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4 lawyers and a businessman walk into a bar…

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hoteltango-26-15col.jpg Hotel Tango principals (from left) Adam Willfond, Hilary Barnes, Travis Barnes, Nabeela Virjee and Brian Willsey. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

... and begin distilling, bottling and selling their own artisan liquor.

The journey into the alcohol business began with Travis Barnes, a graduate of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. He got a still, cooked some booze and convinced his law school classmates — his now-wife Hilary Barnes, Adam Willfond, and Nabeela Virjee and her husband, Brian Willsey, an MBA from the University of Indianapolis — to capitalize on the state’s artisan distiller law.

In 2013, as the law school chums were preparing for graduation and their careers, the Indiana Legislature passed a law allowing craft distillers to get licensed and operate outside the three-tier system, just like craft breweries and wineries. The small spirit-makers would be able to distill and serve alcohol from the same location.

Initially, Travis’ idea was met with up-turned noses, but the U.S. Marine veteran who served multiple tours in Iraq does not have the word “no” in his vocabulary. Hilary and the others came to realize how intent he was, and their skeptical “why should we?” morphed into “why not?”

“We literally had nothing to lose,” Nabeela said. “We didn’t own anything. All I had was student loan debt.”

Adam interjected, “They can have that.”

Their dream opened as Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery in September 2014. Inside a 106-year-old former carriage house in the Fletcher Place neighborhood just south of downtown Indianapolis, the distillery features a bar from repurposed wood, tables made from doors and, over on the side behind a railing, two 26-gallon stills for the gin and a 150-gallon still for the moonshine, rum and vodka. The name comes from Hilary and Travis stirring their first initials with the military phonetic alphabet that designates H as Hotel and T as Tango.

It was the first craft distillery in Indianapolis and the first service-disabled veteran-owned distillery in the country.

Today, bottles of Hotel Tango spirits are sold in stores in Indiana and the neighboring states of Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan as well as Texas. Recently, the distillery signed a contract to supply the U.S. Navy commissaries throughout the country.

Hotel Tango has licensed its name to a new bar in Fort Wayne that will showcase the distillery’s spirits. And, with a new license, the Indianapolis operation is expanding to include a new production and distribution facility complete with a 650-gallon still.

Hilary, Adam and Nabeela all have active law practices and help the business in legal matters ranging from zoning to contract negotiations. Travis and Brian work at the distillery full time.

Travis completed his legal studies but did not try to get licensed. As his friends point to the distillery, they explain he studied for a different kind of bar. Even so, he credits the reasoning and problem-solving skills he learned in law school with helping him create the distillery.

“I got a C on the final in secured transactions, but you’ve got to give me an A for practical application,” Travis said.

hoteltango-24-15col.jpg Hotel Tango distillery began with a backyard still and is now an Indianapolis hotspot that’s expanding production and distribution. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

Corn and crud on the ceiling

If the distillery had not launched, the three licensed attorneys said they would have gone back to their Plan A. They would have gotten out of bed the next morning and gone to their law offices, albeit maybe a little dejectedly.

For Travis, he figured out in law school that his Plan A, opening a small law practice in his hometown of Albion, Indiana, was not something he really wanted to do. So, he turned to his “Plan Better” — distilling. The alcohol market was crowded with craft brewers, but Travis saw an opportunity in spirits.

He started in his bathtub with a mixture of corn, water and Fleischmann’s dry yeast dumped into a 5-gallon water jug. On top, following a tip he learned while studying distilling, he snapped a condom to regulate the fermentation. Sometimes the chemical reaction would go awry and the contents in the containers would explode, plastering the tiles and ceiling with corn and crud.

When the fermenting worked, Travis put the product into his backyard still concocted from a tall metal milk can and a long piece of copper pipe jutting straight out of the top. Using a turkey fryer to supply the heat and garden hoses kept in an ice-filled Igloo cooler as the source of the cold water, he cooked batch after batch of moonshine (clear whiskey that has not been aged).

Eventually the alcohol coming out of the still was clear, pure and tasty. He started pouring the homemade booze into one-gallon wooden barrels and gifting it to friends. The compliments bolstered the idea of turning the hobby into a business.

“We got a lot of shitty whiskey until we got the good stuff,” Travis said.

But to be legal, the distillery had to get licensed.

To obtain an Indiana artisan distiller’s permit, the business first had to get a federal license to make alcohol by Jan. 1, 2014, in order to immediately begin selling alcohol by the bottle and glass on the premises. Otherwise, the distillers would have to wait three years before serving their beverages.

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau requires new distilleries to have all the components in place — the still, the building, insurance and bonding — before granting the license to operate an establishment to manufacture liquor. In 2013, Hotel Tango submitted its application, including a rendering of the still Travis drew using graph paper, a slide ruler and compass, and then began waiting.

Anticipation became apprehension then consternation when the government shut down in October 2013. Finally, the day before Thanksgiving, the alcohol entrepreneurs got the email that made them especially celebratory.

“We’ll always remember that night,” Brian said.

Crafting cocktails

The next step was getting a cash infusion.

For that, Travis took his still and made a presentation one evening to a group gathered for a Scotch tasting at the University Club of Indianapolis. Among those attending was R. Matthew Neff, entrepreneur and consultant with experience in venture capital.

Peering at the milk-can-copper-pipe contraption, Matt conceded he wondered if Travis and his colleagues had sampled too much of their product, but he was soon won over by the combination of Travis’ knowledge of the new distilling law and business strategy. He convinced three other friends (two of whom are lawyers like him) to join him in investing in Hotel Tango. Matt now serves as the chair of the board for the business.

“He’s a very principled, humble guy,” Matt said of Travis. “He’s very good about delivering on his word.”

On opening night, Travis had envisioned Hotel Tango operating like a winery. Customers would sample a flight of liquor, buy a bottle then leave. But he and his colleagues quickly learned patrons prefer cocktails.

“People just didn’t want to come and take shots of vodka,” Hilary deadpanned, so they hired bartenders.

With the state law prohibiting Hotel Tango from serving any alcohol that has not been made onsite, the Hotel Tango mixologists reconfigure some traditional favorites and incorporate seasonal ingredients like blood oranges and basil to craft their unique refreshments.

Sitting near the bar at their distillery, the four lawyers and the businessman still seemed a little surprised. They never thought Hotel Tango would be what it has become, and they’re not certain what will happen in the future, but Travis is confident they won’t stumble on their leap of faith.

“The short time we’ve been going, it’s been a very rapid growth,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for it to slow down.”•

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  1. The voices of the prophets are more on blogs than subway walls these days, Dawn. Here is the voice of one calling out in the wilderness ... against a corrupted judiciary ... that remains corrupt a decade and a half later ... due to, so sadly, the acquiescence of good judges unwilling to shake the forest ... for fear that is not faith .. http://www.ogdenonpolitics.com/2013/09/prof-alan-dershowitz-on-indiana.html

  2. So I purchased a vehicle cash from the lot on West Washington in Feb 2017. Since then I found it the vehicle had been declared a total loss and had sat in a salvage yard due to fire. My title does not show any of that. I also have had to put thousands of dollars into repairs because it was not a solid vehicle like they stated. I need to find out how to contact the lawyers on this lawsuit.

  3. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  4. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  5. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

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