A new distillery will soon be breaking ground in Southeastern, Kentucky. The team that is spearheading this large-scale distillery and tourist destination first met in this area 20 years earlier. For this small group of men, this upcoming groundbreaking will be a ‘coming home’. A coming home to a place where they trained before being deployed on one of the most dangerous missions in U.S. history.
On September 11, 2001, a Green Beret – Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) unit was training on the Cumberland River in Pulaski County. It wasn’t until the next day those special forces soldiers learned two airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. Within hours those two steel and concrete structures, the tallest in NYC, had completely collapsed. Just over a month later on October 19 those same special forces were the first to secretly enter Afghanistan following the 9/11 attack.
“Many of us spent decades living in Kentucky before we went off to serve,” said John Koko, Co-Founder and CEO of Horse Soldier Bourbon. “When the attacks of September 11th happened, several of our guys were based out of Ft. Campbell and training along the Cumberland River, when they received word that the towers had fallen.”
In the weeks following 9/11, a small group of U.S. Army Special Forces entered Afghanistan on horseback. Their clandestine mission marked the first time U.S. troops rode to war on horseback, since WWII. The hand-selected detachment of 12 Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group, would later become known as the “Horse Soldiers.”
And now that same legion of brothers is returning to the same area where they met with a new, albeit much safer mission, to make Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.
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Special Forces Learn the Art & Science of Distilling
We reached out to the Horse Soldier Bourbon team and spoke with Co-Founder and COO Scott Neil to learn about their journey back to Kentucky and their $200 million distillery project.
“We are a bunch of former special forces guys with a passion for whiskey. We became curious about distilled spirits and started going to craft distilleries around the country trying and learning about the art and science of distillation. Then we went into Scotland and one of the people we served with was a SAS [Special Air Service] member and he started Wolfburn Distillery in Scotland. He said, “I’ll let you run the stills and I’ll help train you.” So we did that.
“Then we came home and a friend of ours asked, ‘What’s the difference between Irish Whiskey and Scotch?’ So, we went to Ireland. And we trained at Kilbeggan Distillery. We spent time at different distilleries and each time we would go we would focus on different parts of distilling. Tell us about the financing, tell us about bottling and labeling, tell us about milling grains and all aspects of distilling. That really kind of rounded us off.
“When we first started [contract] distilling in Columbus, Ohio it was still kind of a hobby. We hadn’t really envisioned this bigger identity of a brand. As a matter of fact, we didn’t know what to call it. Until the movie [Legion of Brothers] came out. It’s about our life past and then someone said, ‘Why don’t you call it Horse Soldier’. We didn’t think you could capture that intellectual property, somebody else must have already had something. We researched it and low and behold no one had. That’s how the journey began.
“And here we are, six years later in a position to build our forever home. What’s unique about our story and Somerset is that on 9/11 we were on the Cumberland River doing a training exercise. It was actually the mayor’s office that sent us a video, a young Mayor that just got elected, and said ‘I want to bring a distillery to Somerset’. He had heard us on a podcast talk about our journey, so he sent us a video that said come see Somerset, it’s a beautiful small town in the Southeast corner of Lake Cumberland. We had no clue, we had to Google where Somerset was. We had some business in Indiana and decided to take a road trip down and fell in love with the area and the people.
“And that’s what started this conversation of how could we build there, where would we build there and then we came up on this property that was overlooking Lake Cumberland. We said this is it.
“At that time, they didn’t really know the connection between the Cumberland and our original story. So, for us it’s kind of like coming home.
“Why are we doing the groundbreaking on October 19? Because that’s the day we inserted into Afghanistan in 2001. All these things are kind of symbolic to our journey. It’s all about coming home.
“For us, it’s time to put the past, the Horse Soldier soldier part, to bed and now put the Horse Soldier Bourbon and the rest of our lives to the front.”
Horse Soldier Bourbon Plans are ‘Bold and Ambitious’
Neil wrapped up our conversation saying, “Our plans are bold and ambitious.” Having watched the distilled spirits business startups and expansions of established brand for many years now we agree building a $200 million distillery and tourist destination in Southeastern Kentucky from scratch is both bold and ambitious.
Horse Soldier started their bourbon journey in 2014 when they committed themselves to a new mission to create a world-leading, ultra-premium bourbon brand. Horse Soldier Bourbon is currently distilled at Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio. The company will transfer its operations to the new distillery campus in Somerset once the project is completed. The distillery will compliment Lake Cumberland as a premier, off-the-water attraction in Somerset, adding to the area’s thriving tourism industry that welcomes nearly 5 million visitors annually.
The group also owns and operates the Urban Stillhouse distillery and restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida. Neil added that location opened just when the pandemic hit so before they knew it they had to shut it down. It has since fully reopened and will continue to operate even after the Kentucky destination is complete.
Horse Soldier Farms – A $200 Million Distillery & Destination on 225 Acres
Horse Soldier Bourbon has acquired 225 acres in Somerset. The majority of the property is made up of the former Waitsboro Hills Golf Course. A few additional tracts have been acquired over the last year.
Neil said they are not releasing any renderings of their plans until the groundbreaking but he did say, “It’s going to be world class, not anything you would expect of a traditional distillery. It’s a synchronization of the equipment, beautiful pipe lines, the flow, I’ve been staring at this for two years and there’s nothing like this.
“We are also working with the Department of Defense to get their retired military horses like the old guard or the cavalry on the farm.”
Once completed the new and first Southeastern Kentucky distillery and tourist destination is expected to include the following features.
- 27,585-square-foot distillery visitor center
- 4,600-square-foot activity center
- 5,000 person-capacity amphitheater
- 500 person-capacity outdoor event space; an adventure center
- 3,200-square-foot wedding chapel
- 60 room luxury lodge
- 20 cabins
- a retail village
- and a 15 stall horse paddock
Horse Soldier Farms has assembled a design, engineering and construction team through a comprehensive process over the past several months. Members of the team include Kentucky firms EOP (architecture), VITOK (engineering), and Carman (landscape), along with London-based firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (architecture) and BRC Imagination Arts (experiential design) from California.
“We are committed to doing everything at the highest level,” said Koko. “We adhere to tradition, but we understand the importance of innovation. This requires working with the right people, in the right place, at the right time. We don’t believe in settling.”
Upon the recommendation of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, Horse Soldier Farms LLC received approval from the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority for incentives totaling over $29.9 million for the new distillery project. Through the Tourism Development Act, eligible Kentucky businesses can receive an annual reimbursement for taxes paid on qualifying tourism development projects.
“This administration continues to support tourism development because we understand the direct economic value that our industry brings to both rural and urban communities throughout the commonwealth,” said Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Mike Berry. “This new project will expand one of Kentucky’s most sought after tourism experiences to Southeastern Kentucky, bringing bourbon and additional revenue to the Lake Cumberland region.”
Tourism is an $8.9 billion industry in Kentucky. In Pulaski County, tourism supports 1,025 jobs and generated $115 million in economic impact in 2020 despite the spread of COVID-19. This year, the commonwealth has approved six tourism development projects for a total economic investment of over $182.6 million to companies seeking to expand operations in Kentucky to incorporate tourism.
Chris Girdler, CEO of the Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority, welcomed the Horse Soldier expansion to the Somerset community that thrives from Lake Cumberland and outdoor adventure tourism.
“It has been an absolute honor to get to know these true American heroes and a privilege to call them friends. They continue to live out their legendary journey by creating an iconic and symbolic brand that is known throughout the world,” said Girdler. “We are so grateful that they selected Somerset and Pulaski County as their new headquarters and we welcome them home.”
Somerset Mayor Alan Keck has been a longtime advocate for expanding the state’s thriving bourbon industry to Somerset.
“So much of my vision for Somerset has been about changing the expectation for what people believe is possible. By doing that, we’ve been able to generate excitement in this community that builds every day, because we’re telling our story and showing the world how special this community truly is,” said Mayor Keck.
“I am forever grateful to the Horse Soldier Bourbon team for embracing that excitement and choosing to marry their legendary story with ours. Somerset is home to so many signature Kentucky experiences. I am thrilled bourbon is now one of them and cannot wait to share in the extraordinary experience Horse Soldier Farms will bring to our community.”
Horse Soldier Bourbon expects to create more than 50 jobs with the new $200 million tourism development project.
Throughout the pandemic, spirits companies have continued pledging to invest and create jobs in Kentucky. Today, roughly 70 spirits facilities employ more than 5,100 people. In 2021 alone, Kentucky’s spirits industry has seen 12 new-location or expansion announcements with over $270 million in planned investments and 267 announced full-time jobs.