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Whiskey for Troops™️
The Fingers x Wars of Future Past Veterans Day guide to militarized brown liquor
If Grunt Style and Black Rifle Coffee Co. opened a distillery, what would it make? Unfortunately, we don’t have to speculate, because this Veterans Day, the militarization of brown liquor is fully upon us.
This edition of Fingers is a collaboration with, a longtime military-technology journalist and publisher of the independent newsletter . Kelsey and I have both been amused and/or appalled by the proliferation in recent years of liquor brands—typical whiskey—that pander to military-affiliated and/or -obsessed drinkers with overwrought names, corny slogans, and deeply cliché designs.
A society’s relationship to the horrors of war is a complex thing, and all the more so for active-duty service members and veterans. You don’t have to make a moral judgment on the commercialization of that dynamic to recognize that it’s much different and more complicated than simply “supporting the troops.” Especially given that nearly three quarters of veterans report struggling with alcohol use, according to a 2020 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services. But hey, camo bottles!
Together, Kelsey and I weeded through a thicket of pitches to select a half dozen liquor brands targeting troops with cheap gimmicks, bellicose branding, and unctuous rhetoric for Veterans Day 2023. You’ll find those below, along with our notes. In no particular order, and without further ado, it’s the Fingers x Wars of Future Past Whiskey for Troops™️ Veterans Day guide to militarized brown liquor!
Special Operations Salute™ Whiskey - Army SOF Edition “Howitzer Strength”
Producer: Heritage Distilling Co.
Dave Infante, Fingers: I’m always fascinated by brands that pander to troops when they’re not actually veterans themselves. It’s like walking on a stolen-valor tightrope with no net between you and one of those dudes who uses OSINT to track down bubbas at the mall pretending to be lance corporals to get free Sbarro’s, or whatever. There are basically two ways to go about this in a way that our society has deemed acceptable: donating a (usually unspecified) portion of proceeds to a (usually unspecified) charity, and/or finding business partners who are actual veterans, and putting their names in front of yours in press releases.1
Anyway Heritage Distilling Co. doesn’t appear to have any retired Tier One Operators on its board, so they’re tiptoeing across the chasm of scandal without a safety harness, but they do promise to donate “a portion of the proceeds from each bottle sold… to select, non-profit organizations that support the military SOF community.” Phew! This is probably the most premium pricepoint pander-bottle on this list, and it comes with both a framed illustration and a “[c]ollectible presentation tube with Army SOF iconography,” which you should have no trouble selling empty to one of those mall bubbas to cover half your costs. This is what a sustainable military-inebriation complex looks like, folks.
Kelsey D. Atherton, Wars of Future Past: A howitzer is a kind of artillery defined by its trajectory. Where a cannon fires across a level plane, and a mortar lobs its deadly payload on a high arc, a howitzer is a sort of medium position. Its shells fly both far and over, cross rivers and buildings to hit the other unfortunate souls caught on the end of artillery duels. Howitzers, traditionally, are the task of artillery crews, not special forces, though the 82nd Airborne does qualify. What is distinctive about artillery missions, as revealed by recent investigative reporting from the New York Times, is that howitzers are loud, and repeat exposure to firing howitzers can lead to traumatic brain injury. That’s a far more solemn angle for whiskey than I think Heritage Distilling is going for with their “Special Operations Salute,” complete with “Window into Freedom” portrait, but at least kids can use the collectible tube can to play artillery cleanup after daddy passes out in a recliner.
Special Operations L.T.O. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Producer: Hand Barrel
DI: The first person I forwarded the pitch about this bourbon to was you, Kelsey, to make sure our brains would be bleeding at comparable rates when we actually sat down to write this special-edition ‘sletter. But the second person I forwarded it do was spirits journalist and Friend of Fingers Aaron Goldfarb (Not A Troop), who immediately pointed out the conspicuous similarities between Hand Barrel’s bottle, and that of Elijiah Craig’s high-end Barrel Select SKU. STOLEN BOURBON VALOR?! I don’t know, maybe! The two are not made by the same distiller, as far as I know: the former appears to be produced by Bardstown Bourbon Company, a private-equity backed contract-distilling darling, whereas the latter is a Heaven Hill brand.2 I will not investigate further because I do not care.
It really doesn’t get much thirstier (ahem) than draping your bottle in camo and the American flag, topping it with a wax seal, and tacking “Limited Time Offer” onto its name. Hand Barrel says it’ll donate 10% of proceeds to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which, hey, points for specificity. Not generosity, though: that charity cut barely beats inflation!
KDA: When I learned to drink in New Orleans, I grew to appreciate the specificity of bourbon, the ways it can be smooth and harsh, working as a shooter in a crowd of undergrads steeling themselves up for a Thursday night on the town, or as the mellow core of a complex operation, delivering calibrated relief at the end of a long weekend. What I could have done, instead, is picked through the finest liquor wholesalers of Metairie for a bottle that screams “don’t lose me in the desert or you’ll never find me again,” like the SPECIAL OPERATIONS L.T.O. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The packaging, displayed at all angles online, makes it look like an old potato-masher grenade thanks to the black-wax top, but also, if you lift it up, the camouflage-pattern makes posterior of the bottle appear as a sandworm from Dune if Bass Pro Shops had been responsible for the merchandise tie-in.
None of this lets me speak to the actual quality of Special Operations L.T.O. bourbon, but the name does offer a hook for me to mention that it is a somewhat oblivious choice for a bourbon name. Special Operations forces, by name and role in the long forever wars of the United States, acquired a reputation as a combat-ready elite. They were also, thanks to the nature of their work, particularly exposed to the harms of combat, and the psychological toll afterwards. A 2014 study by the Army, including doctors at Walter Reed and other Army hospitals, concluded that
Soldiers belonging to certain elite combat units are significantly more likely to screen positive for alcohol misuse if they are exposed to specific types of fighting combat experiences versus any other type of combat exposure.
Napalm Cinnamon Whiskey
Producer: Leadslingers Whiskey
DI: I’m sure Kelsey is going to scoff at me for not being up on my war crimes, but I was fairly certain that napalm was banned under the Geneva Convention or something. Reader: it is not! Naming a product after one of the most horrifying weapons of war known to modern man is obviously fucking disgusting and in poor taste… which makes it kinda perfect for a knockoff version of Fireball, actually?
I know the whole point of art is that everybody has a different reaction to it, but are we not all in agreement that Apocalypse Now’s iconic “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” scene was a commentary on how technologized warfare collapses man’s already capricious capacity for empathy into sequences of discrete procedures completely alienated from their human consequences? And that that was, like, bad? The character’s name was Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, you don’t have to have Kelsey’s grasp of the military-industrial complex to catch the insinuations!
On a completely unrelated note, who is the target customer for this product? Regulars at the My Lai Bar and Grille? Washed-up fratheads who own multiple versions of the Reagan-Bush ‘84 t-shirt? People who think DARPA is doing amazing, sweetie?
KDA: In hindsight, it's incredible that Fireball, the most economic cinnamon flavored whiskey, is not explicitly tied to a war crime. Sure, all sorts of explosives create fireballs, from the smallest grenades to the largest thermonuclear warheads, but a fireball is just a thing that happens afterwards. It is less tied to war than Warheads sour candies. Leadslingers’ Napalm takes all that subtext and makes it text. You want a whiskey that burns? Well, what if the burning was specifically designed to invoke both the triumphant killing of civilians in World War II and the horrific killing of civilians in Vietnam?
Setting aside the use of the weapon in actual war, there is the nature of napalm itself as a substance. In Napalm: An American Biography, Robert M. Neer, Jr. describes the first detonation of a napalm bomb in a demonstration at Harvard On July 4, 1942. After high explosives blasted incendiary white phosphorus into 45 pounds of jellied gasoline, assistants ran around extinguishing measuring and extinguishing chunks of the bustance. Neer writes:
Professor [of organic chemistry Louis] Fieser’s firestorm was over in seconds. Hunks of gel hissed, flickered, and died. A pungent aroma of phosphorus, like garlic or burning matches, mixed with the oily smell of gasoline, hung in the air over the flooded field and empty tennis courts. Napalm bombs had arrived in the world.
Like garlic or burning matches, paired with the oily smell of gasoline. Bottoms up!
Barrel Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Producer: Horse Soldier Bourbon
DI: I consider Horse Soldier sort of the elder statesman of whatever this sub-section of the full-proof liquor market is called (“pander brands” is too broad, and “fighting spirits” is both too flattering, and also ripe for Modelo cease-and-desist.) It’s been around for nearly a decade at this point, and there are a bunch of former Green Berets involved in some capacity, which helps it easily clear the low bar for “authenticity” in this little niche. I’ve never had it, but I’ve heard it’s decent?
Horse Soldier is kind of the exception that proves the rule for Troop Whiskeys. It’s so normal-looking on a shelf, so subtle with its military background compared to others in the space that you almost forget how fucking strange it is to market whiskey brands based on the proximity of their owners/operators to this country’s war machine. Interrogating the lionization of soldiers in mainstream American culture is probably beyond the scope of this post, but its potency in the premium booze trade is squarely in our wheelhouse here. If you walk into the liquor store and choose a bourbon made by former Green Berets because it’s made by former Green Berets, you should be studied in a university setting.
I should also note that the metal badge on this bottle was “pressed by steel recovered from the twin towers” because “[a]fter 9/11, the New York City Port Authority donated steel recovered from the World Trade Center to Horse Soldier Bourbon,” and the brand now uses it to cast its labels. Gen Z has overexposed the word “unwell” lately, but I don’t really know how else to describe a socioeconomic system in which such a ghastly detail is advertised as a point of pride to paying customers.
KDA: First of all, “horse soldiers” are “cavalry,” unless they fight dismounted with firearms, in which case they are called “dragoons,” which would be a pretty good name for a cinnamon whiskey, come to think of it. That out of my system, the specific “horse soldier” reference in the bottles and branding of Horse Soldier bourbon is De Oppresso Liber, or “America’s Response Monument,” a statue at the World Trade Center dedicated to the special operations forces that the US sent into Afghanistan on horseback at the start of the Global War on Terror. Those exploits were since turned into the 2018 movie 12 Strong starring Chris Hemsworth.
A small version of the statue was sold in 2003, and a larger version was commissioned in April 2011 and then dedicated at its present site on November 11, 2011. That’s almost the precise middle point between the launch of the war and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as a historical object it’s compelling. Between the statue’s commissioning and dedication, US Navy SEALs, a kind of special operations force, killed Osama bin Laden, a moment that was as close as any to when the United States could have declared its long war a victory. That didn’t happen, and the end withdrawal was messier. As an artifact, the statue combines the eternal continuity of horses with turn-of-the-century military equipment, featuring a military rifle just before the AR-15 pattern rifles became the weapon of choice for massacres conducted within the United States. On the bottle itself, the black rifle can barely be made out, and as aesthetics go, it is probably the most subtle of whiskies we are talking about today.
Producer: Merica (?)
DI: Look. I know I personally lobbied to include this one in our list. But can I pass? Are there Mulligans, and may I have one? I have regrets. I went to the University of Virginia in the late Aughts, on the leading edge of the “le epic bacon” era when Web 1.0 and 2.0 were colliding with one another and spilling out into actual offline culture, and at that point one of the funniest things a white guy on cocaine and his parents’ health insurance could scream at the top of his lungs in a crowd full of filthy The Game bar hats was “MERICA.” (Not me though, I never did any of this.) Surviving that experience left me with an abiding disdain for the phrase as the province of midwit dipshits. So on those grounds, I hate the concept of Merica Bourbon. Am I being unfair? Very well, then, I’m being unfair. (I am large, I contain multitudes.) It just seems kinda… lazy.
KDA: Merica bourbon’s labeling is unassuming, though the folksy old-timey interwar iconography is belied by the specific emphasis on a distinctly 2000s faux-folky name. Poke a half-second deeper, and Merica bourbon matches the hallmarks of a vet-owned brand, with an apparel store, a brief history of the country told through booze (Prohibition mentioned, the Whiskey Rebellion notably absent), and even a “how to succeed at business through the art of war” article. In my decade covering military technology, and especially the US military, there is nothing more modern than taking a complicated acronym for “scout and report back” and then turning it into a strategy for business, as though conflicts with bullets are directly transferable to those fought over market share.
We’ve Got Your 6 Military Edition Bourbon
Producer: Pendleton Whisky
DI: Pendleton is owned the company behind Jose Cuervo, and bottled by Hood River Distillers, Oregon’s largest spirits producer, which probably makes “We’ve Got Your 6” bourbon the most “establishment” offering in this (extremely carefully curated) Veterans Day Guide. There’s a reason you don’t see mainline corporate brands like Maker’s Mark (Beam Suntory), Bulleit (Diageo), or Jack Daniels (Brown-Forman) really go whole hog with camo bottles and troop-centric product tie-ins, and it’s definitely not because they can’t swing short production runs or custom labels. I think it actually might be diversity-related analysis paralysis. Follow me here.
Something like 78% of bourbon drinkers in this country are white males, and while it’s true that American veteran demographics are getting less white and male every year, I think it’s fair to say that military culture in this country is still anchored around straight white masculinity. Big, risk-averse brands with corporate DEI initiatives and ongoing lawsuits about the failure of those DEI initiatives are terrified of being seen as reinforcing the bourbon segment’s homogeneity, and I wonder if it’s just not worth the risk to them to put out a
gimmick special-edition bottle for Veterans Day. Hmm. That all said, I agree with Kelsey, this one is mostly fine. Nice package, reasonable pricepoint, positioned around supporting the comrades/homies rather than beating the drums of war. There are worse offenses to taste and decency out there.
KDA: This seems fine? Look, there’s riffable stuff in here: Pendleton’s branding is about the glacial waters of Mt. Hood, which in a military context I immediately read as “Fort Hood”, the since-renamed but infamous Army Base. That’s not really on the bourbon, though. It’s tied to a foundation, sure, and the foundation is Bob Woodruff’s, launched after he was injured in combat in 2006 and saw the horror of war and the skill of care. Wars, especially modern wars, last longer than service, and it's fine to have foundations looking out for veterans and their families after they leave service, though there is also an entire cabinet-level department dedicated to it as such. Ultimately, my thoughts test here: Pendleton Whisky Military Edition looks like a cigar brand. Yee-haw, partner.
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Lately I’ve been reporting on this corny brewery, Armed Forces Brewing Co., that does both, sending out press releases about raising money for military nonprofits while surrounding their non-vet CEO with a bunch of former SEAL Team 6 types to deflect any (germane) questions about the sincerity of the enterprise.