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Progress report: Vet-owned American Freedom distillery and restaurant

Bill DeYoung

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Scott Neil, Horse Soldier bourbon and site plans for the St. Pete distillery. "Make whiskey, not war," the retired Green Beret likes to say. Photo by Bill DeYoung

On June 6, members of the legendary “Horse Soldiers” Green Beret combat team – many of them Tampa Bay residents – will parachute onto the beach at Normandy, France, during the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing.

The retired Special Operations group, 17 members strong, is an adventurous bunch – every year, they try to go somewhere cool together. And the D-Day anniversary, well, that was just too good to pass up.

2232 5th Avenue S., the future location of American Freedom. Photo by Bill DeYoung

With luck, it’ll be the last delay before the Horse Soldiers open their long-awaited American Freedom Distillery in the 17,000-square-foot, two-story former home of Genius Central, on 5th Avenue South in the Warehouse Arts District.

The buildout is well under way, the equipment and the furniture have arrived, and soon will begin the hiring of staff for the distillery, the warehouse and the in-house America Neat restaurant and bar.

This was all originally supposed to happen months ago. But the Horse Soldiers have become victims of their own success.

American Freedom team members announcing at 1 Million Cups last October: Scott Neil, left, Tyler Gardner and Merrick Mirabella. Photo by Bill DeYoung

Scott Neil, U.S. Army Master Sergeant (Ret.), is the Chief Operating Officer of American Freedom (his official title is “Doer of Things”). As part of the first American group to enter Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, and a counter-insurgency advisor for Gen. David Petraeus, he faced a unique challenge upon his retirement in 2010.

“We were notable because of our past,” Neil says. “They made a movie, we’ve got a statue at Ground Zero, all of that seems important and flashy but it doesn’t fill the void in your life when you retire.”

It’s the same, he expects, for executives and star athletes.

“You were so far ahead of your group, and on the edge of the world, and involved in so many worldly decisions that the day after, it’s ‘Who am I?’”

Using his business background, Neil started a program on becoming an entrepreneur for the Green Beret Foundation. And when he developed a fascination with the distillery process, the lightbulb appeared: I’ll make my own whiskey.

One by one, his Horse Soldier buddies signed on as business partners. With a recipe developed by Neil himself, Horse Soldier bourbon was launched (in truth, there are two: Neil’s wheated bourbon, and a rye variety, the preference of younger members of the team).

They visited hundreds of craft distillers, cold-calling from the internet and asking question after question. They shot production videos. They read everything they could get their hands on. “Everybody was open, and they would tell us these factors to watch out for, these bad business decisions they did, where to find the right supplies,” says Neil. “Everybody was 100 percent supportive. Nobody ever said ‘That’s a secret, and I’ll never tell you.’ The ones that may have done it probably aren’t in business today.”

Like a military event, Neil says, “we had an after-action report. We applied it into our business and marketing.”

Crafted in Ohio, where the company leased time in a 3,000-gallon stillhouse, Horse Soldier sold 6,000 cases the first year. “This year we’ll double that,” Neil says, “and next year we’ll triple it. Into 100,000 cases in five years.”

For a startup, “the brand is overwhelmingly successful,” he beams.

“Every dime we make, we either put into marketing or making more bourbon. We learned a long time ago that you can’t make enough! When you make good whiskey, the customer wants more.”

Even so, since Neil and many of his business partners live in St. Pete or thereabouts – a trickle-down from their years housed at MacDill Air Force base – bringing the business to Florida remains a priority.

“St. Pete is on fire,” Neil says. “Everybody hoped there was something that size in downtown St. Pete. There wasn’t. We were lucky that we found that building. It was a little bigger than we thought we needed – but then, if you’re gonna be a monkey, be a gorilla.”

Artist rendering of the bar at America Neat.

American Freedom’s St. Pete distillery will manufacture rums, vodkas and gins. Because bourbon has to age in barrels, and the process is affected by seasonal weather, they’ll continue to make it in Ohio, although it will be made available, in copious quantities, at America Neat.

Progress on the St. Pete site recently took another back seat to the business when Neil and his crew shelled out $500,000 for a new bottling and labeling line.

Again, the price of success. “We were still hand-labeling it, licking each label and sticking it on there,” he explains. “Horse Soldier is the horse we’re riding in on, so we had to increase that.”

American Freedom has signed up a restaurant group to handle day-to-day operation of America Neat, which, according to Neil, will feature a fine dining experience accompanied by spectacular lines of vision into the working distillery (though fireproof glass, of course), cigar humidors and unique tasting experiences at their 30-foot bar. “We plan on featuring every craft distillery product we can find in the country,” he explains. “Not just our own.”

As it stands, the plan is to open the facility in July, following the group’s return from Europe. And the learning curve continues – visits to distilleries in France, Scotland and other countries are already on the post-parachute itinerary.

 

Recovered from Ground Zero in New York City, this steel beam will form the centerpiece of Mark Aeling’s Rise St. Pete monument. Photo by Bill DeYoung

On the beam

Meanwhile, work continues on Rise St. Pete, the 20×40-foot 9/11 memorial planned for a key intersection in the Warehouse Arts District. The centerpiece is a steel beam unearthed at Ground Zero in New York. The seven-foot hunk of the World Trade Center was discovered, buried, when workers were installing a statue of the Horse Soldiers. It was gifted to Neil and company, who partnered with the district to give the piece a permanent, public home.

St. Pete sculptor Mark Aeling, a cornerstone Warehouse artist, has designed a suitable – and suitably impressive – environment for the piece, including trees, a fountain, a blue tile arch and a wing crafted from copper recovered during the recent renovation of the Statue of Liberty.

Phase One of the project – site preparation – is in progress, Neil says, and about $700,000 is still needed to bring the memorial to fruition by the target date of Sept. 11 of this year. Most welcome, he said, would be in-kind donations of bricks, concrete or other building materials.

For donations and additional information, visit www.risestpete.org.

 

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