When it comes to distilling, respected distillers can often be heard waxing poetic about the process that goes into crafting their latest innovation. For Travis Barnes, founder and chief executive officer of the Indianapolis-based Hotel Tango Distillery, the discipline in which he employs in developing the company’s lineup of craft spirits harkens back to a previous chapter in his life — when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 2002, Barnes was assigned to the First Reconnaissance Battalion, Company A, First Platoon, and deployed to Iraq.
Following three tours in Iraq, Barnes returned to Indiana where he enrolled in law school. It was there that he met his wife, Hilary. However, as he continued his studies, Barnes came to the realization that he didn’t really want to be a lawyer. It was then that Barnes’ natural curiosity led him to his latest venture.
“I’ve always been interested in distillation,” he says. “I made beer through college in my room in my house, and then this was just the next progression, a step forward. I wanted to push myself to see if could make it to produce something that was enjoyable so that was the challenge that I put on myself.”
Barnes’ craft spirits were a hit with family and friends as he often would gift the innovations for birthdays or at Christmas time, prompting many to urge him to go into business. But it wasn’t until 2013, when the Indiana State Legislature was looking at changing laws, that the avenue for craft distillers would open up in the Hoosier state.
“My wife [and I] put our heads together and drew up a business plan and submitted all of [the] applications,” Barnes says. “We were about one of four in the state to get the licensing in 2013 under the deadline that the state legislature had put out as a barrier to entry.”
With the application approved, Barnes wanted to pay homage to his time in the military. Therefore, he turned to the military phonetic code to develop his company name. With “h” communicated as hotel and “t” known as tango, the husband and wife team came up with Hotel Tango Distillery. “H” in reference to Hilary, and “T” in reference to Travis.
Urban setting, broad reach
With a portfolio featuring bourbons, rye whiskey, vodka, gin and more, Hotel Tango Distillery sells its packaged spirits in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Texas, Wisconsin and with the U.S. military. This spring, it also is launching in 330 Walmart stores across Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Louisiana and Florida.
As the craft distiller is analyzing its future distribution plans, Barnes notes that its connection to the U.S. military has served as a good litmus test for future opportunities. “I think that the military has really given us a leg up in our ability to one, cross state lines but two, be able to forecast different markets and how we want to enter certain markets with using military as kind of a lily pad,” he says.
However, when it comes to developing new products, the true inspiration is coming out of its tasting rooms. With locations in Fort Wayne, Ind., and its flagship one based in downtown Indianapolis, the on-premise location serves as a “boots on the ground” research and development lab, he points out.
“We have a classified series in our tasting room, which has become our test run if you will before we take it outside the tasting room,” Barnes says. “For instance, right now we have a classified Sambuca that we have only available in the tasting room. It’s doing very well. Obviously, Sambuca is a niche — it’s not as popular as vodka but the reaction from within the tasting room has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The creations also are driven by the company’s 5-acre urban farm that is located about two miles from downtown Indianapolis.
“It’s an urban farm and we’ve been growing the produce that we use in the tasting room for three years now,” Barnes says. “We donate all of the excess. We only take about 10 percent of the actual yield and everything else goes to Indy Food Deserts. We partnered with Indy Urban Acres who is part of the City Parks Department, but they hire and employ inner-city kids to come and work the land. It’s a great program. We don’t charge for the use of it. It just makes we feel good and they grow really awesome tomatoes.”
This isn’t the only way that Hotel Tango Distillery is giving back. The company also supports the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation of Indiana, an organization that is working to end homelessness among veterans. Most recently, it also announced that it is temporarily adding a new high-proof ethyl alcohol-based product that can be used as a hand cleaner to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“Since we already have facilities and equipment geared toward producing high-proof alcohol, which is a common cleaning and anti-bacterial agent; it feels like we have a duty to help wherever we can,” Barnes said in a statement. “This is a time for all of us to come together, and combine our focused efforts to get COVID-19 under control.”