As director of operations at American Freedom distillery in St. Petersburg, Fla., Scott Neil deals with the daily stresses of running a small business. Then again, he knows a thing or two about on-the-job stress.
The retired Special Forces soldier was on one of the first teams to lead the counterterrorism charge in Afghanistan after 9/11. After years of combat in some of the most dangerous places on the planet, Neil helped start American Freedom, a distillery built by veterans, for veterans.
This isn’t as unusual as you might think. “There’s a tremendous history of former soldiers opening distilleries,” says Neil. “George Washington’s Mount Vernon was one of the largest distilleries at the time.” Other notable members of this small club include Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor and Colonel James B. (“call me Jim”) Beam. For bourbon connoisseurs, that’s about as close to whiskey royalty as you can get.
Today, there are still many veteran distillers and veteran-owned distilleries popping up around the U.S. “For us, it was about transition and pursuit of passion,” says Neil. “We had all served together at one point of our careers and fought a lot of battles, and when we all retired, we remained close.”
Some of the employees at American Freedom distillery were among the famous Green Beret soldiers who fought the Taliban on horseback in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan. Their story was the subject of the 2018 movie “12 Strong.”
The distillery’s Horse Soldier bourbon is a tribute to those fighters. The rich wheat-forward whiskey, aged in new American oak casks, displays the image of the America’s Response Monument, a bronze statue in NYC’s Liberty Park that overlooks the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. A special run of the whiskey will feature a bottle molded by steel salvaged from the wreckage of the Twin Towers.
You might be wondering how many veterans actually work at the distillery. “There are six of us all together,” says Neil. “We were all either in the Ranger Regiment or Special Forces or both.”
It’s important to Neil and the others to hire veterans whenever possible. “We truly believe in giving back to the veteran community, as well as working with those that are part of our veteran culture,” he says. “We’re also part of Veterans Florida, which helps hire and train veterans to work in the distillery.”
In addition, Neil and his team have also started a 501(C)(6) association called Veterans Artisan Distillers Guild that helps other veteran distillery owners and workers come together to share information, training and support among each other.
Though American Freedom’s claim to fame is the signature Horse Soldier bourbon, it also makes a line of Rekker rums, as well as a Horse Soldier barrel-strength expression and a Horse Soldier Commander’s Select barrel-strength expression aged eight years in new American oak.
“Each Commander’s Select bottle is signed by the Horse Soldier commander and deputy commander and includes a challenge coin and a dispatch from the commander highlighting the courage of the fighting in the early days of the war in Afghanistan,” says Neil.
“We used the same skills that helped us on the remote battlefields to make whiskey,” says Neil. “The movies, books and documentaries are all about who we were, and now we would like to show everyone what we are doing: making whiskey not war!”