From process to packaging, Hotel Tango Whisky honors the founder’s military service. (photos courtesy of the brand)

Steeled by the events of 9/11, Travis Barnes enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in April 2002, serving three tours in Iraq and rising to the rank of Sergeant. The combat-disabled veteran was awarded several medals and citations, receiving an Honorable Discharge before going on to law school. Distilling began as a hobby, but encouragement from his wife, Hilary, led Barnes to start contemplating it as a viable career path.

Joining forces with friends, Barnes founded Hotel Tango Whiskey—the name a military phonetic tribute derived from “Hilary” and “Travis”—in 2014, becoming the first licensed craft distillery in Indianapolis. He credits his military experience with helping him build the thriving culture that steers the operation.

Travis Barnes, founder of Hotel Tango Whiskey

“We have four founding principles here—discipline, straight-forward, spirited and gung-ho,” Barnes says. “Those are the principles that determine the projects we do and how we speak to one another. They’ve really transformed the way we walk, talk, and carry ourselves, and I think it shines through in our products.”

The first offerings were vodka and rum, followed by an expanding portfolio that now includes lemoncello, orangecello, gin, bourbon and rye. The six-year aged Reserve American Straight Bourbon (68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% barley) released in 2017 is the distillery’s current biggest seller by volume, a sweet, wheat-forward whiskey ideal for Manhattans, or served simply over ice with a splash of house-made Montmorency cherry liqueur.

Hotel Tango’s two-year aged bourbon (67.5% corn, 15% rye, 12.5% wheat, 5% barley) released in 2018 makes a solid foundation for cocktails; at present, customers can order it up in Old Fashioned take-and-shake kits to assemble and enjoy at home. Barnes sources corn from a number of Indiana farmers, and he’s playing around with experiments like an oated whiskey and an American single malt. 

“We’ve always got something new in the works,” Barnes says. “Right now, we’re doing a limited-release Classified series Sambuca for the tasting room where the bottle is blacked out. The label looks like a redacted government document.”

Evoking the vibe of a rustic lodge with inviting couches, a soaring stone fireplace and a resident cat, the tasting room in the Fletcher Place neighborhood of Indianapols presents cozy digs in which to kick back and sample the wares. The cocktail menu rotates seasonally, sourcing herbs, vegetables and botanicals from a five-acre Hotel Tango farm plot a few miles to the south (the rest of the farm output goes to local food banks and Indy Urban Acres, an organization that provides food-insecure families access to high-quality fresh produce).

Turning out 20,000 cases this year in volume, Barnes says he’s enjoying the company’s growth and looking optimistically toward the future.

“We do well in our military sales; we’re in over 120 bases across the country,” he adds. “Our motto is ‘Distilled with Discipline,’ and that seems to be resonating with people. I think our customers appreciate our story and the fact that we’re turning out a good American-made product.”