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Veterans-Turned-Brewers Help Others Who Served Develop New Skills

Steve Gagner fills one of the first barrels of bourbon from Danger Close Craft Distilling in St. Albans, Vt.
Zachariah Fike
Steve Gagner fills one of the first barrels of bourbon from Danger Close Craft Distilling in St. Albans, Vt.

It's getting easier to find top-notch, handcrafted whiskey, bourbon, vodka, and other spirits made in the U.S. With more than 1,500 craft distillers across the country, the American spirits movement is on the rise, and in Vermont, the industry is booming.

Over the past 15 years, the number of licensed distilleries in the Green Mountain State has increased nearly tenfold: from just three to more than 24, according to Vermont's .

But a new distillery in northern Vermont isn't just manufacturing spirits. It's raising the spirits of the community, especially when it comes to veterans.

In an industrial garage in St. Albans, Steve Gagner uses an electric pump to transfer clear, strong-smelling liquid from a tank to a white oak barrel.

"Alright, so we're opening the valve from the spirit tank to the pump, positioning the nozzle over the barrel, and now we fill for 33 gallons," he explains.

Open this barrel in a year or two, and you'll taste one of the first batches of bourbon from Danger Close Craft Distilling.

Zac Fike (L) and Matt Kehaya (R) work on a batch of beer at 14th Star Brewing Company. 14th Star donates some of its proceeds to local nonprofits.
/ Steve Gagner
Steve Gagner
Zac Fike (L) and Matt Kehaya (R) work on a batch of beer at 14th Star Brewing Company. 14th Star donates some of its proceeds to local nonprofits.

"Danger Close" is a military term for when you need to call in the artillery and they need to know that the enemy is close to your position, Gagner says.

Gagner knows the meaning of danger close firsthand. He's a major in the Vermont Army National Guard, and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. After returning, he and fellow Army buddy Matt Kehaya started 14th Star Brewing Company in downtown St. Albans in 2011.

Six years later, they barreled their first Danger Close bourbon. Gagner says a distillery was a logical next step.

"We already have a facility where we can brew world-class beer, and so we didn't have to replicate that to create this place," Gagner says.

So they brew the unfermented beer — or "wurt" — downtown, at 14th Star, and then move it to the distillery about 1.5 miles away. "We truck it down here and it goes into our fermenters," he says. "And then we can distill the alcohol off from that."

They produce 6,000 gallons of beer a week at the brewery. They donate a portion of their proceeds to local nonprofits, from food kitchens and preschools to veterans' organizations like the , which seeks to raise awareness of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and reduce veteran suicide.

"Josh deployed with us to Afghanistan in our brigade," Gagner explains. "When we came home, he succumbed to TBI and PTSD and took his own life."

Now that Danger Close is up and running, the team is expanding its support for fellow veterans.

Zac Fike is Gagner and Kehaya's newest partner. The three served together in Afghanistan before Fike was wounded by a rocket attack. As the Purple Heart recipient explains, the Danger Close team will use its experience to teach other veterans about launching and running companies of their own.

"Part of our business model, going into the future, is to be able to share that with other veterans — having them come to our facility whether it's at the brewery, or here at the distillery, learn a trade, give them the confidence to be brave enough to actually take that leap when it comes to starting their own business," Fike says.

Gagner adds that he thinks veterans are especially suited to be leaders in any industry. They're experts at building and working in teams, they have an iron stomach when it comes to taking risks, and they know how to plan an operation.

"It literally translates beautifully into business planning," he says. "Right now we're conducting the shaping operation of putting bourbon into barrels. Our decisive operation is going to be that initial launch. The Army literally trained us to do this. Maybe, maybe not the bourbon part ... maybe a little bit."

Gagner, Fike, and Kehaya aren't stopping at bourbon; they're also working on a rum made with Vermont maple syrup. But retirement from the military is still a few years off, so all plans are subject to change.

"We're also all deployable, so that kind of plays a factor," says Kehaya.

Gagner adds, "We might need to take a year break to do some other stuff."

In the meantime, these three veterans and friends are living out the motto you'll eventually see emblazoned on their bottles: "Keep your friends close and your whiskey Danger Close."

This story comes from the : Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit .

Rebecca Sheir