Public meets the people behind planned distillery

Caleb Lowndes

Three of the founders of Horse Soldier Bourbon meet a standing-room-only crowd of locals during a Friday afternoon press conference at the Energy Center. John Koko, Elizabeth Pritchard Koko, and Scott Neil are seen at the dais at the front of the room.

Horse Soldier Bourbon's John Koko summed it up like this: "There can't be anything more authentic than us coming back to where it all started. And here we are."

Koko publicly introduced himself and the rest of the Horse Soldier Bourbon family at a press conference held Friday at the Energy Center in Somerset.

He was joined by his wife, Elizabeth Pritchard Koko, and Scott Neil.

Koko said that Pritchard and Neil would be among those who brought the business into the Pulaski area.

Neil, named the lead of operations by Koko, told the crowd that the first steps were just now being taken. "This is the start of the beginning. There's a lot more things we have to do. Then, we get into establishing our roots here, so please be patient, because it's new to us a little bit too."

As such, there were no revelations Friday as to where the distillery might be located or other particulars, but Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) President Chris Girdler told the crowd to "stay tuned."

He promised a community event to be held in late spring called "Whisky and War Stories" that would not only be one to remember, but would provide further updates.

"We anticipate being able to discuss the location of Horse Soldier Bourbon, future plans, and some very interesting and intriguing information that we know that everyone will be very excited about," said Girdler.

SPEDA announced back in December plans to bring the bourbon company into the area.

It will launch a two-phase, $50 million project that will add 56 direct jobs. Horse Soldier Bourbon is currently distilled in Columbus, Ohio, and bottled in Florida.

The company's owners are members of the first U.S. Army Special Forces unit to enter Afghanistan following the infamous 9/11 attacks. The small teams of Green Berets, mounted on horseback, rode into northern Afghanistan. These men became known as "The Horse Soldiers" -- thus the name of their brand of bourbon.

The 2018 film "12 Strong" is based on their story.

Koko told the Somerset crowd that because their story begins on the Cumberland River - many of their members were conducting Green Beret training on the river on the day the Twin Towers fell - that coming back to the area felt like coming home.

Neil added: "This really is the next chapter of our lives. All we want out of America is the American dream we've been defending."

He said the company also want to show other veterans there are opportunities out there.

"We started this company with nothing. We left service and we said, 'Now what are we going to do?'"

Both Girdler and Somerset Mayor Alan Keck called the announcement an historic event.

Girdler called it "a moment in time that's going to be forever talked about in our community and the Lake Cumberland region, and throughout the entire commonwealth of Kentucky. "

Keck said, "I'm just excited for Somerset and Pulaski County. This is a moment that we'll all look back on so fondly and say, 'You know what? I was there.'"

Keck talked about how he envisioned bringing a distillery to the area even before getting elected as mayor, feeling that such a business would be a boon to both that business and the area as far as jobs and tourism were concerned.

"One of the reasons Koko and I bonded so quickly was that it was easy to see that his vision was vast," Keck said. "That he was looking to accomplish something in life that lasted far beyond his own, and that's what we want to do here in Somerset and Pulaski County."

Koko said that the driving forces behind the company were both community and values.

"Having a community is more than living next to each other," he said. "It's about being united. It's about accepting differences between us to find commonality. It's about coming together on the big things that matter as a country, some of which we were proud to participate in."

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