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From Afghanistan to Kentucky: The (Almost) Unbelievable Story of Horse Soldier Bourbon

Returning home from combat often presents soldiers with a long, complex road. Navigating the return to civilian life isn’t always easy, and veterans often search for the sense of community and belonging they had while in the armed forces. Finding a similar bond can be difficult, especially after years spent overseas forging strong relationships with fellow soldiers in hazardous combat zones.

Just hours after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, a dozen Green Berets assigned to Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595 covertly infiltrated Afghanistan to begin the American response against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Horse Soldier Bourbon, started in 2015 by John Koko, Elizabeth Pritchard-Koko, and Scott Neil, was directly inspired and created by that select group of veterans who served in that operation.

An Unprecedented Origin Story

“I’m grateful that our team was the first team selected to go into Uzbekistan and then follow on right into Afghanistan a few weeks later, dropped into the Hindu Kush mountains where we linked up with a warlord named General Dostum,” says Vince Makela, a former member of the original special forces unit that inspired Horse Soldier. “He was already fighting the Taliban from horseback, so he gifted us 12 horses. And the next three weeks we were in combat with them, assisting their efforts.”

ODA 595’s three-week horseback military operation earned them the moniker “Horse Soldiers,” and the name stuck. Makela, who is currently a brand ambassador for Horse Soldier Bourbon, retired from the military 15 years after ODA 595’s special operation. Despite having heard of Horse Soldier’s genesis at the dedication ceremony of America’s Response Monument in 2015, Makela said he didn’t immediately get involved with the brand. Like millions of veterans before him, Makela was adjusting to civilian life after decades of active duty.

But it didn’t take long for Makela to think of Horse Soldier again. The camaraderie and belonging the Horse Soldiers forged while fighting the Taliban remained potent and offered a familiar sense of community. Promoting a superbly crafted product while remaining in close professional contact with his fellow soldiers proved an excellent next step in Makela’s retirement from the armed forces.

“I’ve been kind of blown away by the reaction of the audience and people, especially at events because I didn’t think anyone would want a bottle signed by me,” says Makela. “But I saw that it really resonated with people, and people really got behind it. They loved the story and the military service component of it.”

Award-Winning Bourbon Made by Veterans

Horse Soldier Bourbon, now in its eighth year of production, continues to resonate with people not just because of its singular origin story, but also because of the careful and meticulous craftsmanship that goes into every bottle. Koko, Pritchard-Koko, and Neil first decided to create the Kentucky-based American Freedom Distillery — the distiller of Horse Soldier Bourbon — after tasting remarkable whiskey at a distillery in Driggs, Idaho. After talking with the distillers and learning more about the craft, Neil realized that getting involved in such a meticulous, comprehensive, and energetic field could be a great option to help veterans settle back into civilian life after leaving the armed forces.

Horse Soldier’s explicit aim to hire and train veterans is one key reason why its spirits have quickly become known for their outstanding quality. The skills necessary to have a decorated and successful military career directly transfer to making high-quality, carefully distilled spirits that can win over even the most discerning whiskey drinkers.

“One of the great pleasures in life is working with quality people who want to be a team, who want to work together, who want to succeed, and have no problem working through the nights, weird hours, early hours — it’s all about the end goal,” says Steve Kofron, who was also one of the ODA 595 Horse Soldiers and now works as a brand ambassador for Horse Soldier Bourbon. “I tell you what, you work a while with a bunch of Green Berets and you’ll see people understand it.”

Significant factors ensuring Horse Soldier is of excellent quality include the distillery cofounders’ tours to various traditional distilleries to learn from seasoned masters, including experts in Kentucky, Ireland, and Scotland. American Freedom Distillery was also able to import a European yeast culture, which they’ve further cultivated and incorporated into Horse Soldier’s rye and wheat mash bills.

Makela described the distillery’s straight Bourbon, which won the Double Gold Medal at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, as full-bodied, smooth, and having more pronounced spicy undertones that are more present on the finish. The distillery’s small batch straight Bourbon, which was also a Double Gold Medal Winner at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, features a slightly sweeter profile, including notes of vanilla and cherry. Makela noted that Horse Soldier’s third Bourbon, the barrel-strength Bourbon — another 2022 Double Gold Medal Winner — has unique butterscotch notes that work well with the spirit’s distinct oakiness. The fact that every expression from Horse Soldier won Double Gold in the same year is a testament to the incredible quality of its spirits.

Dedicated to Giving Back

As the brand has grown, so has one critical aspect of Horse Soldier’s mission: to give back to veterans. Horse Soldier often partners with the Folded Flag Foundation, an organization that provides educational scholarships and support grants to the spouses and children of U.S. military and government personnel who died as a result of hostile action or in an accident related to U.S. combat operations. The brand has already hosted multiple charity auctions to fundraise in partnership with the Folded Flag Foundation, as well as additional charities, and plans to continue to support veterans through additional work opportunities in the future.

“The transformation from being Green Berets in combat to making three award-winning Double Gold Bourbons is as interesting as can be,” added Kofron. “And it’s real history.”

This article is sponsored by Horse Soldier Bourbon.

The article From Afghanistan to Kentucky: The (Almost) Unbelievable Story of Horse Soldier Bourbon appeared first on VinePair.

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