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Episode 67: Spirit of America: Building a Bourbon Brand with Scott Neil

Episode 67: Spirit of America: Building a Bourbon Brand with Scott Neil


The resilience and strategic mindset honed on the battlefield can be your secret weapon in the business world. Scott Neil, retired Master Sergeant Army Green Beret turned entrepreneur, applies the lessons of leadership, discipline, and tactical patience learned during his time in service and shares his story on this episode of Veteran Led.​

Scott illustrates how focusing on culture, talent, and attention to detail can pave the path to success. The importance of having agile teams, strategic patience, and the invaluable trait of learning from every situation; whether it’s a win or a learning moment is crucial to the success of any business. ​

The potential is within every veteran to transform and lead in the business arena and Scott exemplifies that with his bourbon brand, Horse Soldier Bourbon. This episode is a testament to how the principles of military resilience can achieve your business success.​

Check out Horse Soldier Bourbon by following this link


Scott Neil: And then the Intel sergeant comes in and says the World Trade Center has been attacked and in an isolation facility, you’re being spoon fed information, so we thought it was just part of the, uh, exercise play. And it wasn’t really until later on that afternoon, and if you did see the movie “12 Strong,” you see him in the mess hall where you just see, like everybody else in the world, United States, these headlines. We understood because that was part of our understanding of the region. And we knew we would be going in right away. 

John Berry: Welcome to the Veteran Led podcast, where we talk with leaders who use their military experiences to develop great organizations and continue to serve their communities. Today’s guest is retired Master Sergeant Army Green Beret Scott Neil. Not only did Scott Neil serve in one of the most important missions in OEF, which was depicted as the horse soldier movie or more specifically, “12 Strong,” but also, he is the CEO and president of Horse Soldier Bourbon and the American Freedom Distillery. Welcome to the show, Scott. 

Scott Neil: Yay! 

Scott Neil: Well, thank you very much. Um, you know, I’m always excited to meet new people and just kind of tell a bit of our story. I think as former veterans, we miss that kind of around the squad, fire, fire, base, back of a truck storytelling session. So I’m happy you invited me, and I’m glad I get a chance to talk about our journey.  

John Berry: Well, let’s start from what might be the most exciting part of the journey, which is it’s about September 11th or I’m sorry, September 10th, 2001, and you’re in a training exercise and it’s ramping up. The exercise is going to culminate maybe around September 12th and September 11th, you get the news about the attack on the Twin Towers. What happens?  

Scott Neil: So what happens is, is I was part of the 5th Special Forces Group, which is at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and our area of operations, always the Middle East. And I was part of a specialized unit that on 1 October, was going to be in the region in case a terrorism event happened. So our training scenario, as you know, is all about the commanders checking all aspects of your ability to shoot, move and communicate and articulate the events that are unfolding. And do they have confidence that you can accomplish your mission when you’re fully operationally ready? And on that Tuesday morning of 9/11, I distinctly remember, uh, we had part of our element out at a very remote location on, on the Cumberland, and we were getting Intel reports, you know, throughout the night of activities of this suspected compound. Everything you see today. Right? That was part of our scenario way back then. And then the Intel sergeant comes in and says the World Trade Center has been attacked and in an isolation facility, you’re being spoon fed information, so we thought it was just part of the, uh, exercise play. And it wasn’t really until later on that afternoon, and if you did see the movie “12 Strong,” you see him in the mess hall where you just see, like everybody else in the world, United States, these headlines. We understood because that was part of our understanding of the region. And we knew we would be going in right away.  

John Berry: And so when that happens, you’ve got to ramp up. And for many of our brothers and sisters who are OIF or OEF veterans, we arrived with a little bit of infrastructure. When you arrive in country shortly after September 11th, tell us about the infrastructure that was present for you in Afghanistan.  

Scott Neil: So really, we were the first of the first. So if you look at the seven phases of unconventional warfare, which is kind of the Green Beret doctrine, you know, of how to, um, you know, shape battlefields and influence political, all of these special ops-like tasks; you had the Delta Force task counterterrorism; you have small raiding units of SEALs and Rangers. Green Berets specializes in remote under-governed location where you have an oppressive environment that then you could rally to begin to degrade the power and influence of the government. It was the mission.  

So if you think about the parameters, you don’t know who really the Taliban is. You don’t know who al Qaeda really is and why they have a control because if you remember, in a couple of weeks, President Bush tried to ask the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. Uh, you don’t know the terrain and environment anymore because it was the 80s since small teams of Green Berets and the agency was behind the lines with the Mujahideen. As a matter of fact, the Intel packets were probably the size of this manila envelope and a couple National Geographics. So we don’t know what to do, who they are, why they’re there, how this is going. But we need to send some teams behind the lines to get going. And it was literally you only have so much to bring with you because of the weight inside the helicopter going over the Hindu Kush. And hopefully when you make link up, you’re not killed or arrested, and we can begin to drop you supplies, go. Get on the helicopter. See you later. And for us it wasn’t, there were several teams that were inserted behind the lines, and maybe that’s not what the movie depicted, but, uh, you didn’t know what other teams were doing in case you were captured. So there was a lot of small teams led the way behind the lines on October 19th. 

John Berry: And at that time, there was an important part of your mission around linking up with the individuals who could help us. As you said, we didn’t know who was friend or who was foe at that point, and you’ve got to figure out who you can influence at this point. So tell us a little bit about why that part of the mission was so important. 

Scott Neil: All you have is the expertise that you carry in. And this mission, broad mission statement, is to understand local leadership and influencers, local terrain, begin to use your skill set, that was only developed in training, right? It had been a long time since we had been behind the lines as an organization of special operations. If you think about us helping the country of Colombia fight against guerrillas, maybe we had a little bit of experience in El Salvador, but it’s been a while since, you know, this size of this unconventional mission came in front of us. So it was literally the trust of leadership to go in there and figure it out. And then you ask the question what it is? They’re like, we don’t know what it is. Go figure it out. And so you begin to get in there, you make report, you want to understand the terrain and environment, so within the first couple of days you understood you know, the why and the why horses. Right. Think of our own American Indians behind the Apache that really didn’t take on, uh, direct military cavalry units, they used hit-and-run activities and spurs and hilltops, and they used understanding of the land to where the water was, where to bed down the horses. And it really was just on the fly every day, captains and sergeants making a difference. 

John Berry: And so as you’re on the fly and you’re figuring out what the mission is and who the targets are, how do you how do you gel with it? I don’t know if it was called the ANA back then, but you’re your Afghan counterparts who are going to help you accomplish your mission. How does that team-building work? 

Scott Neil: Well, I think part of the main focus is building rapport. How do you have shared experiences? You eat what they eat. You sleep on the ground like they do. You don’t bring an abundance of technology because your indigenous partners feel that only if I had those night visions, I would be better. If only I had your radios or superguns or death rays or whatever. What you have to do is you have to start by being integrated into their fighting force, and then you start helping them solve problems. For example, they didn’t have long range communications. Well, let us sit next to your commanders and we’ll help you communicate to each other. Uh, they don’t have a way to go further, uh, in preparation to battlefield, because they don’t have enough ammunition or bullets. So then that’s when you use the mechanism of resupply, right? To make them a little bit better each and every time. When you fight together and you share the day’s battlefield, they start trusting. And once you gain trust, you can start influencing their leadership. You can never be the leader of them. You only enable that leader and if they’re a good leader, it’s good. If they’re a bad, you have to tell your own command that this might not work out. 

John Berry: So as a leader, uh, understanding that this is a critical mission, uh, not just for your team. I mean, you’re getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere, don’t know when you’re going to be resupplied, but also understanding the effect that this is going to have on the American people, that the United States is still in shock at this point and we need to strike back, we need to strike hard, and we need to make a statement. And more importantly, we need to bring back the confidence in our government and in our military because we took a hit and now everybody’s second guessing us. Is the United States military the greatest fighting force in the history of the world? And so we got to go show them. And you and your team did that. And there’s some great I mean, it’s legendary. You think back to the old cavalry regiments and the horseback and, you know, the imagery of modern, I shouldn’t say modern because they’re the old Russian tanks but being attacked by soldiers on horseback. And I saw in the movie, I saw it happen. Was it really as depicted in the movie where they were they really, you know, uh, riding through, uh, the, uh, the assault area, you know, attacking the tanks with RPGs on their shoulders, launching the rockets, or was that a little bit more Hollywood? 

Scott Neil: I think what you have to understand is, um, Hollywood is Hollywood, and they’ll glamorize, but how do you depict 3500 horse cavalry and a thousand infantry? Hollywood maybe had 40. Um, but then you had multiple teams. It wasn’t one team of 12. You had other teams on the left and right. And just the study of modern battlefield, of maneuverability. How far do you push a horse before you need to water them and feed them to get ready for the battle? All of these factors, um, didn’t make the cut of Hollywood, but as we grew up in the infantry and we became special forces, it was amazing to see the totality of small unit tactics and maneuverability on the battlefield, how to do shaping fires with close air support on one ridge and horseback advancing on the other. And then time your mortars to drop just before so you can keep the tanks buttoned down. Those were things you read about in Normandy and World War II. And you only because of your fascination with military history and probably all those books those commanders told you to read as leaders, it became the data bank on how to solve this 19th century Army versus this 21st century Army battlefield. 

John Berry: So as we as we get to the legend of all this, I mean, this is what’s fascinating to me is in I think it was Uzbekistan, there was a legend about the 12 strangers coming in on horses with swords of lightning, and you made this prophecy come true. I think you’re familiar with the legend. If you’d share that, that’d be great. 

Scott Neil: Well, I think in any religious context we have the apostles, right? We have this, uh, mythical sense that there’s a Savior there that will answer our prayers. And to the average mujahideen fighter, they didn’t know what a B-52 bomber is, they don’t know what a satellite communication or a laser target designator. All they know is you’re looking through binoculars, you’re pointing at something, and 10 seconds later, it blows up. So that’s kind of the native psychological warfare that you allow your legend to be developed, uh, by the people you’re fighting with. And that’s what spread like wildfire that gave us more and more tribes, because we now had the power and strength. And whether it was this mystical Moluccas, uh, Swords of Lightning or it was Americans that brought, you know, their guns and planes to bear against the Taliban, whatever the reason is, it got people into the fight that were always not willing to join the resistance against the Taliban. 

John Berry: So the legend, right. The legend of it is what actually built it. And not unlike what you’ve done with Horse Soldier Bourbon. Right. There’s a legend behind this, and there is there’s a lot of purpose. I got all three of them. I’m assuming the gold is the best. So if I’m going to do it, you know I’m gonna do it right. But I wanted to ask about, you know, there’s a transition. 

Scott Neil: No, no, no. So. Copper is our straight bourbon. If you look on the neck label, then you have small batch then you have barrel strength. Well, barrel strength is papa bear, copper is baby bear. Gold is mama bear. It’s 95 proof. It’s a wheated bourbon. The barrel strength is, uh, if you look at the lower corners, probably about 120. So each one is different. Just like your children. Uh, they have a different personality, a different profile. Uh, you use them for different reasons in the bar, at the house, or with two friends in a cigar. 

John Berry: So if I’m going to have two friends in a cigar, what do I got? Let’s make this infantry simple. Bronze. Gold or silver? 

Scott Neil: Uh, silver is my favorite. Okay. By far. By far. 

John Berry: And what and why is that? 

Scott Neil: Uh, because I love my children but a full barrel strength, you only need that one pour. It’ll last you ten, 15 minutes. If you try to, uh, gulp it, you’ll be out. 

John Berry: Got it. 

Scott Neil: Right. You have to respect it. And a good bourbon is about understanding the complexity because if you add an ice cube, it’s going to change over time. 

John Berry: And what I found and for our listeners that maybe are not familiar with bourbon, the way I learned in Kentucky was you kind of put your mouth over it and your nose into it. Breathe it in. And you can and you can. Yeah. 

Scott Neil: Yep. And so that’s the first step. Just like a good wine, you could swirl the bottle and you could see the legs of the alcohol. How slow or fast it moves. Uh, when you take a scent, go from the left nostril around to the right. Now take a little sip and swish it all in your mouth like you’re gargling it. Just a little one. That’s called the Kentucky Chew. And then finally take your first good sip. And let it go down. 

John Berry: Wow. 

Scott Neil: So you feel it. It’s called the Kentucky Hug is it just starts going down to that tapeworm we probably have since we’ve been in the military, but, uh, that is meant to be sipped and enjoyed. 

John Berry: Well, I lack total discipline and meant to get through the story first, but Rangers lead the way. So you’re. I mean, at the end of the day, there are many battles. There are many war stories. But for you, that’s not where it ends. That is the beginning and that is where I want to go. You get out of the military. You’re a retired master sergeant, decorated war hero. You did something amazing, and you could just hang it up, get fat, do nothing. But you decide that you’re going to continue. Yeah, I shouldn’t, I guess some veterans take that personally, but you’re going to continue, uh, with a new mission. And so at some point, you find a mentor. So tell us how you found that mentor. 

Scott Neil: So when I retired here at the Command of Special Operations, imagine I was only on two special forces team for 17 years, and you reach a point where you’re you’ve been injured so many times, you’re kind of done and you need that next generation to come. So what do you do with old warriors? I came to the command, and this battlefield was so dynamic over the, you know, the 7 or 8 years I was focused on it, that it became an interagency fight. It was like the movie Reservoir Dogs, where you had, you know, Mr. White, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, everybody, because it was a whole of nation fight. So I came back to the headquarters. Uh, I sat in big boardrooms with billion dollar budgets, and I discussed, you know, synchronization and optimization. And then the next day, you’re done. And so the only real economic viability for old Green Berets and SEALs and Rangers was government contracting. So I did about a year, uh, working with our friends. Um, you know, think about the Avengers, right. You now have to work with a different, uh, Avenger friend. And after that year, I knew I couldn’t do it. I needed to find a transition point. And we were supposed to be living the American dream we were defending.  

So think you send soldiers forward, this idea of America, you know, we’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. But it all means something in the end. And it doesn’t mean that the end of your career is a good VA rating, because all I was told to do is how to game the system, you’ll get a couple hundred bucks a month and, uh, ta da! Then you could be a fat, lazy veteran all your life and said, well, I’m pretty good at being a fat, lazy veteran all on my own. But, uh, how did that guy make his money? How did that person become a CEO? How did that person just sell his business for 100 million? So I knew that, uh, just like Special Forces selection, it was going to be hard and rough. And so I prepared myself mentally, and I took a few months off to discover myself, right, the warrior’s journey and then gain knowledge dominance. Just like the battlefield, I asked 100 CEOs, I asked 100 businesses. We fell into the bourbon space as a curiosity, but then I used our special skills of human intelligence by asking a thousand questions to 100 questions to the ten right questions. And that philosophy helped us grow this business to be the fastest growing bourbon in the country today from a group of guys who had zero experience in this industry. 

John Berry: Well, and we judge intelligence not by the answers, but by the questions. And leaders know that a leader recognizes another leader when they say, this person is asking some pretty important questions, and they understand the problem or the process when they start asking the right questions. So yes, the questions are absolutely key to success. And so as you start asking these questions, then who did you reach out to to help you find a way? 

Scott Neil: So my mentor, number one, just like a kung fu warrior, find a legend, find somebody that you want to learn their business style. And it was a gentleman named John Coco, previous generation Green Beret, CIA, then very successful in the business, had brought a company to public, uh, took it back to private, took it back up again, sold it, bought more businesses, bundled them together, sold them to funds. You know what I mean? He had he had walked the trail and I said, I, I’m naturally curious. Let me carry your water, sensei, let me be around you. Uh, do I want to do this? Do I want to do that? And he patiently said, let’s do something together. Right? And you’re going to you’re going to learn by watching us take something both of us know nothing about. And you’re going to watch how I make decisions. And it was fascinating to watch. Just like in military command, you’ll align yourself with a commander. You know what I mean? That you love and you trust, and they help you not only be the person you are at there, but he’s helping you grow into his position and then into the next position. So that’s what John has done for all of us in this business is, uh, taking us from startup, individual money, family fund to a strategic partnership to now we’re building, you know, $110 million, $5 million proof gallon, 100,000 barrel facility to be a hundred year brand. 

John Berry: Well, and as the legend goes, right, the start of that was your initiative. You asked John to mentor you, and John said, yeah, I’d love to. I’ll do it. I’m going to Yellowstone for three months, so let’s get together when I get back and you say, hey, I got nothing going on, let me follow you around. And he said, yes. And after 90 days you went to a distillery and really found that that’s what you wanted to do. But there’s another piece to this that I think is huge in that we come from the military background and what are we taught? You need to be decisive, make quick decisions. If you don’t make a decision, someone’s going to get killed. And you’re out there with him and he’s just telling you, hey, just relax. Enjoy the sunset. He kind of taught that deep thinking. So take us through that. How you were able to change that speed of your mind, to think deeply, as opposed to in the military, where we taught to make quick decisions. 

Scott Neil: Remember when I said I had a thousand questions? Imagine you’re the old thing where you see the old man on the hill and the young one walks up there, and he makes him walk up the hill so you get tired and you’re focused. So when John and I started talking on the horseback ride to Yellowstone, a tick, tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick. Tell me, tell me, tell me. It’s like shh, shh. You know you’re you are anxious, so you need to calm yourself and it’s going to come to us, right? He believed in a stoic aspect of business. Discover. Let God winks. You know, show you the way. Let the partnership discover naturally what to do. And he was right along the way and then when the opportunity came, bam, that’s it. And I remember the thing I did is I sold every gun piece of kit, everything to burn my past because it was easy when it’s hard to go backwards and say, well, let me back out of the mouse trap versus I’m going to burn every bridge because there’s only one path forward. And as we moved forward, there was no backwards. It was stop, reorient the map and compass, recheck the azimuth, keep going on the patrol. And all along the way, though Coco had been through this journey, it didn’t matter the what, he said, it’s the who. Culture trumps strategy, right when you have the right people. And so those slow drips of lessons that became, um, our business values, you know, it was the patience that he brought me through that now, if I was to take and do the same journey with somebody behind me, because you always have to give backwards, I now know how my path of teaching veterans behind me how to get into business. 

John Berry: And while it may be a slower way of thinking and processing, uh, the competition heats up and you got to move quickly. And I’m sure that you found that indecisiveness kills opportunity. 

Scott Neil: Yes. Yes, so, uh. slow decision, wrong decision. There’s a fork, right. Sometimes you want a wrong decision is okay because you can correct it. You have momentum. A slow decision, momentum and timing and opportunity cost of business. Right. The speed of business is real. Once you, uh, miss that window, uh, a meeting with a person or whatever. I got to prepare some more. And you miss that opportunity? It’s gone. It takes too much time to get momentum going. So at some point, uh, I could show you the napkin of our vision. The vision is very broad. We wanted to build a world class brand that is recognized for who we are today, not the past. That’s sustainable, in 100 years, we would leave a legacy. That’s been the roadmap. So the everything blocking you in the way you may maneuver left or right, or you may, uh, bully your way through it, but, uh, smooth is slow, and slow is fast, is the old gunfighters way. And that’s some of the business approaches we’ve had. 

John Berry: And that that student humble approach. Uh, and it could be tough for some veterans. One of the best speeches I heard was by a guy named, uh, Vinnie Rocco Vargas, a former Army Ranger, and he said, you know, nobody cares anymore that you were an Army Ranger. You might as well have been telling everybody that you were the high school quarterback. Nobody cares. What are you doing today? What are you doing next and how are you helping? And that’s one thing at Veteran Led that we really want the veteran community to see is you have those basic skills to be successful, and there are tons of veterans who have done it but more importantly, it’s your moral obligation. You have the training and the leadership ability that most of our civilian counterparts lack. They don’t have the guts. They don’t have the intestinal fortitude, and they’re not going to do it because they don’t know what it’s like to really commit to a mission. And so you commit to a mission no matter what it is, whether it’s bourbon or anything else. But there is something deeper in the American heritage that comes back to bourbon. And I’d love for you to share that. You know, most people know about the Boston Tea Party, but this wasn’t about tea. This was about taking away our booze. It’s like General Order No. 1. So please give us that history lesson.  

Scott Neil: So in America, you’re forming the colonies and as we have, you know, some of the dark side of our history, we had the triangle of trade, right? So it was a human trade triangle that went to the Caribbean that could be the labor force for sugar. You boil sugar down, you make, um, you know, you boil, uh, cane down and you make sugar. Well, that has this, you know, horrible byproduct and they couldn’t get it off the island fast enough, so they give it to ship commanders as ballasts. So now you’re floating up with this sugar into the ports of America. And there was some Scotch-Irish going, what are you throwing away? Well, I can make something with that. And it became rum. So the first spirit of America was rum. And then there was the Sugar Tax Act, which began the steps of taxing America, right, to send, uh, earnings and profits back to England. Well, then the second tax was tea, and that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. So we mobilize America’s patriot and frontiersmen. They now become soldiers. They fight this oppressive government 3,000 miles away. We’re victorious. Go home and thank you for your service. I’m a farmer. Now I don’t have access to molasses, but I got grains like rye and corn. Well, I can only make so much bread so hey, maybe if I boil it down, I’ve got a copper pot over here, I’ll make it a still. And so now liquor in this country became the first currency.  

So I could store it, trade it, I could treat illnesses, I could take it to the pub. Well, then the very first tax in America was a tax on whiskey to pay for the Revolutionary War. And now all the old generals would come by these remote locations and say, are you making liquor? Yes, you are. Well, I need to charge you a year’s worth of taxes because I won’t be here, and you have to pay cash. If not, I’m seizing your farm. So all those soldiers said, wait a minute. Didn’t I just fight an oppressive war against the distant government taxing me? And it led to the Whiskey Rebellion. And it’s the first time in history a sitting president then led reraised the Continental Army to go against its own citizens. Washington saw it as the most decisive point for this young country, to a thought, uh, to, um, establish its authority over its own citizens. And so that drove a majority of those dissidents and farmers into, uh, the Ohio Valley area at the time, Cumberland area. And that’s when they switched to corn. Uh, that’s what became Kentucky Bourbon that we know today. And the rest is American history. Right. So I like the rebellious sense of fight the power, um, because 42% of my bottle is taxed. 

John Berry: And that is where the tarring and feathering came in. It wasn’t the Boston Tea Party, it was you take our whiskey, you will pay. 

Scott Neil: It was. And, you know, back then, murder was such a sin to them. You didn’t kill people. You know what I mean? That was saved for war. But you wanted to send messages, right? It’s like, hey, you shouldn’t come around, this is not the right neighborhood to be doing this. They felt it was wrong. So, uh, it is a part of our past. Uh, you look at moonshiners today, NASCAR, it all centers around America’s, you know, independence. This little streak of resisting, uh, somebody else telling you you have to give them something for your hard work. And, uh, I just admire the history of our country especially it’s the 250th anniversary coming up. So us as citizens need to recapture that spirit of independence, entrepreneurism and a little bit of resistance, too. 

John Berry: Well, and there’s another piece to this, which is, you know, who’s responsible for this great drink? Veterans. 

Scott Neil: So there’s a good book, uh, book called, “Bullets and Bourbon.” And the author explored that the history behind the brands, right, that public companies now have taken the beginning of these 200, 150 year old brands. And he said, do you realize America is about serving your country in a capacity, whether it was militia, now it’s guardsmen and active duty, and then after the conflict, coming home and getting into the economy. So a lot of these brands, the trust issue, because if you don’t make this right, you can go blind. There’s so many things you don’t understand that we do today with modern science so people didn’t trust a lot of these makers of moonshine and whiskeys. So they trusted colonels. They trusted, you know, those that they believe would give them a square deal. So the history of our native spirit, which is bourbon, is a history of service yet coming home to be a part of the American economy and the American dream. And so when people ask us, what do you know about making bourbon? First of all, I can tell you, I know everything. I have knowledge dominance. There’s not one stone that I haven’t discovered, I haven’t done. I’ve been in forest, I cut trees, I’ve made barrels, I’ve ridden on combines, I’ve milled grains. I’ve worked at the uh, Vendome steel factory. I can tell anybody I know every single detail and aspect because it’s my reputation in that bottle. So when people wonder, what do you mean? You’ve only been making bourbon for eight years. No, no, no, I’m eight years into a hundred years. It’s going to get better, but it’s damn good right now. And so people trust veterans. If you look at all the statistics today of who in society are the most trusted members, it’s not Congress, right? It’s not Wall Street, it’s not hedge funds, it’s not police officers. It is veterans and militaries. So the consumers feel comfortable with what I’m giving them is a great product for a great value. 

John Berry: Well, and you are also incredibly honest about what goes into it. And you’ve done everything, you’ve done the research, you’ve been to Scotland, you’ve been to Ireland, you’ve been to all these distilleries throughout the United States. And you know every single ingredient that goes in, but you are honest, and you will say the most important ingredients in bourbon is what? 

Scott Neil: Money. Uh, let’s not, let’s not. I have, millions upon millions of dollars in barrels that are aging that I can’t even commercialize and put it in this bottle to sell for, you know, 4 to 6 years. And so you don’t think about that where vodka, I could pour it off the still in one day in the morning, it’s at the liquor store and I’m monetizing what I’m getting. But bourbon, the amount of patience and diligence. And there’s whether money is the first ingredient, which I joke about as a businessman. But there really is two factors: Mother Nature, Father Time. Right. I’m giving my double thumbs up here on my, uh, sweet camera. But we believe in bourbon, and you cannot microwave bourbon. So the most important factor is patience. How do you know if what you put together over five days, what will it taste like six years from now? That, right, is the patience of believing of what you first did. So when we woke this bourbon up after so many years, one I was happy because if it wasn’t good, you know what I mean? I don’t know what I could have done, but we’re happy we have what we have. 

John Berry: Well, that’s no different than we’re not fighting just for today, we’re fighting for our children, and we’re not planning a tree for today. We’re planning that tree for tomorrow. We’re building a bigger, better future for America. And it’s so important for the younger generation to understand the amount of patience it takes to do anything well. We’re in an immediate gratification culture and that’s not that’s not how you make bourbon, that’s not how you make soldiers, and that’s not how you protect freedom. It takes a long time. And I want to go into some of the lessons that you learned as a Green Beret, as a soldier in combat and even in garrison that helped you develop this amazing product, market it, compete with it, I know you’ve won several awards with it so obviously the awards are there, but this is a tough market. You’re the small guy in the market. You need the guerrilla tactics. You need to be able to come in and go toe to toe with the bigger brands So tell us what you have learned to penetrate the market. 

Scott Neil: Well, first of all, um, small teams win. We are fast to decide, fast to maneuver in the marketplace now that we have a great product because we were we stuck to, um, our design, right? So it has to look good, it has to taste good, and we have to have enough of it, right, to commercialize it. Those were the guiding principles. Um, number one, small teams are agile. They’re nimble. I’ve been with bureaucracies. It takes some months and weeks. They can’t see a trend. They don’t create a personal relationship. Uh, they can’t maneuver, uh, in pursuit. We know when somebody’s pursuing us, and I know when I’m stalking somebody else. So that’s number one. Number two is, um, tactical patience. We understand that we have a hundred year view of this brand, and we’re not trying to turn a corner’s worth of profitability. We’ll take a longer lead time in spending our money and applying our resources because we’ll gain an inch. For example, _____ may have $1 million to spend in the Chicago area. Well, there are five suburbs in the Chicago area that _____ isn’t spending any money. 

Scott Neil: I can nibble on the edges, marshal my brand. I could do a thousand appearances with seven horse soldiers, and I could meet each individual customer at a liquor store. That’s tactical patience, right? I’m not relying on a ten month plan; apply some money and then I’ll blast with vehicles, signs, billboards, and then hope I’m going to be successful. Nope. I’ll walk down there into the village, meet everybody, tell them a simple story, and then they will all become my brand ambassadors. So our learnings from the early days of being just a Green Beret in the Army is number one plan, rehearse, maneuver, adjust, uh, overwhelm and move on to the next objective. Businesses that are big and public, they can’t react. Their reaction time is a year, two years. They have all the money. Even though they have all the money, they never could have envisioned a true story of American heroes that became entrepreneurs, right? They can’t shift consumer profiles from rye to a wheated bourbon. We outmaneuver them every time with our small team. 

John Berry: Well, and you have the better story. You’ve got the ground game and you’re on the ground winning the hearts and minds, having that human interaction. And I’ve learned that the same way. You know, the way you win is through the referrals, through getting to know people from word of mouth. And then once that picks up, then you can start going into the digital marketing, which is costly. And then once you really start to get traction, now it’s time to bring in the big guns. Now you can bring in the TV, the billboard, the radio, bullets before cannonballs.  

Scott Neil: What made us faster and better is we have the courage to try, test, decide. So if we want to do billboards in a section and we do it, and we test the market and it didn’t work, we can back out quickly. Right? So we can maneuver faster than some of these brands can. But when it came to the bottle, um, there are, you know, Elizabeth, which is John’s wife, designed this. We hired a marketing company. We fired them after about $60,000. Do you have the courage to say that’s not the direction we have a vision of? And Elizabeth says, I think I have it. So that was, if not right, if you didn’t have the courage to say, okay, this is not the path we need to go. She designed all of these features. She wanted bar jewelry. Now this is one of our first bottles. And I love it because all the Medal of Honor Society guys have signed it.  

But that bottle you have there is not the metal label that’s part of the World Trade Center steel. It’s the mold, the steel mold that a hot molten piece of glass comes into that’s blown. That is World Trade Center steel. And it came about not because we were clever marketing is because we were broke vets that didn’t have $60,000 for a mold. And I asked what kind of steel that was because that’s very expensive for a bottle mold. And they told me the steel, and I remember it because that’s what we buried on the battlefield. And then we created relationships. The image right here, the horse soldier, is the America’s Response monument at Ground Zero. So old Green Beret, I said, hey, I know a guy. If I get you the steel, could I get a discount? He said, sure, and we got a ton worth of steel. We sent it to a foundry and now, you know, that’s what shapes our bottle. It wasn’t it didn’t come from Madison Avenue. It came from problem solving. We didn’t have the money. What can I do to trade like every good soldier does? Right? I want to trade my MRE. I want to trade you for that thing. And it came to be, um, just part of the history of our company. 

John Berry: And I think it’s important to. Discuss that $60,000 lesson, because I’m sure there’s been bigger ones. And for a lot of veterans that are getting into business and, you know, we get that pay scale, right? We’re so used to like, well, if you’re this this time in service and this grade, this is how much money you’re going to make and you don’t understand that it’s all about the value you can provide, not about some pay scale. It’s not a set pay. So the value you provide is important. But to get there you’ve got to make some pretty big mistakes whether it’s you hire a marketing company that doesn’t cross the finish line for you, so you just spent 60 grand on a design you don’t want but as you’ve grown, have you seen the dollar amount of those mistakes going up? 

Scott Neil: Well, think about it. Last year we produced almost a million pieces of glass on my desk. Right. I call this my Monday bottle. Somehow on the body line, the front label got on the back. It’s crooked. You know what I mean? This is off center. But was that a thousand bottles? I now made that mistake before somebody who wasn’t watching the line happened? So as you get bigger and you grow, the smallest mistake has the biggest impact if you’re not diligent, if you’re not that eye of attention detail. So now we have employees. You expect, uh, military veterans to have that. Sometimes you have to reinforce that but now you have a partners and civilians, uh, that maybe had a bad day. So that’s why I call this the Monday bottle to remind us that the minute you take eye of quality and that customer promise of a great product, it costs you money. On the bottom line, but then it costs the customer trust, which all those marketing dollars evaporate as well. So now I’m twice out with this mistake, so I keep it as a leader on my desk every day to remind myself, just like we did in the military, it’s time for me to troop the lines. Let me go talk to my glass supplier. Let me go spect you know the bottling line. Let me go spend time with the CFO and CPA. I got to get out of my bubble, and I’ve got to see if my organization is providing that consumer promise because as soon as it starts to degrade, I’ve lost, you know, now, millions of dollars. I have to re, uh, figure out my product, and I have to re, um, encourage my, my retailers that this will never happen again, because if I become unreliable, they’ll just move to the next product. 

John Berry: This is your pre-combat inspections, your pre-combat checks, you got to do them and you have to inspect regularly. And if you don’t, you’re out a lot of money. Now, that being said, uh, you’ve got a lot of great lessons here, and I want to go to the After Action Review, where we talk about the three best leadership lessons you’ve learned and the three needs improvement leaders or leadership lessons you’ve experienced. 

Scott Neil: One, focus on building the culture in any new startup, right? Focus on the things, you want to be accountable, you want discipline, you want these things. If you get that right and because it grows past you. The organization, uh, needs a lesson. We’ve been very good at that. Number two is the eye on detail. Like you said, a small mistake will dislodge this company off the shelf, or it’ll bankrupt us, and we can no longer operate. And the third lesson is, is, talent is irreplaceable. Find the right talent, hire them quickly, treat them right and they will deliver results beyond compare. If you try to skimp so you have three people, it’s better to have one, well placed expert than it has three mediocre people, because you can’t undo that. The lessons learned is, I thought I was naked and ill prepared to be in a civilian market, right? We tell our veterans that somehow, you’re dented and broken, and they feel that way. Whereas when you’re in the Army, you feel empowered. You know what I mean? You you’re you have your reputation. I think that, uh, we have some psychological operations we need to do for these veterans. 

Scott Neil: Second lesson is, um, remain calm, right? Don’t react to bad news. 

It’s only news. Because if you allow bad news and you overreact, your people won’t talk to you when not so bad news is bad, and then they hide it from you when it becomes really bad news, then you discover it, and you can’t fix it. So I’ve learned not to react to the first fire, right? Not overcommit, not throw up or blow up. Um, keep calm and work the problem. Uh, the needs improvement for our organization is. You know, the self-evaluation part of this business is we have to let go. We are now getting at a level where we’re going from friends to family to 100 employees to 200 employees. I now know people, I don’t recognize, and I don’t spend enough time getting to know their name or story. And I feel bad, right? In a leadership position. Um, I have to work on still being present within the organization and not like you do with your kids. Sometimes dad’s too busy, right, to help you play baseball, and you drift away from culture and that sense of, uh, small business ownership. And I have to work hard. We talk about it every day. Let’s not forget who we are and why we built this company. 

John Berry: Great, great, great advice. Never lose, never lose sight of the vision, but more importantly, never lose sight of the purpose. So I would like to end this with, uh, with a toast. And I would prefer that you show what right looks like. I fumbled through the steps. But if you could show our veterans back home the correct way to enjoy any bourbon, but specifically the Horse Soldier bourbon, I think I’m going to stick with the silver because that blew my mind. 

Scott Neil: First of all, you have to remove the safety pin, which is the wrapping. You know what I mean? And crap, I think I overbuilt my safety pins. 

John Berry: Well, in the cork, you know, you get that cork sound. I don’t know if I picked up the mic, but.  

Scott Neil: Well, first of all, the pop. Right. Next is your poor. Okay. You want to look at the color? 100% of the color comes from the aging of the barrel. And in Scotch, you could add coloring to darken it. Now if you swish it around, if you see it fall back down, you know that you got a good value because the slower it comes down as the higher proof you take your smell. Okay, you take your first sip. You want to smell again immediately after your first sip. Other nostril because you start to detect different notes. So now your first sip, you now feel it come down. It actually slows you down when you talk about this. I always do this before I add an ice cube or a mixed drink or anything. It’s like the Japanese tea ceremony where every bit of this now begins the conversation. Now you talk to your friend, right? If you’re doing this alone, right, there’s an issue and maybe you should invite a friend so you’re not by yourself. But this bourbon is, um, part of your celebration and your tragedy all in one drink. But if you don’t respect it, we have an issue with, uh, veterans in alcohol. It’s because, um, they’re drinking it alone and not together. So I make sure I always have some friends when I drink. That way I’m not drinking with things in my head, and that’s how I enjoy my bourbon. 

Scott Neil: We’re getting ready to jump into Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-Day. I feel very strongly that, how did one generation, um, who was attacked, then mobilized, then fought, you know, this, this world war, then came home and built the greatest economy the world has ever seen. And we call them the greatest generation. Uh, I want to make sure that this generation of veterans who followed the same path come home and get into the economy and join, you know, coach a little league team, join the school board, run for a city council. You still need to serve again. Right. And, uh, I want to take the narrative about this generation being so lost with PTSD. We have those things, but we can address them, but the country needs you again. And, uh, that’s what I want our brand to be known for is our second journey, um, coming home and living that American dream we were defending. 

John Berry: Thank you for joining us today on Veteran Led, where we pursue our mission of promoting veteran leadership in business, strengthening the veteran community, and getting veterans all of the benefits that they earned. If you know a leader who should be on the Veteran Led podcast, report to our online community by searching @veteranled on your favorite social channels and posting in the comments, we want to hear how your military challenges prepared you to lead your industry or community, and we will let the world know. And of course, hit subscribe and join me next time on Veteran Led. 

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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