Horse Soldier Straight Bourbon, which is referred to as a ‘straight bourbon’ because it’s aged between 2 to 4 years and uses a mash bill of 65% corn, 30% rye and 5% barley; Horse Soldier Small Batch Bourbon, a wheated using 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% barley produced by mixing the contents from a small number of hand-selected barrels to create a higher premium bourbon; Horse Soldier Signature Barrel Strength Bourbon, which uses the term ‘barrel proof’ to show it was bottled at the same proof as the barrel with no added water, made with 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% barley; and Horse Soldier Commander Select 12-year-old Bourbon, a ‘single barrel release’ selected and hand-bottled by men from the Operational Detachment Alpha Team 595 that uses the ‘straight bourbon’ mash bill of 65% corn, 30% rye and 5% barley. They are currently in the process of opening a new tasting room in St. Petersburg, Florida where they look forward to adding to the joys of bourbon tasting. It will be a place where they can gather with those interested to learn about the process of distilling bourbon and hear their war stories—an interactive experience to be enjoyed while sipping on their very special creation of Horse Soldier Bourbon. 

“We have now won more medals in bourbon then we have in combat!! ~ Scott Neil Co-founder Horse Soldier Bourbon

The journey has paid off. Horse Soldier’s Commander’s Select 12-year Bourbon won Double Gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2019, and the Horse Soldier Small Batch Bourbon took Gold in the 2019 New York International Spirits Competition, among other awards.

Their charities include The Warrior Sailing Program, The Green Beret Foundation, The Armed Forces Families Foundation and The Folded Flag. “We need to honor and do what we can for our veterans,” said Scott. “We come from the community. Each year we participate with different charities and do different events and our bottles (usually a very limited-edition single barrel) from ‘Whiskey and War Stories’ have gone for as high as $15,000 at auction and it all goes to charity.”

The Warrior Sailing Program, hosted by the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, helps military service members with PTSD, brain injury, amputation, paralysis and nerve damage by getting them out on the water which can provide physical, mental and emotional therapy. Sailing is a great way to cope with the long-term effects of these war inflicted disabilities and a great way for warrior sailors to use their natural military instincts and abilities. “They taught us how to sail and from there, we went on to compete. We raced from St. Petersburg, Florida to beautiful Isla Mujeres, Mexico and we got 2nd place!” said Scott Neil. To accomplish this race, they sailed 456 miles of ocean as a team and the surprises just kept coming. They don’t limit their group activities to sailing: “On the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, we jumped out of airplanes. It’s what keeps us together!” Scott Neil and all of the ‘Twelve Horse Soldiers’ have a zest for life that is hard to match.

It’s this same team spirit that is now producing one of the most reputable bourbon brands on the market. It’s not an accident when you get a group of highly motivated Green Berets together that they want to compete and at very high levels.  After having given of themselves not just once but several times over the span of their military careers to the service of our country, they continue with the same fierce dedication in creating the best possible bourbon they can. That spirit is in their blood.

The Horse Soldier story at several points brought tears to my eyes and I was sincerely moved to go out and buy a bottle of Horse Soldier Bourbon and try it for myself. I chose the Signature Horse Soldier Small Batch Hand Selected Bourbon. Opening the bottle, the sweet oak beckoned with vanilla accents. Cinnamon and toffee blossomed, and I was transported to feelings of home, hearth and thoughts of the holidays adding yet another reason for the tears brimming my eyes. The sip was complex: cherry and caramel with just enough heat and a smooth finish. The flavor brought up images of Thanksgiving and I thought of our many troops who have missed holidays with their families to fight for our freedom. I placed this bourbon on my Christmas gift list. What could be more perfect? Cheers to the horse soldiers who fought valiantly for our nation, their bravery and patriotism and to our great American spirit!

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