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Interview: Horse Soldier Bourbon Rides Into New Whiskey Horizons

Editor’s Note: American Freedom Distillery, producer of Horse Soldier Bourbon, invited us recently at their cost to visit their brand home in Florida. While apprectivate of this, The Whiskey Wash retains editorial control of this interview’s content. 

When American Freedom Distillery first came into the light of day back in 2018, the story of those behind it was extremely compelling. Former Special Forces soldiers, inserted into northern Afghanistan on horseback in the days immediately after September 11. Highlighted in the hit movie 12 Strong, a sort of celebrity status emerged for those who founded Horse Soldier Bourbon.

While many would be happy keeping a status quo given this celebrity whiskey consideration, such was not the case with these veterans. They desired to actually have a legitimate whiskey legacy that would stand on its own outside of their story.

With this in mind, the American Freedom team has spent the last several years laying the foundations for this dream. An established brand home in Florida. Quality whiskey distilled at a partner distillery in Ohio. Grand plans for a Kentucky distillery experience. And, most recently, a significant investment from Spirit of Gallo, the spirits arm of wine giant E. & J. Gallo.

Horse Soldier Premium Straight Bourbon Whiskey (image via Jason Marshall)
Horse Soldier Premium Straight Bourbon Whiskey (image via Jason Marshall/The Whiskey Wash)

Having initially interviewed American Freedom in early 2019, we recently followed up with co-founder Scot Neil to see how the dream was progressing. Note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): We’re here chatting with Scott Neil from American Freedom Distillery, the group behind Horse Soldier Bourbon. We’re doing a follow up interview from our last chat back in 2019. Scott, thanks for taking some time to chat with us.

Scott Neil: Thank you very much. It’s always an honor and privilege to talk to you, and I’m excited to tell you about what’s been going on since 2019.

TWW: When we talked back at that point, you guys had been seeing some growth with the brand and we talked a little bit about the origin story of it. You’ve been distilling in Ohio and thinking about your space in Florida and all of that. So let’s just start from there and give an update on what’s been going on with Horse Soldier since that time.

Neil: Since 2019, the brand has grown twofold year over year. We’re very unique in that when we started our brand, we really wanted to be in a category that a lot of bourbon hadn’t found itself yet, and that was in the ultra premium category. That’s a price point meets luxury packaging, meets exceptional juice, all of that. We started at the beginning saying that’s where we wanted to be, and now we find ourselves as the number five, highest growth, ultra premium bourbon in the country. That’s not bad since we really launched our brand in 2018.

Today, we’re in 18 states and we’ve actually slowed our growth. When we learned early on – we talked to a lot of great pioneers in the whiskey and bourbon space – they said one of the disciplines you needed as a brand is to not try to go everywhere too fast. What I mean by that is we certainly had the opportunity with some of our partners to go in all 50 states, even to venture overseas. We decided that wasn’t our path.

So as we grew, we started to take on more states, but our strategy was deep and not wide. What I mean by that is if we’re in Florida, which Florida is the number two by volume of sales for spirits, I need to get really good in Tampa and I need to be really good in Miami and Orlando. Why would I venture to other states when I’m not even deep enough in the state I’m in? That strategy is what’s helped us keep our growth steady.

One, we could sustain it with our bourbon and our aged inventory. Number two, we had the money for marketing and events. If we just would have went immediately across all 50 states, we would’ve outgrown ourselves, one in the supply that we had, and number two is we wouldn’t had enough sales. We would’ve got a sales bump, but we wouldn’t have had the sustainability for the customer and we wouldn’t have been on the shelves after that.

So we decided to go with our strategy of deep, not wide.

TWW: When you think about the expansion of the brand, you guys decided to set up your initial brand home in Florida. Talk a little bit about that decision and what is it that you guys have set up there specifically for visitors to experience?

Neil: It’s because it’s where a majority of us lived at the time. We had just retired out of special operations, and the command, the four star headquarters, is here in Tampa Bay. That is the reason.

Florida, obviously, like I said, it was our backyard. So we really cut our teeth by just going to event to event. We got to know our distributor partners here initially very well. This gave us a chance to crawl, walk, and run. So we crawled in Florida, then we added states, which allowed us to walk, and we’re still walking now. Then, as we expand and we build in Kentucky, we’ll be at a full run.

Urban Stillhouse
Inside the Urban Stillhouse in Florida. (image via Nino Kilgore-Marchetti/The Whiskey Wash)

TWW: Talk a little bit about the Urban Stillhouse, the experience you have in Florida. What is it exactly? How do folks come and experience it?

Neil: For the Urban Stillhouse, just like our bourbon, we wanted an ultra premium experience. It is a beautiful, two-story, open fire grill. We have one main bar, and then we have upstairs a very intimate whiskey showcase of over 400 whiskeys from around the world. So it’s not just all Horse Soldier all day. We really wanted to show folks why we fell in love with whiskey, and especially bourbon.

TWW: This location is run by what we’ll describe is the next generation of family member involved in your brand. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that’s been like?

Neil: Meredith Koko, John Koko’s daughter, actually owns the Urban Stillhouse portion, the restaurant portion of American Freedom. We have a small distillery in the back. We make rum, vodka, and gin back there, and obviously we make our bourbon up north. Meredith came from 15 years of food and beverage experience in New York City.

So imagine getting a call from your father who says, “I need you to come home. We have this idea.” It’s something you do when you start a business and you [wonder] who’s going to be taking over this business when I’m done? So that’s where Meredith came in for the Urban Stillhouse. We have other members of our families that work here. You have Hunter, that’s the head distiller in the back here.

Horse Solider distillery
The site of the future Horse Soldier bourbon distillery in Kentucky. (image via American Freedom Distillery)

TWW: You’ve decided to expand more recently to Kentucky. Talk a little bit about the decision around that and what your plans are with what you’re doing.

Neil: So Kentucky became a natural decision when you’re looking for your forever home. As you know, bourbon can be made anywhere in America, but if you travel outside of America, everybody thinks and expects that good bourbon comes from Kentucky.

Also, in our history of us as soldiers, I spent 17 years at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. John Koko spent his post-military career in Louisville. That is, a matter of fact, where Meredith was born and John’s kids went to Kentucky Day School. So it’s in our DNA to be there. My father lives there, our family lives there. As we started exploring Kentucky right before COVID hit, we did look in Louisville and saw a transformation of all the major brands starting to come into the downtown there.

We thought we’d be too small. We looked in Lexington and we realized the big giant players were all in the area. Being former military, we decided we’d rather be a big fish in a small Kentucky city than small fish in a big Kentucky city. We started to explore and that’s when we discovered this beautiful little town of Somerset, Kentucky on Lake Cumberland. They didn’t have a distillery, there wasn’t a distillery anywhere around it. Oh, by the way, the edge of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was an hour away and we thought that was the best place.

We would build something beautiful. We knew people would come. Despite the global pandemic and despite the edges of inflation and recession, we have done a groundbreaking and we’ll be able to build our final five million proof gallon distillery. Hopefully we’re open in three years.

TWW: What are the plans you have for this place you’re breaking ground in?

Neil: In Somerset –  we’ve already started – we’re building another initial location in the downtown area called the Somerset Urban Stillhouse. We’ll bring that restaurant feel and then we’ll put a retail inside the city so we can start telling the brand story. It also gives us a chance to understand the community and those we’ll be hiring once we build a distillery.

What we have planned for the distillery is we bought an old golf course that overlooks Lake Cumberland. It’s beautiful rolling hills, everything you think about when you think about Old Kentucky. Horse farms, all of these things.

We plan on having, once again, a world class production facility, world class warehouses for the bourbon, for storage, a bottling line. We have a future dream of actually having more of [a setting] where there’ll be hotel and spa amenities. We are also looking at having some horses there. You can’t be Horse Soldier Farms without actual horses.

Right now, however, we’re just working on getting the first phase, which is our production and warehousing facilities.

The Horse Soldier whiskeys of American Freedom Distillery (image via American Freedom Distillery)

TWW: Let’s talk for a moment about the mash bills in your whiskeys.

Neil: We have two major ones. One is a higher rye, and as you know, bourbon needs to be at least 51% corn. So when I say a higher rye bourbon, I don’t mean a high rye. High rye typically is above 90, usually 95%, of the mash bill and the rest is barley. Ours obviously is corn and the second grain is rye.

Why rye in our mash bill? When we started talking, when we began this business, we had a blank canvas. When you talk to bartenders and you say, “What do you put in a Manhattan or an old fashioned and why,” they almost all put a higher rye bourbon. Rye gives it that spicier “you can taste and feel the whiskey” that comes through [in] mixed drinks.

Now the other side of this is what do I want to sit down and enjoy [neat or on the rocks]? That’s when we fell in love with wheated like your Wellers or Fitzgeralds or some of your other favorite wheat brands. None of us could afford Pappy at the time. We said, “Wow, I just love how smooth this is.” So when we started making our mashes, we started with a higher rye and we started with a higher wheat bourbon.

TWW: Do you guys do single barrel?

Neil: We tried. Single barrels have become popular lately, especially with the small independent liquor stores where they want to send a team up. We really tried, but here’s the issue with single barrels – it takes a lot of administrative work because by the time I invite you, host you, bring out some barrels, taste 10 or 15 barrels, you select the one, then I have to have a special bottling line off to the side. I have to reapply our labels with the federal side of things.

It was taxing on a small, small distillery. We put that to bed for a couple years.

[That being said,] I think what we’ve designed in our new distillery experience will be reimagined on the experience of coming and picking barrels. We took a lot of cues from Macallan and overseas with the scotch, whisky single barrels and how you go through that experience. You want it to be world class.

We were just too early when we did it for one year and we realized we need to back up a little bit, grow our brand, and we’re going to come back out on single barrels right when the distillery starts to open.

Horse Soldier team
The team behind Horse Soldier. (image via American Freedom Distillery)

TWW: Some brands and distilleries do advocacy for a particular cause or causes. Is there a particular focus or cause that Horse Soldier pursues and how do you guys go about doing that?

Neil: Obviously with our history of military service veterans are near and dear. Because of our backgrounds we’re asked repeatedly to appear at events or to do speaking engagements or to be part of even national congressional committees, senate committees, all of these other things.

When we first started, we realized we didn’t have a lot of money to give back to the charities we would partner with. So we started a series called Commander Select, and that was where we went to different relationships, almost like the single barrel program. We said, “Hey, here’s why we’re here and what can you help us do?” We chose a price point for that. That price point was the team’s special forces team number 595. We began to release this Commander Select series – we only made a thousand bottles our first year – and they sold out immediately.

So each year we designed a new Commander Select with a new mash bill. We search all across the country. This year we put out the 20th anniversary of 9/11 edition Commander Select. Our non-profit partner this year has been Tunnels to Towers. Even though we do a lot of charity, sometimes we just focus on one, and bottles of Commander Select the 20th anniversary of 9/11 edition have gone for as much as $75,000 a bottle at their events.

We feel that our portion immediately goes to the non-profit, and then whatever a non-profit is able to raise above that. I think the value of what we’ve been able to do is use a little bit of our past and storytelling, and then with a bourbon, we’ll all sign bottles and we’ll go and do a local veteran’s charity. It could be somebody honoring their son, and we’ll give a whiskey and war stories and raise money, all the way to big New York City galas with leaders of markets and funds and CEOs and celebrities.

We’ve done them all, but we’re always proud to say that we did everything we could to raise some money for veteran’s issues.

TWW: Well, thank you for the update. We appreciate it.

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Nino Kilgore-Marchetti

Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and provided tasting input on many whiskeys at competitions. He also maintains a large private collection of whiskey from which he continually educates his palate on this brown spirit type.

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