“Legendary men. Legendary spirits.” The founders of American Freedom Distillery live by these words. The former Special Operators and Green Berets are Scott Neil, Rob Schaefer, John Koko, Mark Nutsch, Bob Pennington, and Tyler Garner. Utilizing their military expertise and backgrounds, they are now applying their bold strategies in running a distillery. American Freedom Distillery is a dream come true for a special group of colleagues who served America in its darkest period. “Ours is a TRUE STORY, which we leave for others to tell. Today we hand craft this American product with the same sense of mission, training, and honor. Simply put it is made by us to share together and with you. Taste hard work, challenge, sacrifice, reward or whatever your unique American dream is in every bottle”, the group expresses in their website.
In 2015, John Koko and Scott Neil, both US Special Operations veterans, with their friend Elizabeth Pritchard took a month-long vacation in Yellowstone National Park. While there, the group also visited the Grand Teton Distillery company. They chanced meeting its owners who, according to Scott, gave them the idea of starting a distillery. Receiving inspiration and full of energy, they agreed to return to Tampa by visiting every craft distillery along their way home.
“They (the craft distilleries) were owned by families or friends, and each had a similar story. There was a passion and purpose behind the business,” commented Scott.
Upon their return to Tampa, they undertook their research about craft distilling. John, who spent two decades in Louisville Kentucky realized that craft distillery is a real viable business. Expanding the group of friends, John introduced another US Special Forces veteran and long-time friend, Rob Schaefer, to Scott and Elizabeth. After scouting prospected locations, familiarizing themselves with St. Petersburg, they came up with bold actions. The result is despite many obstacles, American Freedom Distillery is operating and already making major impacts.
Nowadays, they are no longer traversing the terrain of Afghanistan. Instead, they are all putting their combined effort and expertise to run American Freedom Distillery. Located in the heart of the warehouse arts district, the company produces the finest whiskey, vodka, rum, and gin.
Crafted In Steel
One of their crafted products is an American Bourbon, a whiskey branded as a Horse Soldier to give tribute to the band of soldiers who rode to victory in Afghanistan as portrayed in the movie “12 Strong.” It features the story of the horse soldiers which includes distillers Mark Nutsch and Bob Pennigton. The horse soldier is the same image of the America’s Response Monument honored at Ground Zero. American Freedom Distillery even utilizes a mold made from metals of the World Trade Center to create their Horse Soldier Signature Bourbon bottles.
Scott Neil elaborated this special effort in his Bold Business Interview, “Steel is very significant to us with our relationship with the World Trade Center and you know, we had been given pieces of World Trade Center steel when we first went into Afghanistan.”
“So it really was instantaneous when I said, if I can get some steel from ground zero, can you turn that into molds for our bottle? And that’s what ignited, you know, what’s gonna come out as our next a Horse Soldier Signature series. It’s basically forged in fire and you know, it means to us, it’s not a gimmick,” Neil added.
In addition, their newest crafted product is Rekker, which means in Old Norse, Warrior, a rum made out of fresh pressed sugar cane juice. It is a fitting depiction of their legendary story which is the key to the rise of their brand.
“We’re competing against a thousand, you know, worldwide brands with million dollar marketing budgets that we have to instantly connect to our consumer with who knows nothing about us. But then we had a real backstory. We were transitioning veterans. Some of us are recognized in books and movies. So we’re very savvy on how we developed our story,” Scott further explained at the recent Synapse Summit.
Distilling Bold Ways and Impact to the Nation
The distillery also plans to house a restaurant called America Neat. It will offer a delectable menu that features American staples such as seasoned meats grilled on an open-flame grill atop different woods, including rum, port, bourbon, and sherry barrel woods. The specialty cocktail list is brought on by rum enthusiast Ryan Pinés of Buya Ramen. It will showcase many craft and local spirits alongside the house liquor.
Collaborating with several craft distilleries at a bigger production facility located in Ohio, American Freedom Distillery is already executing a bold move producing 100 barrels of bourbon per month to begin the aging process. This bourbon is already being sold in restaurants, bars and liquor stores across Florida.
Scott explained: “It’s a way for American Freedom Distillery to produce more than our small artesian stills can produce locally. Our partner production facility where we send our distillers to run the larger still using our proprietary mash can produce a few hundred barrels a day, where as we can produce only two a day at our distillery in Florida. It helps us grow and keep our customers supplied.”
As the distilling company continues to grow, the former team of Green Berets and Special Operators are still adhering to their sworn oaths and to the Veterans Artisan Distiller Guilds. They are helping other veteran entrepreneurs to become distillers as well. They plan to offer employment at the distillery and connecting with distilleries owned by other veterans all across the nation.