At first glance, one may not see the parallels between bourbon and America’s heroes — our veterans. But there are many.
Take bourbon, our nation’s native spirit.
“American owned, American made and American proud,” said Chris Cruise, who served as U.S. Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also happens to be a bourbon enthusiast and, most recently, one of six honorees of the 2019 Evan Williams American-Made Heroes Program.
The Evan Williams American-Made Heroes Program is a charitable initiative founded by second-largest selling brand of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey in the world. Each year for the past five, Evan Williams has honored six veterans across the nation “for their heroic acts of service both in the military and in their communities.” Each gets $10,000 to give to the charity of their choice.
I got the chance to chat with Cruise about his award, his relationship to bourbon and the post-deployment business he created that intertwines his patriotic past and our favorite amber elixir born right here in the Bluegrass.
Cruise chose to donate his award to his church, Fairdale Christian Church, because just as he felt about his time in the military, he said he feels called to “always serve something greater than [myself], just like my faith.”
Cruise needed an endeavor for his post-military reality, so he founded Cruise Customs Flags (cruisecustomsflags.com). What started out as a unique Christmas gift is now a business that creates handcrafted American flags using bourbon barrel staves from cooperages, a project born from his love of country and bourbon.
Each flag is also made by a veteran.
“When I started this, it was therapeutic for me from an anxiety, PTSD standpoint,” he said. “I thought, we can help others and establish camaraderie like we had in the military.”
Cruise has since hired former military men and women, including his father-in-law and a disabled veteran who creates the handcrafted stars for the flags. His goal is to help transition veterans into the workforce and, in turn, establish a community with purpose, creativity and an avenue to give back.
Cruise Customs has donated flags to charitable auctions for organizations such as Dogs Helping Heroes and USA Cares and has provided barrel heads for art therapy workshops for cancer patients at Norton Hospital.
In addition to the $10,000 charitable donation in each veteran’s name, the American-Made Heroes Program also honored these incredible people with a limited-edition label run of the Evan Williams Black Bourbon with Cruise’s photo and story on the bottle.
It was released Memorial Day weekend and will be available through July 4.
“It’s surreal that people would even consider me a hero,” said Cruise. “People want to take pictures with me and do bottle signings,” he said with a laugh.
Cruise said he did pop the top on his label, had a pour and was quite pleased with the “everyday drinking bourbon.”
What else ties our homeland’s potion to American heroes?
Cruise said he can go on and on “about the metaphor” relating bourbon barrels to veterans, which he conceded might sound silly to some, but he’s got a point.
“Bourbon barrels once served a great purpose holding bourbon,” he said. “Veterans served a purpose by serving their country. Bourbon barrels must age [the bourbon] for, what, four years?”
“Average enlisting is three to four years, and they both get beaten and banged up, and whether they serve four or 27 years, they had a mission and served a purpose, and they may have weathered over time.”
But they did it to create something for the greater good, whether it’s simply a neat pour at the end of a tough day, or the safety of our country, and Cruise is living proof of that.
I think it’s safe to say we can all raise a glass of Evan Williams in honor of Chris Cruise, his fellow military men and clank our libations to serving a great purpose.