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From war to whiskey, former Green Berets will open St. Pete distillery

20 Sep 2018 4:03 PM | Executive Director (Administrator)


By: Laura Moody, FOX 13 News

ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - In the days after 9/11, the first group of special forces were sent to battle the worst enemy the country had ever know. It was a successful mission, but a covert one, so America would never know. They returned to their lives as if nothing happened.

Now they're retired, But these days, the only mission they're working on is 95-proof, and building the American Freedom Distillery, set to open sometime this fall in St. Petersburg.

For former Green Beret Scott Neil, this is the very definition of the American Dream. After a lifetime in special operations, he found a place to retire with his family -- a place to start a business with the brothers he risked his life with.

"Here are we are 17 years later and a lot of us are retiring and we're returning out of MacDill -- home of Central Command," he explained to FOX 13, "and we were like, 'What are we going to do?' We've spent our whole lives together. Our kids grew up together."

He was part of the famous Horse Soldiers, which American has recently learned about their bravery. They were the first wave of Green Berets to go into battle in the weeks after 9/11. Four armies of 12 soldiers who came from the four corners of Afghanistan to defeat an Al Qaeda army of 50-thousand. They were outnumbered, outgunned and on horseback.

It battle so unbelievable they wrote a book about it, there's a documentary up for an Emmy next month and it became a feature film starring a big Hollywood hunk. 

Their story caught the eye of Hollywood producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. The movie, "12 Strong", starring Chris Hemsworth, came out earlier this year.

It's flattering, Neil said laughing, but a pretty loose adaptation.

"When you have the big Hollywood stars, it's all about one man. It's about the Captain and Mark is very humble. He lives with his family here in Tampa," said Neil. 

Mark Nutsch, the Commander of Horse Soldiers Special Forces, and Bob Pennington, the Deputy Commander, who is portrayed by actor Michael Shannon, both retired and joined Neil, fellow Special Forces comrades Rob Schaefer and John Koko and their friend Elizabeth Pritchard. Soon after, Tyler Garner came on board. 

They capitalized on the blockbuster opportunity to launch their brand of Horse Soldier whiskey.

"It became so successful, we sold in a month what we thought would take a year. We sold in the second month what we would be two years," Neil went on, "Just like Green Berets, we're behind the scenes -- unknown. You won't see us anywhere and then we launched our brand the same time the movie came out and we're in over 1,300 locations throughout Florida."

The civilian world was a foreign one, but they took classes in business, learned about money management and started the paperwork. Now they do it all. They make their own barrels. They make the bottles. The mold for the glass is steel from the World Trade Center. 

They are distilling and bottling off site right now, but soon they will be making their craft whiskey in the St. Pete location at 5th Avenue South and 22nd Street, n the trendy Warehouse Arts District.

"The history of America is bound in whiskey," said Neil, "From the whiskey rebellion to the old west, whiskey is very pioneering. Just having a glass means victory."  

The group traveled the world together learning to make the world's finest whiskey.

"What we wanted to do was show people what we learned in Scotland in their tasting rooms at Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie, what we learned in Ireland," Neil explained. 

There will be a restaurant on property, in addition to the distillery, and right in the middle will be two 12-foot log tables that will seat 150 people. A retail shop will sit adjacent.

"We have our own private bar, and that's the only place you will see things from our past. Our brand is about what we're doing today," he said. "Now we make whisky, not war."

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