Veterans are at the front of the growing craft distillery scene. Photo by Dylan de Jong, courtesy of Unsplash.
At the close of World War I, Winston Churchill reviewed a passing regiment of American soldiers returning from the front. The Americans had been gallant on the battlefield and were now headed back home. As the troops passed him in formation, the future British prime minister is said to have quipped, “What a magnificent body of men never to take another drink.”
Churchill was referencing the United States’ recently ratified 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol. The veterans marching through London would soon be returning home victorious but with no place to have a celebratory drink — or at least a legal one.
New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watches agents pour liquor into the sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Of course, Americans famously wasted no time illegally distilling and brewing their own booze. As crime increased and tax revenue fell, Prohibition was ended after 13 years.
But though it’s been 90 years since the ban on alcohol was lifted, American veterans returning from war remain a force in making distilled spirits. Here are three veteran owned and operated distilleries you need to try.
Related: George Washington’s Massive Whiskey Distillery Empire
Russians have their vodka. Germans have their beer. But when it comes to an alcohol that is wholly American, one spirit stands out: bourbon. The barrel-aged corn whiskey is American, through and through.
Some whiskey drinkers will tell you that in order to be authentic bourbon, the spirit must be distilled in Kentucky, or even within the borders of Bourbon County, Kentucky. According to the American Bourbon Association, bourbon doesn’t have to come from the Bluegrass State, but its mash must contain at least 51% corn, and it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Hundreds of military and first responder unit patches adorn the walls and surfaces of Willie’s tasting room. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Americans have loved this sweetly specific type of whiskey for so long that even Lewis and Clark couldn’t leave home without it. The western explorers brought 120 barrels of the drink on their cross-country trek. In Ennis, Montana, vet-owned Willie’s Distillery tries to bottle that sense of America’s spirit of adventure in its bourbon.
Founded in 2010 by Willie Blazer and his wife, Robin, Willie’s Distillery is as red-blooded as any American alcohol manufacturer. Willie served for six years in the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment before leaving the military to become a wildland firefighter in 1998. After three years as a smokejumper — an elite breed of firefighters who parachute into the wilderness to prevent remote fires from spreading — Willie rejoined the Army to join Special Forces.
Willie was training to become a Special Forces medic when the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit. After completing his training, Willie deployed to Afghanistan with the National Guard’s 19th Special Forces Group.
Willie’s is a popular stop in Ennis, Montana, which locals affectionately describe as “a cowboy town with a drinking problem, or a drinking town with a fishing problem.” Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.
After several more years in Special Forces and a few more as a civilian contractor, Willie decided to hang up his rifle for good and pursue a new business venture with Robin. In 2012, the couple officially opened the doors to Willie’s Distillery.
Since 2012, Willie’s has made a wide variety of spirits including bourbon, moonshine, and Canadian whisky. They also sell a special blend of Canadian whisky and American bourbon for a drink they named Devil’s Brigade Whiskey. The special blended whiskey is a tribute to the World War II commando unit that — based in Montana — preceded today’s Special Forces. In a nod to the iconic V-42 dagger carried by the unit’s “Forcemen,” Devil’s Brigade Whiskey sports a 42% ABV. Devil’s Brigade has a following among descendants of the legendary unit, including Mark Radcliffe, whose grandfather was a colonel in the unit.
A bottle of batch No. 3 of Devil’s Brigade Whiskey, a V-42 dagger, and a unit coin. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.
“The stuff is just some of the best whiskey I’ve ever had,” Radcliffe told Coffee or Die in June of 2022. “I really enjoy drinking a little bit of whiskey after dinner, and Willie’s is one of my favorites, especially Devil’s Brigade, which is just off the charts.”
Robin passed away in 2022 following a long battle with cancer, but her legacy lives on in the company. A play on the brand her family uses for its cattle stands as the logo for Willie’s Distillery.
You’d be hard pressed to find a bourbon more true to the drink’s American heritage than the liquid gold veterans are distilling at Willie’s.
Boozy Coffee: Check out BRCC's collaboration with Willie's Distillery, Bourbon Coffee Roast
Though best known as America’s first president and commander of the Continental Army, George Washington enjoyed a post-service life as a wildly successful distiller, creating a massive whiskey empire. However, Washington never would have had the opportunity to make whiskey had it not been for a small group of Maryland soldiers who saved his army during the Revolution.
At the Battle of Long Island in 1776, the 300 Marylanders — known today as “Washington’s Immortals” — fended off waves of British soldiers. Their doomed, rear-guard action saved Washington (and arguably the entire nation), earning them the nickname “The Old Line.” The name stuck, and today a pair of Maryland veterans borrow the blood-soaked moniker for their Baltimore-based distillery.
Old Line Spirits gets its name from the actions of the Maryland militia during the Revolutionary War. Photo courtesy of Old Line/Instagram.
Old Line Spirits sits in the Highlandtown neighborhood of Baltimore. Two former Navy Prowler pilots, Mark McLaughlin and Arch Watkins, launched the distillery in 2017. Both credit their naval service with helping them get Old Line off the deck.
“No matter what branch a veteran served in or what job they did, there is an emphasis on discipline,” McLaughlin told Coffee or Die. “There’s an expectation in the Navy that you just put your head down, push, and go get the job done. It’s something that was enormously important for us and our success.”
The two aviators credit the explosive success of their whiskey business to their Navy-learned routine of debriefing after every flight.
“Debriefing requires humility,” McLaughlin said. “In a debrief, rank is not really a factor. Everyone has to be able to take their humble pie and be receptive to feedback. I think that is a healthy thing for any organization, and we try to incorporate that in ours.”
Old Line's American single-malt whiskey is the distillery's flagship spirit. Photo courtesy of Old Line/Instagram.
That exercise in humility has led the two aviators to grow their business quickly. After taking off in 2017, Old Line now boasts gold medals from the New York International Spirits Competition, the Seattle International Spirits Awards, and The Fifty Best Awards. In addition to raking in awards for their American single-malt whiskey, Old Line has expanded to distilling rum and vodka.
McLaughlin and Watkins — who sometimes still call each other “Gorch” and “Fonda,” their old Navy call signs — say the key lesson they learned in the Navy that serves them now is that nothing ever goes according to plan.
“We took our experience in the Navy and used it to set clear objectives, make a plan, realize that the plan will never go the way we think, and then adjusted accordingly to still meet that objective,” said McLaughlin.
What was once the courtyard of a commercial laundry facility is now Old Line's Flight Deck outdoor bar. Photo courtesy of Old Line/Instagram.
For example, when their original location fell through, they moved instead into a former commercial laundry facility. That unforeseen obstacle ultimately worked in their favor, giving them the extra space needed to grow when they decided to expand their distilling beyond just American whiskey.
Still, McLaughlin says that no matter how well received their other spirits are, Old Line will never stop perfecting its signature American single malt whiskey. Sticking to that American heritage, he says, is nonnegotiable.
Related: George Washington Ran Up an Epic Bar Tab Celebrating the Writing of the Constitution
Just down the road from Old Line, another sailor recently began selling spirits in Baltimore. Instead of whiskey though, Donta Hensen is focused on drinks from south of the border.
Hensen founded Los Hermanos with his brother William in 2021. The brothers used a shared love of tequila to help stay sane during the 2020 lockdown, leading Donta to suggest they launch their own tequila company.
Los Hermanos went from conception to final product in less than a year. Photo courtesy of Donta Henson/Instagram.
After some initial research and multiple unproductive conversations with local distributors, Donta realized they would need to travel to Mexico to make their dream a reality. When William voiced his reservations, Donta tapped into the self-reliance he’d fostered in the Navy during nine years on board the littoral combat ship Detroit and aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.
“Being in the Navy, you’re used to being on your own,” Donta told Coffee or Die. “When you face a challenge, there’s no one there to hold your hand. You have to pack yourself up and get to where you need to be, so that’s what we did.”
Donta and William traveled to Tequila, Mexico, where they met with the owner of Casa Maestri, the most awarded distillery in Mexico. After touring the facilities and creating their own unique flavor profile, the Hensen brothers debuted Los Hermanos 1978.
Donta Williams, right, took the skills he learned in the US Navy to make his dream of crafting great tequila a reality. Photo courtesy of Donta Williams/Instagram.
From the moment Donta came up with the idea to the first finished product hitting shelves took the brothers less than a year. Now, Los Hermanos proudly sells both reposado and blanco tequilas that raked in four awards in their first year.
“As a veteran, I was already accustomed to adversity. So what if it’s hard?” Donta said. “It’s not impossible. We just have to get it done. For people who haven’t served, those challenges look different.”
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Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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