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Inside Marine vet Travis Barnes’ kick-ass whiskey distillery and tasting room ahead of 5-year anniversary

Travis and Hilary Barnes. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)
April 23, 2019

Marine veteran Travis Barnes has seen his share of combat. He was among those who were the tip of the spear in Iraq in 2003, during the initial invasion there after 9/11. He had enlisted in April 2002 after dropping out of college.

Barnes, now 36, would serve three tours in Iraq, including in Fallujah and Ramadi, with the Marines’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. When he finished his service in 2006, he had been hit by several IEDs that left him with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and he had received multiple combat action medals and citations.

His experience in the Marine Corps still drives Barnes’ deep commitment to what he now refers to as “my mission, my men, myself” at Hotel Tango, the distillery and company he founded with his wife, Hilary, in 2013.

Inside the Hotel Tango Tasting Room. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

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“I would have several [profound moments during my service],” Travis said. “I was in Fallujah during my second and third tours, and then … it definitely changed my lenses from leaving rural Indiana to [serving in the military and deploying]. It also gave me time to think about what I did and didn’t want to do when I got out.”

Hotel Tango – named so for Hilary and Travis using the military phonetic alphabet – is the first combat-disabled, veteran-owned distillery in the U.S., and the first distillery to open in Indianapolis since Prohibition. They produce and sell whiskey, bourbon and various other spirits, including their latest creation, Charlie Cherry, made from a blend of Michigan cherries, unproofed vodka, bourbon whiskey, and a hint of vanilla and lemon.

From the name itself to its entire team, some of whom are also veterans, the distillery and tasting room in Indianapolis, Indiana, have big goals as the company approaches its fifth anniversary this year.

The military branch flags hang inside the Hotel Tango Tasting Room in Indianapolis. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

The corporate headquarters in Indianapolis is located right next door to the brand’s tasting room, where spirits and hand-crafted cocktails are served.

Headquarters is also adjacent to the company’s soon-to-be-open event space, the Foxhole, formerly the distillery itself.

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Inside the Hotel Tango Foxhole. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

There’s also a kitchen there, where the team creates literally everything from scratch that is used in the tasting room, including unique infusions, garnishes and syrups.

Inside the Hotel Tango Distillery. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

The actual distillery is about a 10-minute drive away, and that’s where the distilling, experimenting, bottling, labeling, packing and shipping takes place – all by hand.

Inside the Hotel Tango Distillery. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

This is a long way from the first three-foot-tall still that Travis set up in their backyard and began experimenting with.

When he left the military, Travis first decided to go back and finish his degree and then go to law school.

He met his wife Hilary in the night division of law school in 2010.

Travis and Hillary Barnes. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

“He seemed very laid back to me, and that almost annoyed me. It’s law school, everybody’s nervous. Why are you so chill,” she said. “Once I got to know him and learned about his military background, that explained a lot. OK, well obviously nobody is shooting at you in law school, you really have a good perspective on what is stressful. Law school, in the scheme of things, is not stressful compared to being in war.”

The two dated during their first year in law school together; were engaged during the second, and got married during the third. (The couple is now expecting their first child in August; an appropriate five-year anniversary present for Hotel Tango, Travis said.)

After law school, they decided to open Hotel Tango in 2014.

“Travis had a passion for spirits. I could tell he was going away from the legal path and more through the entrepreneur path. I think he realized midway through law school that he didn’t know if he wanted a law career. The more and more we got down that road, the more it was clear to him that he wasn’t going to be a practicing attorney,” Hilary said.

That’s when he built his own still and starting distilling spirits.

“And they were good,” Hilary pointed out.

A new law was passed in 2013 in Indiana that allowed the company to have an artisan distillery, which meant they could have a tasting room in order to serve their own spirits and sell them, either by the bottle or by the drink.

That window in 2013 was a huge opportunity, and Travis went full-steam ahead, scouting a location, finding investors and also acquiring the state license within 180 days – a very small window.

They had until Dec. 31, 2013 to acquire the license; it was issued in November.

Hotel Tango was only one of four companies to get the license within that timeframe.

Inside the Hotel Tango Distillery. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

Trust – and the ability to overcome and adapt – qualities inherent when serving in the military – coupled with grit and perseverance have always been driving forces when building Hotel Tango.

“I think those [skills] were picked up in Iraq,” Travis pointed out. “The discipline, the drive and the ‘never give up’ spirit was learned through those experiences [in the military]. I think I’ve incorporated a lot of the company structure and leadership structure based on those lessons.”

“I didn’t know Travis before he was in the military, but one thing he always comments on is it changing the trajectory of his life – not being serious about school he was in before he left, he joined the military and then going through that experience and then coming back and really appreciating every opportunity, and where that put him,” Hilary said.

In the short five years since it was born, Hotel Tango has grown immensely, extending its brand not only locally and regionally, but also nationally. Notably, Hotel Tango is sold on around 50 military bases across the country, including Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

Inside the Hotel Tango Distillery. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

In 2018, the company saw its sales through distribution outside of the distillery grow by nearly 60 percent compared to the previous year, according to Pete Ritz, Chief Financial Officer.

“We are projecting similar growth rates over the next three to five years,” he pointed out.

Plus, this year, 2019, is expected to be the year where Hotel Tango’s distribution becomes its largest revenue stream, surpassing the steady amount of income brought in through cocktails sold at the tasting room location.

The company also recently hired a military liaison officer, Troy Pepito, who retired last year after serving 20 years in the U.S. Navy. Pepito, who lives in Orlando, Florida, has been crucial to the company’s expansion across the country and on military bases.

Pepito is the “boots on the ground,” so to speak, meeting with military store managers and the branch buyers and putting together Hotel Tango’s brand ambassador team who will be able to speak to the products at dozens of Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard exchanges, as well as elsewhere.

After walking in and experiencing the Hotel Tango tasting room sometime around 2015, Pepito asked the hostess what Hotel Tango is, and then learned it was founded by a veteran.

“I thought, ‘Cool. I’m a vet and in the Navy.’ They said the owner was a Marine, and would you like to meet him. Already having that veteran connection and military connection, there was something to talk about,” Pepito said. “The camaraderies was there right away.”

Pepito joined the Hotel Tango team at an exciting time, as the company looks to further develop the brand and reach more and more customers throughout the country.

“I’m happy to be working with these guys. I’ve learned a lot,” said Pepito, who has experience in the beverage industry from importing wine.

He added, “It was a great transition from the military into the civilian world, in keeping with a veteran company. It’s a big family.”

The Hotel Tango team is, in fact, a family, both figuratively and literally.

Travis’ sister, Ginger Barnes, is the company’s director of operations. She also served in the U.S. Navy for nine years, leaving in 2016.

“We’re a big family here,” she said.

Travis’ dad built the centerpiece fireplace in the tasting room, as well as others located throughout the Hotel Tango properties. There are touches from Travis’ mom throughout the corporate headquarters. And on the company’s wall-to-ceiling calendar in the conference room, one would be remiss not to notice that “Marine’s Birthday” is marked with a sticky note on Nov. 10.

Ask any member of the team, and you’ll find that Travis’ approach of discipline, dedication, drive and loyalty runs deep in the company’s veins and is reflected in its employees. The management staff that operates both the tasting room and distillery collectively has more than 70 years of experience in the beverage and hospitality industries alone.

“I think that stems internally, who we are and how we are,” said Ally Hall, Hotel Tango’s Director of Quality and Experience. “I’ve never worked for someone that is more on the run, more with the methodology that anything is attainable, nothing is unattainable. Put your running shoes on because you’re running with me.

“We are all very different,” she added. “The inner workings of our team is all over the map. But I think that is why we are who we are from the inside out. It’s one of my favorite things about working here. … We’re all here for one purpose and one goal – to share with all.”

The company’s motto is “Hotel Tango For All,” and it is truly reflected in every aspect of the brand and experience. From the staff and the tasting room that’s intended for the entire community to enjoy, to every branch of the company, including its distribution and presence on military bases.

The “Hotel Tango For All” sign. (Courtesy of Hotel Tango Distillery)

There’s even HT2, an independently-run location in Fort Wayne, owned and operated by Jenn Ladig with the help of her husband, Nick Ladig (also the Vice President of Sales for the company). They exclusively sell Hotel Tango spirits in another community-oriented space where military service, past and present, is honored not only in spirit, but also in action: there’s an Honor Wall where photos of service members are proudly displayed, as well as Jenn’s father’s Navy uniform.

“Our [Hotel Tango] experience is unique because it’s approachable and accepting of everyone. It’s more relaxed. In a way, the brand is very emblematic of how Travis approached his time in the military,” said Alex Neff, Vice President of Marketing and Experience. “Yes, there’s a lot of discipline, leadership and structure. But there’s a lot of times when you just have to make the call for yourself on what you feel is best.”

“It was always really important to Travis to be accepting of all people and make sure everybody enjoys their time together,” she added. “That carried through from his time in the military to now, and that has made the brand and the foundation of the brand unique.”

“To have seen the distillery from start to finish, to see where it’s at now – where we are versus where it started; the evolution is crazy,” Nick pointed out.

And the growth continues.

Another unique aspect of the company is that Hotel Tango recently purchased a five-acre farm and has partnered with the local community to make it a living, working farm. The fruits and vegetables that will be grown will be used to create new elements for the tasting room.

“The farm was a target of opportunity, and we’ve grown into it,” Travis said. “It was an opportunity we weren’t willing to let go. I really feel like it’s going to become a part of Hotel Tango where we can really utilize that space, all five acres, in different ways, which I think is exciting.”

At the end of the day, the entire company is in it together, working toward a common goal; they appreciate the talents and drive that each person brings to the team. Travis has built not only a well-oiled company, but a micro-community itself that will help achieve his ultimate mission.

“I want to keep spreading the word and making sure when opportunities are there, people have a chance to ask for Hotel Tango,” Travis said.