Four friends make a St. Pete distillery their second life's work

American Freedom Distillery plans to open in the Warehouse Arts District early next year.

[image-2]What's in a name?

Rekkr is the Norse word for warrior. American Freedom Distillery's Rekker Rum is intentionally spelled wrong to be a palindrome, so that it can be read forward and backward on store shelves.

Plus, Norwegians were an equal society where women fought next to men, which speaks to the four friends and owners' experiences in the military and the family collaboration that's gone into building their St. Pete distillery. Everyone's involved from the design and planning to the marketing and creation of the product.

Another important feature of Rekker Rum is the logo, featuring two ravens.

"Along with being intelligent, they are empathetic," said co-owner John Koko of the birds, "so when one gets beat up on, they all come over and feel bad for him, which is unusual in the animal kingdom."

Koko added: "We loved the darkness of it all... We want to make the night fun."

click to enlarge What it looks like when American Freedom Distillery is testing out a new recipe. - American Freedom Distillery
American Freedom Distillery
What it looks like when American Freedom Distillery is testing out a new recipe.

For most folks, a time comes when we ask ourselves, "What are we going to do for the second half of our lives?"

You've worked for 20 years. You've earned your pension. Or maybe your body, or your mind, won't let you continue the same work. There's a point of transition. You're not quite old enough to live in The Villages, but you're too wise and mature to deal with the everyday nonsense of proving yourself to a new boss in a new workforce.

So you sit, you drink, you think, and you talk with your buddies. You take a shot of whiskey. Then you think, "I can do this crap… I can do better."

Scott Neil, Rob Schaefer, John Koko and Tyler Garner weren't a bunch of retirees sitting around. However, they are a group friends who desired something different after achieving fulfilling careers. They had the passion and motivation, but needed to funnel it into a new project. American Freedom Distillery is that project.

Their craft distillery is set to debut during the first half of 2017 in St. Petersburg's Warehouse Arts District at 2232 Fifth Ave. S., which previously housed GeniusCentral.

"We fought for the American dream; now we're going to live it," Neil said.

He, Schaefer, Koko and Garner, who met during their Army careers in Special Operations, figured out their strengths and weaknesses, then decided to become distillers. For them, that decision entailed discovering what it means to be a distiller and (willingly) forcing themselves to appreciate whiskey in every form.

The owners — and their families — started the journey to opening American Freedom Distillery almost two years ago. After a monthlong trip into the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, the four friends emerged in one piece — determined to try all of the nation's whiskey on their road trip home.

After traveling the U.S., they went abroad to Scotland and Ireland to learn Old World distillation techniques. While there, they found out that the distiller lifestyle is a welcoming one that promotes continual education. They're interested in embarking on quarterly trips to destinations like Japan to learn more about whiskey, a spirit they'll create at their own distillery.

"True distillers welcome new folks into their world and are willing to teach them," Neil said. "They share their secrets and their recipes and wish you good luck when you leave."

"We're curious guys, we want to make the best, and we’re learning... Everyone says it's the water, it's the this, it's the that. But really, it's the attention to the art. If you really are serious about making great whiskey, it's the art," Koko said.

The team's travels and education eventually brought them back to the States, specifically the Ozark Mountains, where they hugged some trees before having them cut down and turned into aging barrels. From there, the friends secured their Warehouse Arts District space about four months ago (the search for a building for their still began in Ybor City) and started sourcing ingredients — everything from Florida sugar cane to premium non-GMO ingredients.

According to Neil, the plan is to make American Freedom Distillery a destination distillery, a place where people will be awed by their surroundings and swept off their feet by the passion they've put into their second life's work.

The 17,000-square-foot, two-story distillery will feature event spaces for weddings, receptions and board meetings, plus two bars — one located downstairs with a view of the still and inner workings of the operation. An outdoor patio will be available for craft and farmers' markets, and retail space inside will be dedicated to distillery merchandise and a rotating lineup of pop-up vendors from the community.

American Freedom Distillery will specialize in at least three types of whiskeys — rye, wheat and traditional — along with gold and silver rums, vodka and gin.

"We distill what we like to drink, and the rest we sell," Neil said.

A food element is planned, too. Cheese and charcuterie boards will showcase various cheeses and game meats curated to pair nicely with their creations.

Other highlights include the "whiskey experience," which will allow participants to immerse themselves in the process and history of distillation. Companies and groups will also be able to make, bottle and create a label for their own spirits.

For those concerned about the mural dedicated to Nikola Tesla that's painted on the side of the building, the owners (depending on safety upgrades) intend to keep it intact. After all, in 1932, Tesla wrote an article titled, "Chewing Gum More Fatal Than Rum," in which he alludes to the idea that Prohibition may have shortened the lifespans of many Americans.

"The truth about alcohol is that it acts as a caustic and a solvent," Tesla's piece reads. "In small quantities it cleans and sterilizes the alimentary channels, thereby preventing infections, and proves a beneficial stimulant to thought, speech and physical exertion."

On Feb. 28, American Freedom Distillery, whose progress readers can follow on Facebook, will debut its Rekker Rum during its participation in the St. Petersburg Yacht Club Habana Race.

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