Horse Soldier Bourbon: Sips and stories with Special Forces

By Phil Heppding
May 31, 2024

SANDESTIN – On a warm spring evening just ahead of the official kickoff of summer here in paradise, bourbon enthusiasts and history buffs were treated to “Whiskey & War Stories,” an event held on the deck of Marina Bar & Grill at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. This unique gathering celebrated courage and camaraderie, featuring heroic tales from Lt. Col (Ret.) Robert Schaefer, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer and Horse Soldier Bourbon co-founder.

Horse Soldier Bourbon
Lt. Col (Ret.) Robert Schaefer signs bottles of his Horse Soldier Bourbon.

Guests were treated to a curated menu and a sampling of the three main bourbons that currently make up the line of Horse Soldier whiskeys.

In between signing bottles of their Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey for attendees, Schaefer spoke about the origins of Horse Soldier Bourbon and the people behind it.

“We didn’t originally start off wanting to get into the spirits or bourbon industry. We originally started off because some of us have known each other for a very long time … For some of us, the story goes back well beyond 9/11 and when a lot of us got out, some of us were doing good and some of us weren’t doing so well.”

“We wanted to get together and have a business together. And the first one we did wasn’t doing as well as we wanted to … so we probably made the biggest pivot in business history. We went from working with big data analytics using a program that the FBI used to catch bad guys, and we were going to use it for analyzing codes in healthcare … so it was a big change.”

Schaefer went on to explain that a chance visit at a failing distillery on a cross country trip for two of the Horse Soldier founders led to whiskey.

“The distiller took them in the back, showed them around everything, and at some point or another, one of them looks at the other one and says, Hey, brother, we can do this!”

And Horse Solider Whiskey was born.

As the evening progressed, Schaefer walked guests through the proper way to taste bourbon and offered up the first tasting of the evening, the Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a Double Gold Medal Winner at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. At 87 percent proof and 45 ABV, it is their standard that introduces the brand to both the novice and experienced bourbon drinker. With notes of caramel, vanilla and oak, this 4-year-old bourbon provides a full bodied and decadent finish.

Horse Soldier Bourbon
Guests enjoyed stories and stats as the sun set over the Sandestin Marina.

“If somebody was going to make their own bourbon, and cost was no object, then you would make bourbon the way that we do. Our big thing really is that we make bourbon for ourselves and what we want to drink,” Schaefer added.

Sun-dried tomatoes, grilled squash and chilled shrimp transitioned diners to the next offering as Schaefer shared stories of the “Horse Soldiers,” the first group of Special Forces personnel to enter Afghanistan immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The country was mourning and angry from the attacks and wanted to hit back at the terrorists. We were that first strike, so to speak.”

Serious notes of combat were intertwined with humorous stories of the team learning to horseback ride for the first time. Movie clips of the movie “12 Strong” were played as Schaefer spoke about those initial incursions into Afghanistan and the differences in movie lines and actual experiences.

As the sun set over the bay at the Marina Bar & Grill, the second and third bourbons of the evening were presented for tasting.

The Horse Solider Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a wheated bourbon and also a Double Gold Medal Winner in San Francisco, presents notes of cherry, vanilla and ginger and is manageable for even new bourbon drinkers at 95 proof/45.5 ABV.

Horse Soldier Bourbon
The evening included bourbon tastings and food pairings.

Guests dined on a Horse Soldier Bourbon steak, bourbon mashed sweet potatoes and balsamic marinated grilled asparagus. The third and final tasting of the night, also a Double Gold Medal Winner at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the Barrel Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey, arrived. With notes of butterscotch and stone fruits this bourbon is a mature selection of blended bourbons to provide a decadent and full-bodied finish.’

As the evening came to a close, Schaefer highlighted once again his proudest moment as a Horse Soldier founder, that all three of their bourbons were Double Gold Medal Winners at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Attendees took home a signed bottle of the straight bourbon at the end of the evening.

Schaefer closed the evening by focusing on the “mission accomplished” mentality of Special Forces soldiers transitioning to whiskey.

“Strategic planning, being able to take a look at the big problem and then split it up the way that we did, and everybody take different parts of it and then put it all back together. That part has been relatively easy. Add the fact we had the same culture to start off with, we were able to move at a pretty brisk pace, even if the rest of the world wasn’t.”

And Schaefer and his team have big goals for the Horse Soldier brand.

“I’m telling everybody like right now, Buffalo Trace is advertising that they are the most highly awarded bourbon. In 10 years, it’ll be us.”

Only time will tell … and we will be there for the tasting as well!

Horse Soldier Whiskey
American Freedom Distillery/Horse Soldier Bourbon

In closing, Horse Soldier Bourbon’s three main bourbons – Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey, and Reserve Barrel Strength Bourbon Whiskey – each offer a distinct experience that embodies the brand’s commitment to quality and heritage. The Whiskey and War Stories event was a testament to their dedication, blending captivating tales of heroism with the exquisite flavors of their bourbons. Cheers to a brand that honors the past while crafting a remarkable future.

*tasting notes taken from the author’s experience and official Horse Solider distilling notes