More awards for Hotel Tango

Hotel Tango's warm interior

Well, that didn't take long.

Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery, which opened its doors a little over a year ago, racked up enough awards this year to make the partners who run the Fletcher Place distillery determined to push themselves even harder and bring home the gold in a variety of spirit competitions.

The distillery's Romeo Rum, Victor Vodka and Lima Lemoncello took silver medals and its Golf Gin brought home bronze from the Denver International Spirits Competition last spring. At the recent New York International Spirits Competition, which drew nearly 500 spirits from more than 35 countries, the gin took another bronze and the rum another silver.

"It wasn't really unexpected," said Hotel Tango co-founder and distiller Travis Barnes. "We're starting to see where we fit in in the spirits world."

Hotel Tango co-founder Brian Willsey, who handles the business end of the distillery, said the Denver medals meant the team was "definitely looking" when they entered the New York competition.

"We were looking for some reassurance that we're headed in the right direction," he said.

And they got it. In addition to the bronze and silver medal, Hotel Tango also took home the award for the Indiana distillery of the year, which they were not expecting.

"The distillery of the year was quite a surprise," said Willsey. "We're pretty stoked. With just north of a year in operation, it's a lot of affirmation."

But, as Barnes points out, "we didn't get a gold medal yet. We just want to keep our feet to the fire and put ourselves out there," adding, "There's so much to do, so much to learn."

The learning curve seems like it would be pretty steep for a group of lawyers and their MBA pal to begin making craft spirits. So how did the Hotel Tango owners decide to launch an artisan distillery in the first place?

"It was a combination of bad grades and a worse economy," said Barnes, who along with his wife, Hilary, met Hotel Tango partners Adam Willfond and Willsey's wife, Nabeela Virjee, while they were all in law school.

Barnes, a disabled veteran who had returned to Indiana after serving three combat tours as a Marine, became interested in distilling while in law school.

"It started out with a general interest, and from there it grew into a hobby," Barnes said. "Folks said, 'You're doing a pretty good job. Maybe you should think about opening a distillery.'"

For Willsey, who was working on his MBA while his friends were in law school, the idea of owning a business wasn't such a stretch, but the distillery concept meant even more studying.

"You learn how to read and research," he said. "That's how the idea got hatched. I've always envisioned myself running a business."

But running a distillery is a far cry from his previous life in a cubicle.

"I was in real estate investments as an underwriter," Willsey said. "I was in a cube on Excel all day long."

Barnes' interest in distilling was developing at the right time. Changes in an Indiana law in 2013 allowed for craft spirit manufacturers to sell directly to consumers by obtaining an artisan distiller's permit, but it was only available until the end of that year. After that date, anyone wanting to distill spirits would first have to hold a brewer's or vintner's permit for three years.

In order to apply for a permit, though, they had to have a location. The team spent months driving around looking for the right spot.

"We literally drove by that building six or seven times before we really noticed it," Willsey said. "But all of us said, this has got to be it."

Still, the building was pretty rough — not at all like the cozy tasting room it is today.

"We had to put our creative vision goggles on," said Willsey. "It hadn't been touched in over a decade. You had to see the potential."

So by the summer of 2013, they were filling out paperwork, and by the end of that year, they had secured their license.

"The next step was finding funding," said Willsey. "We heard a lot of nos before we found some yesses."

Willsey, as the self-described "business guy" in the group, was envisioning traditional funding methods.

"I thought of venture capitalists," he said, "or raising money through the bank."

But after a Scotch tasting at a local club, a group of aficionados invited the Hotel Tango team to pitch their idea.

"It literally turned into an episode of Shark Tank," said Willsey. "It was terrifying but awesome."

And it worked, he said, but they knew they would be operating on a shoestring.

"We didn't have a lot of money initially," Willsey said. "We just raised enough to get us open, and we said we'll take it from there. It's still a little surreal that this is my day job, running this distillery."

Barnes and Willsey credit the whole Hotel Tango team for making it possible for them to focus on the business.

"It was one of those now-or-never moments," he said. "My wife said, 'Go for it.' They both did. They've allowed us to take a big leap of faith."

Consumers can expect even more craft distilleries to join Hotel Tango and its Fletcher Place neighbor, 12.05 Distillery, located just up the street at 636 Virginia Ave. Cardinal Spirits is operating in Bloomington; Bear Wallow Distillery opened last year in Nashville; and Starlight Distillery, part of the sprawling Huber's Orchard, Winery & Vineyards operation near Louisville, also began selling craft spirits last year. Brewers such as Sun King and Three Floyds, have distilling plans as well.

"There's this craft movement, but it's the first time spirits have been allowed to do this since Prohibition," said Barnes. "I think we're seeing the infancy of the entire industry. I don't think it's going to slow down a bit."

Hotel Tango certainly isn't slowing down. They've already expanded into Ohio, and hope to add several more states next year.

"We've got several lofty goals for 2016," said Willsey. "We want to expand our footprint in Indiana by teaming up with local grocery stores and liquor stores. We've launched into a new state. We have expansion plans of a bigger production facility."

Plus, you'll see new products next year as well, such as orangecello, a coffee cordial and a cherry cordial. "And mid-to-late summer/early fall," said Barnes, "we'll start releasing couple of our whiskeys."

If it seems like a lot of progress in a short amount of time, you're right, says Willsey, who credits Barnes' military background.

"The guy doesn't know what slow means," Willsey said. "He's got his foot on the gas, and he's not letting up."

Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at Follow @JKetzenberger.

Profile: Hotel Tango Whiskey

Where: 702 Virginia Ave.

Hours: Monday-Thursday, 2-10 p.m., Friday-Sunday, noon-10 p.m.



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