In its former life as a movie house, the Virginia has seen its share of war stories, but perhaps none were as true to life as those told by Scott Neil on the theater’s stage Wednesday night.
Neil, Chief Operating Officer of Horse Soldier Bourbon — currently building its new distillery as part of a larger entertainment complex here in Somerset — spoke as part of the 2022 Stand Up Rural America Summit on Wednesday.
Travel difficulties delayed Neil’s arrival during the day, so what would have been a presentation made at The Center for Rural Development at 4 p.m. was instead held later that evening at The Virginia as part of a reception for the summit with food and music.
Neil’s arrival coincided with big news for the Horse Soldier brand. On Tuesday, it was announced that Spirit of Gallo, the spirits arm of E.&J. Gallo Winery in California, has invested in Horse Soldier. The move brings E.&J. Gallo, named after founders Ernest and Julio Gallo, into the whiskey market and, as Horse Soldier CEO and chairman John Koko put it in a release, positions the company “for unprecedented growth” in the future.
While Neil briefly alluded to that development in his presentation, his focus was on the theme of “Whiskey & War Stories,” a chance to talk about the heroics of the Horse Soldiers themselves. The story has been well told by now — a group of Green Berets who went into Afghanistan on horseback following 9/11 to defeat the terrorist presence there and inspired the book and film “12 Strong.” Following their military service, the veterans would decide to start their own bourbon company, American Freedom Distillery, and were convinced by Somerset Mayor Alan Keck to locate production here in this community, with the aim to put Pulaski County on Kentucky’s famed “Bourbon Trail.”
Of course, the story of the Horse Soldiers begins right here in Kentucky, on the Cumberland River, where members who were working out of Ft. Campbell in western Kentucky were doing training exercises even as the events of September 11, 2001 were unfolding in New York City, Washington D.C., and elsewhere. The irony? The exercise involved a hypothetical scenario in which the U.S. was under attack.
When those involved in the exercise first got word of what had happened at the World Trade Center, “we literally thought it was just part of the training exercise,” said Neil. “It came in another hour later that the second (tower) had been hit; okay, the commander’s throwing us a curveball. Then four hours later, (a commanding officer) came in and said, ‘Stop what you’re doing, this is a real attack.’”
Action needed to be taken, and quickly. A few days later, a pair of plans were presented to national security officials: One involved the full force of the Marines and Army going into Afghanistan via Pakistan, a commitment to invading in six months.
“President (George W.) Bush said, ‘We don’t have that long,’” recalled Neil. “America needs its response.” That meant going with the second plan, involving a small team of Green Berets going behind the lines, reconnecting with old Mujahideen fighters and warlords that the U.S. had worked with in the 1980s against the Soviets.
“You were given less than 90 hours to plan what was basically two pages of intelligence and information and formulate (a plan),” said Neil. “Think of the commander as almost like a venture capital investor. You then do a pitch in front of him and say, ‘This is my team, these are our capabilities and skills, this is how we see the problem. We want to insert using these techniques. We see this mission lasting as short as six months, as long as two years.’”
Neil said the Horse Soldiers discovered once they went in that Afghanistan had different power bases in different parts of the country; the tribes spoke different languages, had different religious customs; “They fought each other more than they would fight the Taliban,” he said. “Some of these people in these tribes had never been more than a mile outside of their village. Does that remind you of rural America? But they were a very proud people and they resisted the Taliban.
“We knew we had the basis, and if we could just reach them and talk to them, each in their communities, maybe we could bring them together to all rise up and to fight the Taliban at once,” he added, noting that what made his unit different from others like Delta Force or SEAL Team Six was that they were more “mountain men” who could connect with those in the rough terrain.
“We thrive in small towns and villages, building resistance, and we do it by telling a story, how the Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacked America, how they killed our family members, how they cowardly put planes into buildings without even announcing their intentions to attack us,” said Neil. “The Afghans ... are traditionalists. If they consider you a coward, they are relentless, and that’s the story we told, the cowardice of Al-Qaeda, and if they didn’t have the Russian armor, you could defeat them.”
Members of the unit would ride 10 to 12 hours a day, going village to village, gathering support and selling America’s perspective to those in the area. The technology U.S. forces brought in the air also made a profound impression on the Afghans, and ultimately, the Horse Soldiers enjoyed success in their mission.
“We were America’s response,” said Neil, who referenced previous stands made in historic battles like those at the Alamo and Pearl Harbor. “I don’t understand why people like to attack America. It doesn’t ever go well.”
Telling stories has become part of the Horse Soldier legacy, as the attractiveness of their own story has helped make their brand a success and caught the attention of Keck. Neil talked about how the veterans-turned-distillers were much more hands-on than the owners of other celebrity bourbon brands, and how they traveled all over the world learning how to perfect their craft.
“We’re the quiet professionals,” said Neil. “Other people have told our story (in books and on the screen). ... We served our country proudly. We didn’t do it for any recognition. ... This is the best part about our story, is transition ... what a bunch of friends who served together did, and that’s live the American dream we’ve been defending by starting a business.”
It’s part of a long tradition of veterans coming back from their service and transitioning into the business world, noted Neil; “Probably 80 percent of the brands you know today were started by veterans when they came home from the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812 or the Civil War, World War I,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of history of coming home and getting back into the economy.”
Neil also talked about their journey to Somerset, and how they were told that Lexington and Louisville were the places to have a bourbon business. Neil said he quickly Googled Somerset once he learned about it from Keck to see what the town was like, but noted that “we wanted to be the opposite — if (the big city) was where they said you need to be, where we want to be is in the mountains.”
The group called Keck and said they’d like to stop by unannounced and see the town. “Instantly, we knew this is where we wanted to be and to bring our families and build our family business for the next 100 years, back in small town America. That’s the origin.”
Neil said that it will take about 36 months to build Horse Soldier Farms at the former Waitsboro Hills Golf Course in southern Pulaski, which will be home to a planned “village,” with dining, shopping, and a rotating program of events, festivals, concerts, community rooms, a chapel, an event center, and the American Story Center — a $200 million project in all. Ground was broken on the project last October. A restaurant associated with the company, the Urban Stillhouse, is currently being constructed inside the former Goldenberg Furniture building on the Fountain Square.
“(Horse Soldier Farms is) not a place where we make bourbon, we will, but where you bring your families,” said Neil. “... We want you to stay and play in Somerset and discover what we discover.”