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Vet-owned American Freedom Distillery to establish 9/11 memorial

Bill DeYoung



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

The physical plant is still two or three months away from opening, but the owners of American Freedom Distillery – former members of the first Special Operations force to engage in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 – are already laying significant roots in St. Petersburg, their adopted city.

On Nov. 10, the American Freedom team will break ground on Rise St. Pete, a 20×40-foot monument and tribute to first responders and the resiliency of the nation. Located on the corner of 5th Street and 22nd Avenue South, in the Warehouse Arts District, the monument – to be designed by local sculptor Mark Aeling – will have as its centerpiece and focal point a steel beam recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Sculptor Mark Aeling and the World Trade Center steel beam. Photo: MGA Studios.

“We’re community members now,” said Scott Neil, U.S. Army Master Sergeant (Ret.) and a member of the legendary “Horse Soldiers” Green Beret combat team. “And we had an opportunity with the piece. As we talked with people in the community, they had similar stories about 9/11.”

The idea, Neil said, was to create a central location for dialogue, contemplation … and learning. “If you look at St. Pete, you have a lot of first responders who went up there or they’ve retired here. You have a lot of people who worked in Manhattan that retired here. So it means a lot.”

After leaving the service, Neil and his Special Ops teammates decided to go into business together, and since they’d all become familiar with MacDill Air Force Base, they chose the Tampa Bay area. After years of careful study of the craft distillery business – compounded, frankly, by their fondness for whiskey – they launched American Distillery 10 months ago. Their signature spirit is a bourbon called Horse Soldier.

For now, it’s being made at a location in Columbus, Ohio. “That allowed us to start aging before we opened up our own production facility,” Neil explained.

But the fledgling company sold 6,000 cases in less than a year, which meant construction of the St. Pete distillery, in the 17,000-square-foot former Warehouse Arts District home of GeniusCentral, had to wait. “It’s not because of any other factor than our brand grew so fast,” Neil explained. “So much that we had to divert the funds into production.”

Once American Freedom is up and running, he said, “We’re going to do our vodkas, rums and gins here. We’ll always have our bourbon up north, because the climate in the Ohio River Valley area gives us four distinct seasons, for the aging of the barrels, and the maturation process.

“In Florida, there are two seasons: Hot, and really hot. And so you have more of a woody, burned tasted to your bourbon flavor. So we’ll keep our bourbons up there.”

Also planned for the site is a high-end restaurant, with a 30-foot bar, to be called America Neat Grill & Whiskey House.

Neil and his partners toured and consulted with distillery owners in America and Europe, and in the final analysis, what works best is the “quality customer experience.”

Said Neil: “What you’ll see in our facility is not only the restaurant that compliments – the food, and the smells – but we’ll have a distillery experience where we’ll actually teach you how to distill. We’ll teach you about grains and all of these factors. Because people want to know what they’re drinking, and they want an experience with their group.

“Everything we saw about the experience went from fine dining to a wrapped-in experience to a retail section that sells decanters and other high-end bourbon items. It’s just the experience we wanted to create.”

For now, the focus is on Rise St. Pete, which has filed for 501(c)3 status. Although executive director Diane Bailey Morton and the Warehouse Arts District have donated the space, donations are now being accepted for the monument project, the cost of which is estimated at $1M for design, construction and project management.

An interactive fountain will surround the centerpiece; the monument will also include a dramatic wing made from copper recovered during the recent renovation of the Statue of Liberty. Local ceramic artists will contribute a blue tile arch, and Aeling’s design also includes four trees, to symbolize the Callery Pear Tree that survived the attacks at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2001.

The iron beam itself was discovered not long ago while construction teams were placing a statue at Ground Zero, honoring the American horse soldiers who pursued and fought the Taliban in those frightening early days. It’s believed to be one of the last remaining pieces of World Trade Center steel.

It was offered to Neil and his fellow soldiers.

“We didn’t want it to be a private item, so we talked to the Warehouse Arts District about building something the community can get behind,” Neil explained.

“Our concept wasn’t about the past; it was about transition. Communities are doing well. We’re all healing at different levels. And now we have a lot of kids that didn’t see it, didn’t smell it, didn’t touch 9/11. So it becomes an important feature to tell this story. And present the real message, which is: Healing.”

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