A Navy Veteran Used His Military Training to Create Award-Winning Whiskeys

(Courtesy of Cleveland Whiskey)

Those who serve in the U.S. military pick up a number of skills before joining the civilian world. It's one of the biggest benefits of serving. Every skill they pick up in military training not only makes for good resume fodder, it can completely change the course of their professional future.

Even small parts of a military job can turn into careers -- or business ventures. Tom Lix, founder of Cleveland Whiskey, first learned the distilling process while in the U.S. Navy. Now, he's created a business around distilling and is winning awards with his products.

Lix first joined the Navy in 1972, at a time when Americans were still being drafted for service in the Vietnam War. He had a high draft number but saw many of his friends being called up. He dropped out of college and joined, a move he says he never regretted.

"I classify as a Vietnam-era vet," Lix told Military.com. "I didn't get shipped over. I became a machinist's mate and learned to make fresh water out of salt water on an old destroyer."

Cleveland Whiskey founder Tom Lix during his Navy career. (Courtesy of Cleveland Whiskey)

As a young sailor, he also learned to make distilled hooch from an older chief petty officer using a similar process. As the chief's apprentice, he watched the older noncommissioned officer use fermented fruit juice from the ship's galley.

"He was making booze, not just for our ship, but for all the surrounding ships," Lix said. "He had quite a thriving business."

In 1978, Lix left the Navy and went back to college using his GI Bill benefits. His college career eventually led to a doctorate in business from Boston University. He worked as a consultant over the next few years, and started a few businesses along the way. In 2009, he began what would become Cleveland Whiskey.

"I always thought it would be interesting to go back to that thing I learned in the Navy," he said. "We started running a series of experiments and developed a technology that gives us some real competitive advantages. For the first few years, we just focused on the technology."

When first starting the distillery, he was able to get grant money to further develop that technology. He wasn't able to sell the output, but he was allowed to experiment and develop the products.

As a machinist's mate, Lix was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to installing and repairing equipment. His work fashioning parts for pumps, engines and other equipment was useful when he was in his basement, developing the tech for what would become award-winning whiskeys. Cleveland Whiskey's first bottles shipped in 2013, and the business has only grown since then.

The process they use not only allows them to create the smoothness and flavor that comes with an aged whiskey in a fraction of the time, it also allows the company to use various kinds of wood to create different flavors.

When first distilled, a spirit is clear and flavorless. To make it a whiskey, it typically goes into an oak barrel, where it gets its color and flavor from the wood. Most other woods are too porous to hold a liquid.

For Cleveland Whiskey, Lix developed a steel vessel capable of withstanding pressure to hold liquids and different woods to create new flavors in a short amount of time.

(Courtesy of Cleveland Whiskey)

"If you used these other woods, the liquid would flow out of them like a sieve," Lix said. "So although we like the flavor of oak, other woods don't have the right pore structure to hold liquid. So we create whiskeys that have that oak flavor, but we also have the flavors from black cherry wood, hickory, sugar maple ... all sorts."

The distilling world is taking notice of Lix and Cleveland Whiskey's flavors and processes. It has won some 50 platinum and golden distilling awards, including a Double Gold at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It's also selling in 16 states and just shipped to South Korea for the first time.

"We're doing pretty well," Lix said. "It's a thriving business with five years of double-digit revenue growth and three years of profitability. For the last five or six years, we've been focused on consumer feedback, growing and becoming profitable."

For any veteran or military member who has a good idea and wants to start a business, the Navy veteran-turned-business expert-turned serial entrepreneur has one piece of advice: just get started anywhere you can.

"Most people don't start businesses because they never finish writing their business plan," he said. "People get caught up in having everything in place: the business plan, enough money and all the things that stop you. But the only way to see if it works is to do it."

To learn more about Cleveland Whiskey, its unique products or where you can buy them, visit the Cleveland Whiskey website.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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