A couple of veterans are on a wild mission to create a one-of-a-kind whiskey called “700 MPH Bourbon.” Just as the name suggests, it’s booze that will hit a top speed of 700 miles an hour in a unique aging process that includes jetting across the sky in a Sea Harrier.
A Sea Harrier hovers over an airstrip.
“It’s very expensive and, my partners would say, idiotic!” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Scott Sanders, one of the vets behind this unique bourbon mission.
But it’s for a good cause. “What this is about, it’s the charity, it’s what we’re doing it for,” Sanders told CNBC. A portion of the proceeds of the bourbon sales will go to Semper Fi & America’s Fund, a nonprofit that supports combat wounded and critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.
In 2009 Sanders was patrolling the waters off the coast of Somalia searching for pirates. Today he spends his days in Hollywood, Maryland, where he and two partners, Sean Coogan and Dan Dawson, run the Tobacco Barn Distillery.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Scott Sanders, right, and his business partners, Sean Coogan and Dan Dawson, from left, sample bourbon in the Tobacco Barn Distillery’s rickhouse.
The admiral explains the distillery’s 700 MPH Bourbon started like most bourbon does. It’s a mix of at least 51% corn plus rye fermented, distilled, then aged in new charred oak barrels for more than three years. But unlike most bourbon, the 700 MPH, in its barrels, will then be loaded onto a former British Royal Navy Sea Harrier and take off on a flight starting and ending at St. Mary’s County Airport in California, Maryland.
Helping the admiral pull off the special operation is a buddy, retired Marine Lt. Col. Art Nalls.
“He owns a Harrier jet, and I own a distillery. I mean … there’s the magic right there,” said Sanders.
“My wife owns half of it. So she — and she’s very quick to point that out, that she lets me use her half of the airplane,” said Nalls, who is now an entrepreneur and runs an aviation company based in California, Maryland.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Art Nalls with his Sea Harrier.
The colonel told CNBC he bought the Harrier model FA2 in England after it was sold as military surplus. He shipped the aircraft to the U.S., had it rebuilt and registered with the FAA so he could fly it in air shows.
“In its normal mission of fighter reconnaissance or strike, it could carry missiles, it could carry bombs, or it can carry fuel,” said Nalls.
But there will be no firepower in the fighter jet’s next big mission … just gallons and gallons of bourbon.
Barrels of spirits age at the Tobacco Barn Distillery in Hollywood, Maryland.
The cargo for the flight will come from the admiral’s distillery, located just a few miles from the airport hangar where Nalls parks his Harrier. The Tobacco Barn Distillery ages about 450 barrels of spirits in its rickhouse.
This isn’t the first time the distillery has tried alternative aging methods.
Four barrels of the distillery’s special rum are aging below deck on the USS Constellation, a 166-year-old decommissioned warship docked in Baltimore Harbor. According to the distillery’s website, “The gentle rocking of the Ship coupled with the fluctuations in temperature gives the Rum a deeper and richer flavor.”
Barrels of rum are lowered into the USS Constellation in Baltimore Harbor.
Tobacco Barn Distillery
When Nalls heard about the rum aging on board the old ship it got him thinking about putting bourbon on his jet, an idea he shared with Sanders.
“I said, ‘Hey, we ought to age some here in the Harrier. Let’s put some in the drop tanks, and let’s go 700 miles an hour and see how the pressure affects the taste of the bourbon in the oak,'” Nalls told CNBC.
Sanders said that’s when the 700 MPH Bourbon mission was born. The team quickly hatched a plan to reconfigure the Harrier’s detachable fuel tanks so that two 25-gallon barrels of bourbon could fit inside each tank.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Scott Sanders explains how the Harrier’s reconfigured fuel tank can hold two 25-gallon barrels of bourbon.
The reason? “Because it’s crazy!” Sanders said.
The vets told CNBC they’re less interested in the effect that speed will have on the liquid cargo and more intrigued by the effects that temperature fluctuations, altitude and specifically air pressure might have on those barrels filled with bourbon.
In essence, they believe the air pressure at 15,000 feet might make the bourbon taste better, giving it a “deeper flavor,” as Sanders explained it.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Art Nalls in the cockpit of his Sea Harrier.
“That liquid’s going to push into the wood,” he said. “It’s going to get a lot more flavor out of the bourbon. That’s the theory. We’ll see what happens.”
According to Nalls, testing that theory will not be cheap. “This airplane uses 1.2 gallons per mile,” he said. “It’ll burn a gallon every two seconds when I’m in the hover. You cannot pour it out of a five-gallon bucket as fast as what this engine will convert it into heat, thrust and noise.”
The colonel added that when he does similar flights with the Harrier in air shows the expenses associated with flying the aircraft, including fuel, ground crew and flight time, can run up a tab north of $40,000.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Art Nalls flies his Harrier in an airshow with pyrotechnics.
The sky-high expenses don’t exactly make this a great business plan, especially since the vets expect to sell the 700 MPH Bourbon for only about $145 a bottle. But they told CNBC this mission is not about profits, it’s about raising money for an important cause.
Nalls is convinced bourbon lovers will make their mission to raise money for Semper Fi & America’s Fund a big success.
“I like bourbon, and there’s a lot of people that do. And a lot of people that would say, ‘You know what? I get a good bottle of bourbon, and I get a good story to tell,'” he said.
Maryland’s Comptroller office told CNBC the 700 MPH Bourbon flight was cleared for takeoff in October. But Nalls and Sanders said the coronavirus pandemic is delaying liftoff. The vets hope to get their bourbon off the ground in April 2021 and plan to put it up for sale by summer 2021.