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The Three Best Veteran-Owned Whiskeys We’ve Tasted This Year

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) —

There are many ways to get into the world of whiskey-making. Some people, like Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Harlen Wheatley, come from backgrounds in chemical engineering. Rob Dietrich of Sweet Amber was a rock ’n’ roll roadie.

For Scott Neil, the path cut through the mountains of Afghanistan. As part of Special Forces Team ODA 595, the Green Beret helped overthrow a Taliban stronghold in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. The unit daringly navigated the rugged terrain on horseback, earning the nickname “Horse Soldiers.”

When Neil decided to introduce a bourbon brand 13 years later as a way to help support veteran causes, he knew exactly what to call it. He recruited his band of brothers to help him build it, enlisting in his new mission those who have been involved in every major conflict since the Vietnam War.

Their legacy is raising hundreds of thousands for charities, primarily through the annual commemorative release of an ultrapremium whiskey called Commanders Select. A set of three bottles has gone for as much as $75,000 at live auction. The brand also puts on a series of “Whiskey & War Stories” dinners that are hosted by actual Horse Soldiers. A portion of sales from all releases is donated to the upkeep of the America’s Response Monument in Lower Manhattan.

Veteran-owned booze operations benefiting men and women in uniform might seem remarkably niche. Over the past five years, however, they’ve become a bit of a trend. In 2017, Old Line Spirits fired up its stills in Baltimore. Although founders Mark McLaughlin and Arch Watkins met in the Navy as opposed to the Army origins of Horse Soldier, and Old Line specializes in American single malt as opposed to bourbon, their respective operations align.

Old Line’s most noteworthy partnership, according to McLaughlin, is with Fisher House Foundation Inc., which offers free housing to family members of ill or wounded service members as they undergo medical treatment. Each November and December the brand sets up in-store displays at retail accounts, from which $5 per bottle is donated to the foundation. “This is a program that we will continue to grow into new markets as we expand as a company,” McLaughlin says.

In the meantime, Old Line leans local by supporting the Baltimore Station, an organization that provides housing, counseling and job training to homeless veterans across the city. For Veterans Day, the distillery hosted a large bottle raffle event to raise money for the group. McLaughlin says it’s only a start: “We’re looking forward to building on these events every year to make them an annual way for Old Line and the local community to help out veterans in need.”

Whiskey brand Regimental Spirits works its military bona fides into packaging design. Conceived by infantrymen Eric DiNoto and Kyle Moore while on the deserted rooftop of the Ba’ath Party headquarters in Baghdad, it brandishes its liquid in canteen-shaped bottles. The co-founders often raise funds for Fisher House of Boston.

Swelling demand would indicate that consumers are heartened by the philanthropic nature of these operations. Horse Soldier, which maintains a popular tasting room and restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida, has broken ground on a massive $200 million home base in Somerset, Kentucky. In August the giant E. & J. Gallo Winery invested an undisclosed sum in the project.

The Best Three We’ve Tried

Horse Soldier Small Batch
The brand’s gold label flagship (left) is a 95-proof, honey-hued sipper advancing hints of apricot and gingerbread toward the nose. As a wheated bourbon, it’s got a creamier mouthfeel, less sharp than rye. These softer textures elongate a sustained finish that brims with delicious butterscotch. $70

Old Line American Single Malt Whiskey Cask Strength
Assertive on the nose and tongue, this 120-proof liquid pours out of the bottle with pleasant, recognizable notes of maple syrup and s’mores. Beneath the sweetness is a layer of wood smoke that cedes to cinnamon and dark fudge in the finish. It’s surprisingly complex for a whiskey with less than two years of maturation. $55

Regimental Spirits Kentucky Bourbon
This easy-drinking option will appeal to fans of lighter whiskeys. It’s very high in corn, imparting an initial sweetness not unlike caramel candy. A distant echo of vanilla tickles the back of the tongue but fades fast in the finish. $35

To contact the author of this story:
Brad Japhe in New York at Braphe@gmail.com

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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