Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the Hotel Tango Distillery?
Few things are as closely tied together as military tradition and alcohol. From the Khans drinking Kumis (fermented mare’s milk) after razing villages, and Napoleon’s cavalry sabering champagne on horseback, to David Stirling and his “Desert Rats” enjoying flasks of cognac and scotch after shooting up an airfield during World War II, the tradition of enlisted men and officers celebrating their victories with drink is a long one. While a number of notable military men have made forays into brewing and distillation (George Washington comes to mind), most of these men kept their stock for themselves and their guests. It’s fortunate for us then that Travis Barnes, a veteran of 1st Recon Battalion, has recently opened Hotel Tango Distillery in Indianapolis.
Travis is an Indiana native from Noble County. He started college in the fall of 2001 and promptly dropped out a month later after the 9/11 attacks. He enlisted in the Marine Corps that same year as an infantryman and while at the School of Infantry (SOI), was picked to go through Reconnaissance Selection and Indoctrination (aka INDOC). After INDOC, Travis joined 1st Recon Battalion for its initial push into Iraq in 2003 and then did two follow-on tours in Fallujah and Ramadi. While discussing his past, Travis gave me a quick look into some of his experiences with drinking and the military, which squarely involved a friend of his waking up naked in a hotel room in Hong Kong, missing his boat’s departure, and having to spend his last two weeks before Iraq in the ship’s brig. But I digress. After his honorable discharge as an E-5 from the Marines in 2006, he finished college and enrolled in Indiana University’s Richard H. McKinney School of Law. As Travis was finishing law school, amongst late-night conversations with his eventual business partners (including his wife, Hilary) and citing “bad grades and a worse economy,” the idea for Hotel Tango was born.
Hotel Tango is a partnership between Hilary and Travis (the eponyms for Hotel Tango), their law school friends Adam Willfond and Nabeela Virjee, and Brian Willsey, a then-MBA student at the University of Indianapolis (and Nabeela’s husband). The distillery is a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time. In July 2013, the Indiana legislature passed PL 109-2013, which legally defined “artisan distillation” and effectively allowed for distilleries to function similarly to brew pubs and wine tasting facilities, which is to say they can bottle, sell, and serve their spirits on premises. However, the window for non-vintner/brewer applicants was only open until December 2013. Given Travis’ passion for distillation and the overall business and legal acumen in their partnership group, the five friends applied. They became the only artisan distillery in Indiana without a brewery or winery attached. After about 15 months of red tape, Hotel Tango Distillery opened its doors last September and has since been very successful.
Hotel Tango functions much like a traditional tasting room. I spoke with Travis over the phone in late February, after some former bartending colleagues mentioned Hotel Tango in passing. As he told me:
Our place is set up like a pre-prohibition style ‘tasting room,’ but the deal is we can only sell alcohol that we make in house. So our [Golf] gin, [Victor] vodka, [Romeo] rum, and [Lima Charlie] limoncello are the four we have currently. We brought in experts from everywhere from Chicago to Miami – 20 year veterans of bartending – and had them build a cocktail menu with our spirits.
Travis attributes much of Hotel Tango’s initial success to its relatively small size and subsequent agility. The distillery seems to heed the words of Field Marshall Helmuth Moltke (AKA Moltke the Elder) – “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” “Not everything has worked out exactly as we’d planned,” Travis admits, “but we’re still small enough that we can shift and pivot.”
Travis’ first forays into distilling were a result of exposure to his family and friends distilling spirits for personal consumption. Travis built his first still out of a turkey fryer and had a brief stint as a moonshiner, giving his spirits to friends and family as gifts. Eventually, Hotel Tango would have a custom still commissioned that produces all of its spirits except its gin (“Our whiskey came out tasting like a Christmas tree”). Travis had always planned to go back home and be a small town attorney, but that rapidly changed when Hotel Tango received its license, and with it, interest from investors.
Beyond gin, vodka, rum, and limoncello, Travis has also experimented with whiskey (both aged and unaged), but that’s not for release to the public…yet (if you ask nicely, he might let you try some though). Excepting their whiskey (which would just be redundant if it abided by Hotel Tango’s naming conventions) all of the spirits are named after the first letter of the spirit’s NATO alphabet counterpart, hence Golf Gin, Victor Vodka, etc. While Travis is the lynchpin of much of the theory behind the distillation, he admits it’s a group effort and not without growing pains:
For our gin, we started out with a one-liter chemistry still, and we’d do our maceration and blending of botanicals in that same still. The problem with that one-liter still is that it doesn’t scale up to a 26 or 150 gallon still. It’s trial and error at first, but then it becomes how do we improve and refine it to the point where we can sell it?
Since opening in September, Hotel Tango has been going gangbusters. “We initially thought all of our revenue would come from bottle sales, but the great thing about being an artisan distillery is that we can make cocktails with our product as well, and the margins there are much higher,” said Barnes. Something has worked. They have grown to 11 employees; the distillery has been written up in the Indiana Star; its gin is up for review at the Denver Spirits Competition; and sales keep exceeding monthly goals. The company maintains strong ties to Indiana as well, with most of their syrups coming from a local company, Wilks and Wilson (Hotel Tango is also partnering with W&W to produce a ready-made Bloody Mary with Victor Vodka). Additionally, Hotel Tango has the distillery game on lock for at least the next three years, thanks to a stipulation in the artisan distillation law that seeks to prevent a “still on every hill” by dictating that you need to hold a brewers or vintners license for three years if you didn’t meet the December 2013 deadline.
So obviously, the real question is “where can I get some of this stuff?” The answer right now is, unfortunately, just in their tasting room. However, citing the success of Indiana brewery Sun King, which has become extremely popular since its foundation in 2009, Barnes says the distillery “absolutely has plans to expand.” Under their license, they can produce up to 10,000 gallons of spirits to serve in-house. However, those 10,000 gallons don’t count product distilled for distribution, since that is governed federally. What does that mean? It means that “Indiana can’t limit us outside of the state, so if we want to sell a million gallons to Pennsylvania, we can.” So in theory, it should just be a matter of time until we’re drinking their spirits outside of Indiana. Until then, we can experiment with their cocktail recipes, one of which is both Travis and Hilary’s favorite, the Gin Bravo.
2 oz. Hotel Tango Golf Gin
2 Basil Leaves
1 oz. Green Tea Simple Syrup
½ oz. Lemon Juice
Build in shaker tin, muddle, shake, double strain, and serve in old-fashioned glass with a blackberry and basil leaf as garnishes.
The thing that impressed me most about Hotel Tango is that they’re extremely humble and hard working. They also work well together, having gone from being a law school study group to business partners. They personally demolished and built out the distillery’s space, and they maintain strong ties to the military and their community through their business. Travis is a service-disabled veteran and intends to use that status to pursue a relationship with Base Exchanges across the country. “That’s one of our biggest goals, for sure. Every embassy has Marines, and that’s a footprint across the world. We’ve had bases send out requests for our product so far, and I hate having to tell them we’re not there yet.” Barnes’ sister serves on the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), and he and Hilary will likely sail with her on her final tour home this spring.
So if you’re ever in Indianapolis, and feel like supporting a business that truly embodies the Marine Corps’ values of honor, courage, and commitment, stop into Hotel Tango Distillery, have a cocktail, and know that you’re taking part in an age-old tradition.
Alex Hecht is editor of Molotov Cocktail. He works as a Security Analyst in Washington, DC. Before working for the man, he managed the Gibson, a cocktail bar in DC’s U Street corridor. Alex’s life is admittedly mellower now, but his liver probably thanks him for that.
Photo credit: Hoteltangowhiskey.com