Veteran-owned distilleries and breweries are popping up across the U.S. as those who have taken off their uniforms for the last time opt to serve in a different way.
Here are six establishments where you can raise a glass or two to our country and to those who have fought for it.
American Freedom Distillery
St. Petersburg, Florida
Horse Soldiers Bourbon takes its name from the Green Beret warriors who rode into battle in Afghanistan just weeks after 9/11. Among the founders are Mark Nutsch and Bob Pennington, who were horse soldiers in Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595, fighting alongside the CIA’s Team Alpha and Northern Alliance forces to recapture the city of Mazar-i Sharif in November 2001.
Their story was immortalized in the movie 12 Strong, and the pair recently cowrote a book about their exploits. Along with fellow Special Forces veterans Scott Neil and Rob Schaefer and others, they established American Freedom Distillery and presented their first aged spirit in 2018. As well as its St. Petersburg, Florida, distillery and stillhouse, the team has broken ground on a second stillhouse in Somerset, Kentucky, and has other distilleries in Kentucky and Ohio. Connecting their product with their military roots, the American Freedom Distillery hosts Whiskey and War Stories events.
They have created the Veterans Artisan Distillers Guild, which helps other veteran entrepreneurs learn the business. “From the hills of Afghanistan to the valleys of Somerset, Kentucky, we've learned that you are only as good as the company you keep,” Neil told AARP Veteran Report. “We have built Horse Soldier Bourbon on true American values. It’s these same values that led us to build and grow while all the time living the American dream we were defending.”
Bear Island Brewing
Husband-and-wife team Beth and Steve Bechtel were explosive ordnance disposal technicians in the U.S. Navy before returning home to Boise, Idaho, to begin Bear Island Brewing in their two-car garage. They recently expanded to a brewhouse and taproom in an old firehouse, fueling their desire to honor first responders and those who served in the military. Everyone who works at the brewery is either a veteran or related to one.
Bear Island’s taproom features the brewery’s foundational beers — Idaho Potato Ale, Bearfaced Brown, Prime In and Brewhouse #6 — as well as rotating taps of seasonal, specialty and guest pours.
Mike Benbrook retired as a chief petty officer after 20 years in the U.S. Navy. He and his late wife, Ally, owned a company that manufactured window shades and an art gallery. They founded Oakhurst Spirits, close to Yosemite National Park, in 2017 and were soon named one of the “25 Top Distilleries to Try” in California.
Using locally sourced ingredients and supplies from local businesses, Mike creates Oakhurst’s craft vodkas, rum, brandy, bourbon and whiskeys in small batches to achieve one-of-a-kind tastes. Ally died in 2019 at age 67. An internationally recognized watercolorist, her artwork is on display at the distillery.