NASHVILLE, Ind. – In less than 15 years, the owners of Hard Truth Distilling Co. have gone from brewing beer in an old milk jug to spearheading a campaign to become the next big national brand.
Hard Truth is a relative newcomer to the liquor market. It began distilling in 2015, but major production of the product didn’t begin until 2017 after the company opened its 325-acre woodland campus.
Within seven years, the company launched nine styles of alcohol – including gin, vodka, rum and whiskey – and expanded its brand to a quarter of the states.
But this level of success didn’t happen by accident. It was the culmination of years of trial and error the owners had gone through with their previous companies.
To truly understand the history of Hard Truth, one must first learn more about the other two pillars that support this new kingdom, the history of Big Wood and Quaff ON restaurants! Brewery Co..
The Hard Truth Brand Story
To say that the Hard Truth brand embodies the American dream would be a bit cliche; if anything, it illustrates what makes a good Hoosier story.
The story begins with a glass of home brew Tim O’Bryan made in his spare time.
O’Bryan was not a full-time brewer; on the contrary, he was considered a home brewer at the time, but it was something he did to share with his friends and family.
Although O’Bryan was an amateur, his friends and family loved his beer. O’Bryan even attended a few craft beer exchanges, and it became common for O’Bryan to return home with no beer to put back in his fridge.
Ed Ryan and Jeff McCabe, O’Bryan’s stepfather, saw the potential in his brewing skills, and the couple decided to offer O’Bryan a deal to partner up and open a brewery.
In 2009 they opened their first Big Woods Brewing location in Nashville, Indiana.
Before opening their doors, the group was a bit scared about the community’s reaction to their experience, as the economy was still suffering from the 2008 housing crisis.
But to everyone’s surprise, the community came in droves and loved their beer, to the point of running out of it.
“I was worried at first but we had such a great response from the community. That Sunday we had no more beer to sell. I don’t know if it was word of mouth. ear, but it was a good answer,” McCabe said.
It has become a common trend with the pub. O’Bryan and his team would start brewing beer on Sunday evening and serving it on Wednesday, and the following Sunday the pub would practically run out of beer and the cycle would repeat itself.
This pattern continued for the next two years. With growing demand for beer and dining space, the group decided to open their second location, Big Woods Pizza, just a block from the original location in 2011.
While this new location meets the demands of hungry locals and tourists, it doesn’t meet the demand for the beer they brew.
In 2012, the partners decided that in order to meet the demand for beer, they would open a new facility that would focus solely on brewing. The team bought the old bowling alley and converted it to their new brewer, Quaff ON! brewing company.
Around this time, the team brought in Jim Dunbar as their fourth operations partner. Dunbar was an old friend of McCabe; the two used to fly helicopters together in the Indiana National Guard. Dunbar was brought in to help manage and get brewer Quaff ON off the team.
Over the next few years, the team focused on expanding its brands outside of Brown County and throughout Indiana. Currently, there are several Big Woods locations in Indianapolis and counties surrounding Brown County. The furthest location the team operates is in West Lafayette. As for their Quaff ON!, beer can be found in most major cities in Indiana.
The origin of the hard truth
As the team was busy expanding the brand across Indiana, on the top floor of the Big Woods Pizza location, the seeds for their next venture began to bloom.
Like an alchemist in a lab, the team began experimenting with the idea of creating gold from alcohol, or in this case, vodka, rum and gin.
Soon they set up a micro-distillery on the second floor of the restaurant, and in 2015 they officially started their journey to this new frontier.
Like their previous escapades, their booze was a hit with the community, but unlike last time, they weren’t going to slow down. The company decided to purchase wooded acres just outside of town to create a new base of operations.
“With the beer business, we were taking baby steps all the time. We would build an infusion system, then we would overtake it, then we would build another. You know, kind of a step or two at a time. So every time we started making money, we had to create another brewing system. And that took several years,” McCabe said.
“So when we decided to go into distilling, we decided that we weren’t going to grow through this pain of all these progressive stages. So we did two things; we set up a pilot system, a approximately 350 gallon pilot system to develop our recipes and create products to test in our restaurants.While we were doing this we built this location (Hard Truth Distillery) which is being built to be a production facility for a brand recognized nationally. We have enlarged it enough to be able to grow in it.
In 2017, the team began construction of the Hard Truth Campus, which houses the Hard Truth Distillery, the Hard Truth Tour and Tasting Center, and the Hard Truth Restaurant.
It was also around this time that Hard Truth Master Distiller Bryan Smith was added as the fifth and final partner. Smith is the master alchemist behind many of Hard Truth’s flavorful liquors.
Notably, Smith was the mastermind behind Hard Truth’s latest hit, Sweet Mash Whiskey, which received national recognition.
“We’ve had some crazy press and responses on the liquid itself from people talking about whiskey, which could be quite a volatile crowd to talk about your whiskey,” Smith said.
The initial project was completed in 2018, and with it came an elevated experience for alcohol connoisseurs.
“It’s like Disneyland for adults,” Dunbar said.
The drive into campus gives off an almost Gatsby-like appeal. As visitors ascend the steep hill, a tall mansion-like building begins to loom on the horizon of the hill.
This building houses the Hard Truth Distillery and a restaurant in the corner of the building.
Guests can schedule distillery tours, a single-barrel tasting session, or, for the more adventurous liquor connoisseurs, they can sign up for an ATV tour of the campus.
The ATV tour will take guests to undeveloped areas of the Hard Truth campus where they can learn about the history of the company as well as the history of alcohol manufacturing in America. The tour also includes several beverages for guest enjoyment.
What’s next for Hard Truth
Normally, when someone says they’ve created a Disneyland experience, it’s safe to assume that’s the pinnacle of their success. But for the Hard Truth team, this was just the first step they needed to pursue their real-life dream of becoming a nationally recognized brand.
In 2019, the Hard Truth brand began finding homes on liquor store shelves all over Indiana.
Having a big presence in Indiana wasn’t enough. It was then that the team began to cultivate their plan for world domination – of the alcohol market.
Unfortunately, there was a catch; 2020 didn’t exactly go as planned.
With the pandemic shutting down the nation, the team found themselves with a difficult philosophical situation: to carry on or not to carry on, that was the question.
But learning lessons from their past, the team adapted to the ever-changing circumstances and ventured forward.
“One of the inflection points for us is that we seem to accelerate when things go wrong with the economy or something. In 2008 the stock market crashed and we started our business. And then , when COVID-19 hit, instead of waiting to see how it would go, we opened two new restaurants and we launched five new products,” McCabe said.
By the end of 2021, the team had expanded its brand to more than a dozen states: Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee, Vermont, Maine and more.
Currently, the Hard Truth team is trying to break into three of the biggest markets in the country: Florida, Texas and California. The team has had great success in Florida but has yet to find a foothold in the other two.
In two years, the Hard Truth team was able to achieve a quarter of their dream and hope to achieve it by 2030.
Noe Padilla is a journalist at Journal & Courier. Email him at Npadilla@jconline.com and follow him on Twitter at 1NoePadilla.