By Chris Bavender
When Travis Barnes and his wife, Hilary, were getting ready to graduate from law school in 2013, they realized the job market for attorneys wasn’t looking that great.
Travis — who was keeping an eye on a proposed state law that would allow already licensed breweries, wineries or distilleries to receive a permit to produce and sell spirits by the glass, bottle or case — decided it might be time to open his own business.
“I think that it’s just a very kind of American, entrepreneurial spirit and with our feet to the fire with graduation from law school coming up and not a great job demand for lawyers at the time, we figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Travis said. “Being young lawyers, we had a lot of long evening talks over glasses of whiskey, and I think that kind of resonated with us. And with the timing of the law and being able to obtain a license, who wouldn’t want to open a distillery? It was just serendipitous, I guess.”
And so the former U.S. Marine and his wife, along with friends Adam Willfond, Brian Willsey and Nabeela Virjee, founded Hotel Tango Whiskey last year. The name comes from the military phonetic alphabet: H, for Hilary, translates to Hotel; T, for Travis, translates to Tango; and it just so happens that the word that represents W is Whiskey. They plan to open the artisan distillery in late August or September at 702 Virginia Ave.
The 3,500 square foot facility — believed to be the first in the country owned and operated by a disabled veteran — will produce whiskey, gin, moonshine and vodka on site and offer a tasting room and retail area for customers.
“When they come in, they can see the entire process of how we will be making the product. They can see the three stills set up inside the building and our bottling line – how we label and fill them,” said Barnes, 31. “When folks are in doing tastings they can see what is happening.”
The motif of the 100-year-old building is pretty bare bones, Barnes said. He plans to keep it simple, with an “old timey feel to it.”
“This place is a really cool, old brick, steel and wood building that originally housed a carriage mechanic for horse buggies,” he said. “We will keep it just the way it looks now — we don’t want to get too fancy in the beginning. In the lounge area, we plan to have a really big fireplace where people can sit and enjoy a drink and hang out and talk. We hope to have a retail space where you can buy a bottle or shirt and some other merchandise. We’d like to offer short tours as well.”
Barnes said the big thing that separates Hotel Tango Whiskey from larger distilleries is the fact they can sell directly to the consumer. But, he added, they don’t want to be known as a tavern or restaurant.
“We want to just be focused on spirits,” he said. “You can stop in before or after dinner for a drink. We hope to push them to Bluebeard or other places for dinner.”
Hotel Tango Whiskey has pledged 21 jobs to the state over the course of the next five years.
“I really would like to have those 21 jobs filled with as many disabled vets as possible,” Barnes said. “It’s one of the tenets of the company and a personal thing to me, but I really think that, as someone who can employ people, I want to give jobs to as many disabled veterans as we can.”
Reaction has been positive so far, Barnes said.
“People are really excited for us and for Indianapolis,” he said. “We are excited for people to try our stuff and make us an Indianapolis staple.”
Chris Bavender is an Indianapolis-based freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @crbavender.