Welcome to the Hops & Spirits Friday Five, where we ask five questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.
This week’s spotlight is on Scott Neil, Horse Soldier Bourbon’s Chief Operations Officer. Scott and his friends banded together after years of service to the nation to launch Horse Soldier Bourbon. Their dedication to serving others and a passion for adventure led them on this new quest to create an all-American, award-winning bourbon.
BONUS QUESTION: Can you tell people a little bit about yourself and, I don’t want to say the whole life story, but maybe the cliff notes version?
Wow, cliff notes. I was born in California, but I grew up really in Central Florida right outside of Orlando in a little town called Narcoosee. And I always wanted to join the Army, so when I graduated high school in 1986, I went in and I continue to serve. I became an Army Green Beret and I did 25 years of service. Then I went on to do some nonprofit activity and we started this business amongst friends who served together in 2016.
1) How did Horse Soldier Bourbon get launched/come together?
Well there’s, there’s the how and then there’s the why. The how is, after I left the nonprofit, you spent a lot of talking to very affluent people or companies and then I was always curious on how they made their American dream happen. So I thought it was time for me to pursue that. My friend and co-founder and his wife Elizabeth, we took the opportunity to go on vacation in Yellowstone, and we climbed the Tetons and we did a horseback ride. And all the while I think I was like that overanxious Padawan that was asking the Kung Fu master ‘How do you make money. I mean how do you get your first million. H do you start a business, and he’s like, just enjoy nature.’
And after the end of this 30 days, we went to our first craft distillery and just sat at the bar, and I think that’s where we caught the bug. And if you are listening to this program and you’re you enjoy going to the Bourbon Trail or Scotland and Ireland, it becomes a fascinating magical trip. And then, it was Pied Piper. I called Mark and Bob, and Will and everybody. We just started adding more and more on this journey of discovery, and we finally put this into a business and we started making booze back in 2016.
2) What drew you to being part of this?
When you talk to a mentor or another entrepreneur, you hear all these clichés of find your passion, you’ll never be bored. Then you got to find it. Well, my passion was being with my friends that I served with and telling stories. It was at being at the bar and everybody’s animated and like you’re full of crap.It happened like this.
And so when we found, you know this kind of craft distillery, it became David meets Goliath. Right, you can make something just as delicious as all the popular brands you’ve ever heard of. But then, you’ve got the giants of distribution and the governors of retail and it just all became fascinating. That’s just what we chose. We chose this business.
3) This is an all-American company. How important was that for you all and was that difficult to do?
With our background being in Special Forces, we’ve got statues at Ground Zero and we’ve got all this recognition. It had to be American. I mean we bleed red, white and blue. I like to think that this is the most patriotic bourbon brand in the country.
But when you get into the business side of the business. There are shortcuts. It becomes a reality in the physical financial aspects of, do I buy a bottle for a $1.50, or do I get it for $1. Do I get labels at 98 cents or I try to get labels at 50 cents. Because the number one ingredient in whiskey, and everybody’s mistaken, the number one ingredient is money.
When we started putting in our own money, you have want to put all the finest and best, but then the reality side, sometimes makes people search for shortcuts. We had to stay on the high road and it costs us a lot of money just to get started, put it that way.
3b) Working with Middle West Spirits and their importance?
When you begin your journey and I listened to a lot of podcasts as well and there’s some great distillers. There’s some great people that can nose and taste, but I wanted to key in on how do you start at zero and climb the mountain.
And so we were introduced to other veterans distillers. One is Travis and his wife Hillary at Hotel Tango. So we went to their facility and we carry the grains. We mix things up. We licked the labels on the bottling line. We listened to them with heavy bags under their eyes talk about the business, whereas consumers want to talk about ingredients and maturation and notes and nuances of American new white oak. When you get together with the owners, and you get into a different conversation.
So they had introduced us to Ryan and Ryan had such a wealth of knowledge, and he had just started Middle West, and we realized that we didn’t have the capital to build a $15 million, 1.5 million gallon facility. And we’d never get where we want it to be on a 250 gallons still. So, the logic came in that we would learn from Ryan and he would teach us his expertise. We would enter a partnership, but what’s unique about it is, is not where I order on some checklists from some bigger company. We actually would go on Airbnb and stay there.
I mean we worked — Ohio winters are nothing to be trifled with when you’re from Florida, but we did it. Our first labels, we had to hand apply. Imagine you can only do 800 bottles a day; that’s 12 hours a day with 10 of us on the bottling line, literally, hand labeling our first bottles.
It was an experience that says boy there’s a better way. Or we have to sell more of this so I can actually work together and get a better bottling line. I’ll never trade that journey to where I’m at now, because it’s a journey that made us grow like we did.
4) You all have a facility in Florida, but the future home is in Somerset, Kentucky. Why there and what can folks expect once that’s up and running? And why Florida?
So Florida because the headquarters of Special Operations Command is here so a lot of us retired out of MacDill Air Force Base, so that’s why Florida. Plus, it’s warm and there’s 14 million visitors to St Petersburg and Tampa, where as the bourbon trails is 1.4 [million visitors]. We’ve got a better way to expose our brand.
But why Somerset? We were secretly looking into Lexington and Louisville. We found and discovered some things that people don’t realize, and I won’t go into it here. But it was the mayor of Somerset who just got elected. We had no clue where Somerset was and he sent us a video of him talking about a distillery as he’s overlooking Lake Cumberland. We’re like Google, Google, Google.
When we visited, it was the most lost-in-time, Mayberry town square. Everybody waved. The sheriff comes in. It brought you back to a simpler time to when you grow up as a kid. That’s what you remember. It’s like a Hallmark movie.
Then when we saw Lake Cumberland. What people now realize is we were on Cumberland River when 9/11 happened. So it spoke to us.
You’ve got this small town America and it’s way from the big fish — the big bourbon baron, publicly traded x, y, and z’s with billions of dollars of sustainable investment. Little bitty outpost, alone and unafraid in the middle of Somerset, Kentucky, and that’s where we belong.
5) For veterans, how difficult can it be to run/launch your own business?
Never be fearful of hard. We grew up in a military, walking 12 miles and getting shot at if you’re in combat or jumping out of airplanes. I don’t understand the veteran mindset sometimes when they leave that they think the best times of their life was yesterday.
For us, we were always curious, and if somebody else could do it, we could do it. What we didn’t have in the beginning was an understanding of the language of business. So I went and attended entrepreneurial schools. Some friends went to the veterans boot camp. So you have to self educate your gap.
The hard part for veterans though is when we inserted in Afghanistan, they gave teams millions of dollars. Here’s this much help start the revolution, or the resistance or, here’s the resources. When you become your own business, resources are finite. A $1 is $1 and what does it get me.
So, we started with our own money. And then we learned to be savvy in business where you didn’t give up your dream. I’m not going to work all day long for somebody else. So we had to become smarter and smarter and more engaging with our investors to the point now it’s about culture. We will not bring anybody else on into the team fold whether they’re an employee and investor, unless they fit our culture.
To find out more about Horse Soldier Bourbon, visit https://horsesoldierbourbon.com/ or find them on social media.