The term Horse Soldier is used to describe a member of the small teams of Green Berets mounted on horseback who went into Northern Afghanistan just days after 9/11. These brave soldiers embarked on risky missions, and they didn’t know how long they would be there or if they would be coming home.
These soldiers were the inspiration for the award-winning Horse Soldier® Bourbon Whiskey we were honored to try at the Whiskey and War Stories event at Sawgrass Country Club. Merrick Mirabella, a First Responder at Ground Zero, and Billy Howell Jr., a retired Green Beret and member of those early teams that infiltrated Northern Afghanistan, came to Sawgrass and gave us a glimpse of what they went through while on those missions. Their goal was to disrupt and to disband Taliban forces in Afghanistan….not easy or simple!
Merrick and Billy talked openly about their experiences and fielded questions from the audience. It was fascinating and humbling. There is much to understand about war and the people on the other side. Some hate us simply for being American; they were raised to think we are evil and deserve to be wiped from the planet. Others fight for survival from those that teach such hatred.
We were enthralled by their stories, the exquisite bourbon, and the future of American Freedom Distillery.
How the dinner came together
Executive Chef, Michael Meuse, has a passion for bourbon, the hard-to-find kind of bourbon. During conversations with members, he discovered many have the same passion and desire to find and enjoy these rare high-end bourbons. Talking led to thoughts about hosting an experience centered around bourbon. Much like our wine dinners, Chef Michael wanted the bourbon to be the star of the event with the menu complimenting the bourbon. “Sawgrass is known for remarkable wine dinners that sell out quickly, and I wanted to create a different facet of the club’s food and beverage events by putting together a next level bourbon experience,” said Chef Michael.
He saw Horse Soldier® doing a bottle signing event in Jacksonville and learned more about the story behind the brand and tried the bourbon. He was hooked. As a son of an Army Veteran, he appreciates what the brand stands for and knew members would feel the same way. With the idea in-hand, he approached a few members with the idea, and it didn’t take long for the experience to sell out simply word of mouth. 34 members attended, including a few military veterans of our own; Thomas Petersen, Butler Strain, and Garrett Luebker. We are all so thankful for your service.
About American Freedom Distillery
American Freedom Distillery was started by a group of veterans looking for the next chapter. I got to talk to Merrick and Billy before the event and the theme of our conversation was gratitude for the group of owners and employees. It simply, “feels like a family,” said Merrick. According to Billy, he was ready to go to the Caribbean to start a business teaching scuba diving, but plans changed when he got the call about the distillery! Their first product was Rekker Rum, then they branched into Bourbon. It was a HIT. With the movie 12 Strong kick starting their marketing efforts, it took them only four years to sell 20,000 cases, a feat that took competitors ten years to achieve. The Horse Soldier® glass bottle is molded by steel recovered from the World Trade Center to commemorate the lives lost and never forgotten.
The soldier on horseback on the bourbon bottle represents these soldiers and their bravery. The image is taken from a real monument displayed at Ground Zero called America’s Response Monument created by artist Douwe Blumberg. This monument serves as a reminder to all of us in America that there are brave men and women fighting to keep us safe in the most awful places under the most dangerous circumstances that we will never know about.
American Freedom Distillery has big plans for the next few years, including a distillery on the bourbon trail as well as an event space and tasting room in St. Petersburg, FL.
Fun fact: Did you know women purchase more bourbon than men? It makes sense that some are definitely buying it for their partners, BUT, bourbon is getting very popular among women. I might have to buy a bottle just for me!
Bourbon and dinner experience
Michael Meuse, Executive Chef, and his team put together a stellar menu with rich flavors pairing various bourbon preparations with amazing courses. It was a night of bourbon, great food, cocktails with bourbon, and more bourbon.
First Course: Bourbon Glazed Ruby Red Shrimp – Fried green tomato, pimento cheese, baby frisee, crispy pancetta, and a thai basil oil.
Drink Pairing: Basil Bourbon Smash made with Horse Soldier® Straight Bourbon. (My favorite, and now you can order it from the drink menu!)
Second Course: Berkshire Heritage Pork Tenderloin Luxardo Cherry BBQ – Sweet potato butter, white acre peas, smoked bacon lardons.
Drink Pairing: Bourbon Old Fashioned featuring Horse Soldier® Small Batch Bourbon
Third Course: Kobe A5 NY Strip Foie Gras Butter – Melted heirloom tomatoes, goat cheese micro potatoes, pickled cipollinis, baby carrots, small batch peppercorn demi.
Drink Pairing: Danhattan featuring Horse Soldier® Signature Barrel Strength Bourbon
Fourth Course: Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Torte – Madagascar vanilla custard, “Old Fashion” cherry jam.
Drink Pairing: Commander’s Select 12-year Old Bourbon Neat
It was all so delicious. The shrimp was delicate, the pork tenderloin was tender, and the Kobe just melted in my mouth. With each course, it got harder and harder to leave room for the next! Each course paired nicely with the drink served, and it changed my thoughts on bourbon.
“I wanted to give the members an experience they’d always remember,” said Chef Michael. I think he achieved that and more.
When asked if he thought the event was a success, Chef Michael said, “Yes! We’ve had members approach us and comment on the pairings as well as food and drink quality. We sold about six cases of Horse Soldier® bourbon that night, which is a testament to how much members enjoyed it. It was truly a collaboration of my team as well as Beverage Director, Bo Cure, and his team, and we are extremely excited to keep this momentum going!” He wanted to make sure he thanked Chef Ben Brett for his fantastic culinary skills and Robert Boaz for unbelievable mixology.
Chef Michael let me in on a few plans he’s working on to further ingrain a bourbon culture into Sawgrass, but those ideas will stay hidden in a secret vault for now (hint, hint).