How the 1st Special Forces Group Got Its Own Whiskey
Craft bourbon has raised thousands of dollars to help special ops veterans and families
The U.S. Army’s elite 1st Special Forces Group has the distinction of being among the first American military units to fight and take casualties in Vietnam. Now it’s the first special operations unit to have its own brand of whiskey.
The Heritage Distilling Company’s 1st Special Forces Bourbon started as small hobby project by one Green Beret, but has since grown into an ambitious enterprise with hundreds of bottles of whiskey. And the craft hooch has managed to raise about $30,000 for veterans’ charities.
Sgt. Maj. Scott Olson is unapologetic about his affinity for whiskey. A connoisseur of spirits, his exploration of different drinks led him to the Heritage Distilling in Gig Harbor, Washington.
For a fee, the craft distillery allows customers join its “Cask Club,” giving them their own private 10-liter oak cask to age a spirit, the ability to select ingredients to their liking and age it to their preferences. “I started to talk to my guys about it and we started playing with the idea of making a whiskey for our company,” Olson said.
Soldiers throughout the 1st Special Forces Group learned about the project and began asking how they could get in on it. Olson first intended to distill enough whiskey for 110 Special Forces soldiers, but demand — and distilling costs — grew far beyond what Olson had anticipated. He couldn’t afford to make that much whiskey.
The distillers at Heritage came up with a compromise — if they worked together to make 1,000 bottles they could wholesale it, and if everyone agreed to buy their own bottle they could cover costs. A handful of soldiers designed a special label for the whiskey, and each one has the story of the 1st Group’s lineage printed on the back. But it also has an important disclaimer at the bottom reading “not endorsed by the U.S. military.” This was an off-duty passion project by the participants.
With such a large project, Olson and the distillers decided to use the opportunity to raise money for charity — the proceeds from each sale go towards the 1st Special Forces Group GoldStar Families, the Chapter XVI Special Forces Association Scholarship Program and the Special Operations Wounded Warrior Program.
“It means a lot knowing this is going to a good cause,” said Hannah Hanley, Heritage’s marketing director. It’s not the first time the company has teamed up for a special charity spirit, but it’s by far the most ambitious.
Olson explained that the charity angle played a key role in making the whiskey a reality, as it became something his leadership could support. “Without the charitable aspect, I just don’t know if it would have been possible,” Olson said.
Here’s the thing about Special Forces troops — they’re warriors and diplomats. U.S. commandos regularly operate around the world working as advisers to foreign soldiers, which makes building relationships a big part of the job. Depending on the country they’re working in, sharing a drink can be an excellent way to solidify ties.
“It’s a great gift we can give to host nation troops,” Olson said.
The specialty bourbon was a big hit during Menton week last year, an annual event where the 1st Group hosted Canadian soldiers. 1st Group in particular has a special relationship with the Canadian armed forces as it traces its lineage in part to the joint Canadian-American 1st Special Service Force — known by its nickname “The Devil’s Brigade” — that conducted raids against German forces during World War II.
Last year was the 70th anniversary of the deactivation of Devil’s Brigade in Menton, France. Hanley said that during Menton week alone, the American and Canadian troops purchased nearly 500 bottles.
Outside Washington, Heritage has been selling the whiskey online. Hanley said the distillery has taken orders for it from all over the country and delivered to whichever states will legally let them ship. Recently, a Green Beret at Fort Bragg made a special order through a liquor store in North Carolina — one of the states where Heritage has distribution rights. The store manager, well aware that Bragg is the home of Army Special Forces, put in an order for 25 cases.
“There’s a huge demand,” Hanley said.
Olson and the Heritage distillers are considering a larger run of Special Forces whiskey that represents all of the Army’s Special Forces — not just 1st Group. They’ve been toying with ideas for different recipes, and Hanley said they’ve been considering changing the recipe for each run to make them unique.
“It morphed from just making our own little batch into this whole new thing,” Olson said. “It’s something by us for us.”