Depending on which candidate you choose to support, small businesses are either “the true engine of our economy,” “ready to grow and hire,” or “the backbone of a healthy economy.” Regardless of how they are characterized, small and medium-size business — defined as companies with less than 250 or 500 employees, respectively — constitute 5.7 million firms, employ more than 56.8 million people, and have a total annual payroll exceeding 2.3 billion dollars.
Alcohol producers play a bit part in all this. As of 2013, wineries, breweries, and distilleries employed a total of 40,341, 31,695, and 7,853 people, respectively. While the impact of distilleries, even within this sub-group of alcohol producers, is somewhat insignificant, the industry is expanding in a way unrecognized by U.S. Census statistics: veteran-owned and veteran-run businesses.
As Alex Hecht’s Molotov Cocktail article on Hotel Tango Distillery in Indianapolis showed, distilleries run by military veterans not only promote the close ties between military tradition and alcohol, but also truly embody “values of honor, courage, and commitment.” Beyond Hotel Tango, distilleries such as Heroes Vodka in Nashville, Tennessee; Patriarch Distillers in La Vista, Nebraska; Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana; Smoky Quartz Distillery in Seabrook, New Hampshire; and 4 Spirits Distillery in Adair Village, Oregon all serve a higher cause than solely producing liquor.
Hero’s Vodka was founded in 2009 by Travis McVey, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and member of the Presidential Honor Guard from 1989-1992. The brand was developed to “partner with well-known veteran organizations” and to enable McVey to “honor Veterans and other American service organizations through charitable contributions.” Fortunately for McVey, his vodka, made from 100 percent American grain, has been on par with his vision, winning numerous accolades and awards since 2012. The success of Hero’s Vodka has allowed McVey to donate more than $34,000 to American Veterans, Inc. (AMVET), a volunteer-led organization assisting veterans and sponsoring numerous programs for veterans. It should be noted the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky produces Hero’s Vodka. While McVey’s input on the recipe is unknown, the practice of “small-batch” distillers buying their product from larger distillers is common in the industry, especially among whiskey distillers.
The pioneering nature of veteran-owned/veteran-run distilleries extends beyond the final product. While the aforementioned distilleries all attempt to add interesting twists to common staples, such as Smoky Quartz Distillery’s use of corn as a fermentable for their vodka, or Patriarch Distillery’s whiskey distilled from 100% local grain, their products pale in comparison to the mission driving their existence. At the core of just about every veteran-owned/veteran-run distillery are narratives of community, giving back, service, and honoring the memory of those lost on distant battlefields, rather than a singular desire to produce the best product.
While it’s hard to measure the success of these distilleries beyond awards and accolades, tying alcohol sales to veteran-focused charitable causes seems like a win-win for producers. Last month, Hood River Distillers, the owner of Pendleton Whisky, announced the release of a 2016 Pendleton Whisky Limited Edition bottle honoring “the integrity and patriotism of those who serve, and have served, in the United States Armed Forces.” A portion of the proceeds will benefit programming for Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).
Nonetheless, regardless of market share or limited edition bottles, veteran-owned/veteran-run distilleries are part of a bigger economic trend. According to the Small Business Organization (SBA), around 9 percent of all business owners in 2013 were veterans. Moreover, women veteran entrepreneurs are also increasing at a rapid rate, with the number of veteran women-owned businesses increasing from 100,000 in 2007 to nearly 400,000 in 2012, an increase of 295 percent.
Leading up to this year’s presidential election, the topics surrounding small business growth, corporate responsibility, and taking care of our veterans will surely permeate our national discussion. Veteran-owned/veteran-run distilleries demonstrate the seamless intertwining of all three. Most importantly, as part of a larger community, they embody what President Theodore Roosevelt described as the “grim energy and resolute courage” that enable our society to develop in a positive direction.
Ruben Gzirian is a pursuer of fine whiskeys, with Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey his current favorite. He holds an MA from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and enjoys reading World War II history, with a focus on the Eastern Front.
Image: Creative Commons