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War to Whiskey: How a Special Operations Warrior and Army Lawyer Joined Forces

From the front line to a distillery production line


spinner image Veterans Brad and Jessica Halling started laying the groundwork for their distillery in 2019.
William Crooks

Brad and Jessica Halling married on Veterans Day 2011. They were immediately a military power couple. He was a retired elite sniper who had lost a leg in combat in Somalia in 1993, while she was a serving Army lawyer providing critical advice to Special Operations commanders.

He had been an enlisted soldier while she, 13 years his junior, was on the way to becoming a colonel, retiring in 2020 as the Staff Judge Advocate for Joint Special Operations Command. They had met through the dating website Match.com.

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After Jessica’s retirement, inspired by time spent in Napa Valley and with a combined 49 years of Army service between them, the couple decided to open their own distillery, a path being chosen by an increasing number of veterans.

Due to open at the end of this year, Brad Halling American Whiskey Ko. — BHAWK for short — the name is a tribute to the crews of the Black Hawk helicopters Brad served with in the Battle of Mogadishu. Brad was in a Black Hawk when it was hit by an RPG, taking off his left leg. The fallen eagle feather in the company logo represents those killed.

“Ultimately, we wanted to do something together,” Brad, 62, told AARP Veteran Report. They knew that there was a long history connecting the military and whiskey.

“George Washington drove barrels of whiskey with his troops when they moved across the land,” Brad said. The first president of the U.S. was one of the largest whiskey makers in the country by 1799.

“Whiskey is served as a medium for celebration for memorializing and at promotions,” Brad explained. “In units I've been, any time that a soldier has passed, we usually will go to the memorial wall and we'll use whiskey as a medium to remember him and talk about him, tell his story and share it with anybody who didn't know him, to carry his name up.”

spinner image The fallen eagle feather in the Brad Halling American Whiskey Ko. logo represents soldiers who were killed.
William Crooks

Drawing upon his tenacity and her organizational skills, Brad and Jessica began laying the groundwork for the distillery in 2019. On the business side, Jessica attended a distilling trade show and administration courses to learn how best to run their new business. They met with a firm that specialized in building and repairing craft distilleries.

They decided to make the distillery part of the community where they live in near Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg) in North Carolina.

Then it was time for Brad to start learning about the distilling process. “We were doing a lot of this during COVID and everybody was available — they weren’t running their stills and they were giving us the time of day,” he said Brad.

“And then, even after things started getting up and running, we were invited back. I spent a week at a distillery called Smooth Ambler in West Virginia, working behind their distillers learning the whole process, and Jess did the same thing on the other side of the house.

“It’s been an amazing journey in that the people that we've contacted have all been very, very gracious and have opened their arms to us.”

Like other craft distilleries, while their whiskey is aging — two years for the rye and about four years for the bourbon — Brad and Jessica collaborated with another distiller for something to pour upon opening their distillery.

“The way it generally goes for craft distillers, if they’re opening up front, they buy someone else’s matured whiskey,” said Brad. “We’ve done that. We have a lot of whiskey from Bardstown Bourbon Company.

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“We’ve collaborated with and purchased whiskey from them, and that will be under our Sergeant’s Valor Select.

Once their own whiskey has aged, Sergeant’s Valor Estate will be available. BHAWK is also distilling a Madam Colonel line of spirits, including vodka, gin and pistachio bourbon cream..

The distillery will feature a Gratitude Room, a living museum that will change with each small batch.  “This is Brad’s vision,” Jessica said . “It will have one of our Sergeant’s Valor offerings called the Gratitude Series, and it’ll have rotating batches that honor somebody on it.

“That could be a uniformed person, a veteran, but it also could be someone who contributed to their community or served in some other way.”

The first exhibit in the Gratitude Room features Sergeant’s Valor Gratitude Batch One, “To the Pilots and Crew of Super 62.”

Super 62 was the callsign of Brad’s Black Hawk in 1993 from which Delta Force snipers Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart fast-roped to the ground. Gordon and Shughart were killed and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Jessica said: “What we’re trying to achieve with the building and the label designs on both Sergeant’s Valor and Madam Colonel, and with the interior, is a design or a vision or an environment that captures everyone with the heart of the soldier.”

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