We spoke to Travis Barnes, the man behind the Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery. Travis is one of those guys, you just have so much respect for. It was a pleasure for us to speak to him and feature him on this interview.
Travis, tell us briefly about yourself. How did you become involved in the world of spirit distillation?
TB: After serving three tours as a Recon Marine, I went to law school and started formulating plans to open a small law practice in my hometown. That was Plan A, until I realized law may not be for me. Instead, I started pursuing another interest, distilling. I built my own still, and started giving away samples to anyone willing to try them.
People told me it was pretty good, and it just so happens around that time I noticed an opportunity within the newly enacted Indiana Artisan Distilling Law going before the Indiana Legislature, in 2013. Together with my wife Hilary, and business partners, Brian Willsey, Nabeela Virjee, and Adam Willfond, we all put our noses to the grindstone to make Hotel Tango a reality.
Wow Travis, that is quite an impressive resume. Tell us about Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery. What was your vision. Did it come true?
TB: The vision for Hotel Tango was to create a welcoming space, infused with a healthy dose of military personality, where people could enjoy craft cocktails and artisan spirits. Something of a tag line, “Hotel Tango For All,” grew out of this desire to be a community space where everyone can connect over a damn good beverage.
The military personality is evident in all our naming. Hotel Tango comes from the military phonetic alphabet, using my name (T for Travis = Tango), and my wife’s name (H for Hilary = Hotel). All of our spirits follow the same pattern: Golf Gin, Mike Moonshine, Romeo Rum, Victor Vodka, Lima Charlie Limoncello, Oscar Charlie Orangecello, Bravo Bourbon, and Whiskey, which is already the designation for “W”.
Who else is involved in this venture with you?
TB: The law school friends I convinced to join me in this venture are my now-wife Hilary Barnes, our other classmates Adam Willfond and Nabeela Virjee, and Nabeela’s husband Brian Willsey who was at that time an MBA at the University of Indianapolis. Hilary, Adam, and Nabeela serve as legal advisors for the company, and Brian and I are deep in the everyday operations of the distillery.
What are your day to day activities?
TB: I usually get to the distillery at 0700, to answer emails and prepare for any meetings I have that day. I usually do a walkthrough of the property to pick up any trash, then look over the production schedule to see what is getting distilled for the day. I will usually get a production and inventory report to review. The rest of my day is filled with meetings ranging from marketing to strategic partnerships to raising capital for future expansion plans. We recently opened an event space and bought a farm, so my days can vary pretty widely.
What type of spirit expressions do you currently produce and how are they all different?
TB: We currently produce eight different spirits, including Golf Gin, Mike Moonshine, Romeo Rum, Victor Vodka, Lima Charlie Limoncello, Oscar Charlie Orangecello, Bravo Bourbon, and Whiskey. They are of course all different types of spirits, as it is important to us not only to have something for everyone, but to have a lot of flexibility and creativity in our cocktail program.
The cellos are both sweet, fruity, and smooth, excellent straight, but also versatile in a number of creations. Golf Gin, while certainly satisfying for any gin lover, is actually known to convert many people who previously thought they’d never find a gin they liked. Romeo Rum is made with 100% Black Pearl Select molasses, making it extra sweet and satisfying. The moonshine of course hearkens back to my backyard distilling days, but is now a much more refined recipe (and much safer process), that is incredibly smooth for ‘shine.
Victor Vodka is light and sugary, more interesting than your typical vodka, and fantastic mixed into an American Ass (our version of a Moscow Mule). Of course, Bravo Bourbon and Whiskey are frequently enjoyed neat or on the rocks around here, our bourbon aged in new medium-char oak barrels for a rich, buttery spirit, and our whiskey aged in white American oak barrels with a slight rye spice and nutty finish.
Besides a distillery, does Hotel Tango offer anything else to customers?
TB: Something magical happens when you step over the threshold of our tasting room. It sounds like marketing bullshit, but the reviews are real: the atmosphere here is something special. Someone once compared it to “summer camp for adults.” We have couches, a distillery cat named Fletcher, a large central stone fireplace… It all comes together into the one place you’ll always want to hang out.
Besides all of that, we’re constantly on the move in the community, partnering with local chefs for pop-up Sunday Funday Brunches, or working with a local trivia company for Trivia Nights. We like to keep busy around here. Customers can come have a chill night with cocktails and conversation, or they can come to a Trivia Night, or Sunday morning yoga.
One other thing we offer to customers, unique to our state and situation, is Sunday spirits. Really. In Indiana, you can’t buy alcohol on Sunday. But because we are an artisan distillery and produce our own spirits, we are one of the only places in the city and state where customers can actually purchase carryout liquor.
Oh, and free popcorn.
You had us at Free Popcorn. So talk for a minute about your choice of still – how did you know it would create the flavor profiles you were looking for?
TB: I didn’t. I like to say that distilling spirits is 50% science and 50% art. I don’t think anyone knows what kind of spirit to expect until they actually use the still for a period of time. It’s like any other kind of production machinery. The operator needs to know all the noises, clanks, booms, and hisses, before they know that the still is working properly. I’ve learned the importance of following a strict recipe with a distiller who knows (by flavor, scent, and smell) when to make the heads or tails cuts. We had to make a few shitty batches of whiskey before we made some amazing batches of whiskey.
Walk us through the distillation process. Is there a flavor profile you’re looking for before bottling the spirits?
TB: To fully answer this question it’d be spirit-dependent because each spirit has a slightly different process to it. You’re either doing a grain mash or a rum wort. It goes without saying that we source the highest quality ingredients possible. With rum, we blend warmed select molasses and water with yeast nutrients and yeast, compared to the grain mash process of heating water and grains in the still to release the starch before moving forward with the fermentation process. After that, it comes to stripping runs and making the appropriate cuts on the hearts pass to capture the desired flavor profile, which varies by spirit. Across our whole line of spirits, our aim is to capture clean and well-balanced flavors. Depending on the spirit, that means different things.
Do you believe now is the most exciting time for a whiskey/rum lover?
TB: I do. It’s a great time to be a fan of whiskey and rum. With so many craft distilleries opening around the country, I think you are going to see a trend very similar to what happened in the craft beer market. The little guys are going to start doing some really cool stuff that the big guys just can’t do. I think you will start to see geographically specific spirits similar to Europe and parts of Asia. I think most folks want to try something new and exciting, and not the same old thing their parents drank.
Do you have any role models in this industry?
TB: Fletcher Pickles, the distillery cat. Sure, he’s our cat so there’s a natural bias, but he’s a social media maven who finds the time to run his own Instagram and Twitter while staying busy with his regular bird-catching duties. Sometimes he parties a little too hard and we find him in a tree on the side of the distillery, or on the roof. After all, he is the ultimate Work Hard, Play Hard cat. I think we can all learn a thing or two from him. As we say around here, Fletcher is the feline embodiment of twisted steel and sex appeal. Who wouldn’t choose him as a role model?
How do you expand your spirits nationally? Any plans to do so?
TB: We’ve entered markets in Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Kentucky, as well as distribution to Navy exchanges per my background as a Marine. The Navy bases brought us coast-to-coast, and we look forward to expanding into other markets.
What are your hopes for the distillery 5 years from now?
TB: I would like to be a national brand five years from now. I think we have a great product that people connect with. We have a great foothold in the Midwest, and folks keep requesting our spirits. I would love for Hotel Tango to be on every bar back in the country.
Do you think that your product is distinctive? If so, what makes it distinctive from other spirits on the market?
TB: We make the best spirits in the world, so they’re absolutely distinctive. The attention and care we put into our product is rivaled only by our story. We’re not the big guys. We were, and are, a group of scrappy folks who just wanted a damn good drink, so we decided to make it ourselves. We have the military history, we have the guts, and we have a story, and every time a customer buys a bottle of our spirits, they’re participating in that story, too.
We are also the United States’ first Combat Disabled Veteran Owned Artisan Distillery. We are proud of the spirits we serve, and Hotel Tango is focused on delivering a spirit you will be proud to serve as well!
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
TB: Thank you very much for this opportunity!