Freedom Whiskey is slated to be introduced in Memphis in February, says founder/head sampler Zach Hollingsworth.
It’s the “shot of freedom,” says Hollingsworth, 33, who served with the Marines in Afghanistan.
I met Hollingsworth and several of those connected with the Wilmington, Ohio-based Freedom Whiskey Co. - appropriately - at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl President’s Gala, which was held January 30th at The Peabody.
The whiskey was served during the party and at the game.
Hollingsworth told me a bit about the whiskey at the party. I called him back to get more information.
He spent 2010 to 2012 in Afghanistan. “The longest we did was 69 days without a shower,” he says. “Stinky. You know what? It’s only bad for the first two weeks and then you kind of get used to it. We used to joke that we smelled like ‘freedom.’ The smell of freedom is two months on the front lines without a shower.”
If they ate or drank something they liked, they’d say, “That food tastes like freedom. That beer tastes like freedom.”
After he got back home, Hollingsworth and some of his buddies were on the back porch drinking bourbon. Everyone shouted, “Let’s do a shot of freedom.”
Hollingsworth realized “freedom” was a great name for a bourbon and he should trademark it. He went to the trademark website and couldn’t find any bourbon named “freedom.”
Outside of just loving bourbon, Hollingsworth didn’t have any experience in making it. “None whatsoever. I took off just searching what you had to do, the licenses you have to have and just started talking to everybody I knew in the business. And 90 percent of them told me to pound sand. And 10 percent that talked to me told me what I needed to do.
“I honestly just wanted to make bourbon and bring vets together and have the camaraderie we had during service. Marines enjoy their whiskey. It would be a place people could come and work. And cuss as much as they want and not get in trouble for it.”
He wanted to not only hire vets, but “hire their families and use a portion of our proceeds to help out veteran’s causes.”
Unless you’ve fought in Afghanistan, you won’t understand the closeness he and his fellow Marines feel, Hollingsworth says. “Honestly, I think any time you are in a high risk situation, shared suffering brings people together. But the way I always compare it if people ask me what’s my best time was in the Marine corps, I say Afghanistan, hands down. It’s just one of those things. You join the Marine Corps ‘cause you want to be in the fight. Nobody joins the Marine corps cause they don’t want to be out there. The Marine corps was created to fight. That’s it.
“It’s like basketball. If you practice every single day and you don’t ever play again, why be on the team? Afghanistan — that’s like our game.”
They put everything in practice, including the hours spent on the rifle range, in Afghanistan. “Eight months of getting to use your skills you develop and actually apply them.”
Asked how long it took him to get the bourbon business running, Hollingsworth says, “It took me about a year and a half from the day I started to the day I got approved to actually sell. I had partnered with a friend of mine who had a distillery already. A Navy vet. He started making our whiskey for us before we were licensed. They’d been making it since 2013. And I kind of jumped in with them in 2016.”
Freedom Whiskey is in 12 states now, Hollingsworth says. “And we’ll be in 16 by the end of April.”
They now just make bourbon, but, Hollingsworth says, “We have a barrel-aged gin that is coming out in the next couple of months.”
Their whiskey is “the smoothest 90 proof you’ll taste. A high corn mash. You’re 75 percent corn, so it’s going to have less bite than some of your more well-known whiskies. It’s a whiskey anyone can drink and it really appeals to the masses.
“We, by no means, try to articulate our whiskeys as being any fancy words. It’s smooth and damn good. Beyond that you can use any fancy words you want.”
Asked how they happened to be at the President’s Gala, Hollingsworth said they were invited by someone with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. “It was awesome. It was a really good time. Much more fancy than what me and my crew are used to. We all took showers and put on a suit.”
And, he says, “We just wanted to be a part of the Liberty Bowl and part of its veteran’s cause and get our name out there.”
Former AutoZone Liberty Bowl president and City Gear president Mike Longo told him about Freedom Whiskey, says AutoZone Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart. He called him one day and said he ran into these Freedom Whiskey guys. He told Ehrhart: “They’re veterans that came back from Afghanistan. They created their own whiskey and their own distillery and I want to support them. And I had them send me a bottle and I really liked it.’”
Ehrhart called the Freedom Whiskey Co. and told them about Longo is an Army vet and went to West Point. “I said, ‘You’ve got the patriotic theme and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl is all about freedom.’”
He told them, “We’ll furnish some of your product at the the gala.”
“And the product was in some of the sky boxes during the game. We really appreciated them coming on board as sponsors.”