Evan Williams Celebrates Veteran and Craftsman Chris Cruise with American-Made Hero Bottle

Chis Cruise's Evan Williams American Hero Bottle. Courtesy Heaven Hill.

Evan Williams is honoring Kentucky veteran Chris Cruise with his own American-Made Hero Bottle.

Each year, the Heaven Hill bourbon brand selects six American-Made Heroes and presents each with a personalized American flag Evan Williams bottle – as well as a $10,000 donation to the charity of their choice. Chris Cruise, a Kentuckian living in Sheperdsville only a few hours from the distillery where Evan Williams is made, was one of the six selected for 2019.

Sergeant Cruise is a former Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. When he returned home to Kentucky, he, like many veterans, struggled reassimilating to civilian society. He discovered that woodworking was a therapeutic for him way to deal with anxiety and PTSD, and started to head out to his garage to craft rugged, handmade American flags from bourbon barrel staves for friends and family.

The workshop at Cruise Customs. Courtesy Chris Cruise.

As the orders began to pile up, Cruise decided that this job could be a way to help more veterans trying to find their place in life after the military. He founded Cruise Customs in 2017, and just under a month ago, the operation moved out of the Cruise’s garage to its own shop.

“Simply put, we’re veteran owned, and we hire veterans to handcraft American flags out of bourbon barrels,” he says of his business, which employs eight part-time veterans and family members. The team makes three sizes – the smallest called the Captain, the medium the Lieutenant, and the largest the Colonel.

“We also make the Colonel into a display, so it has six shelves where you can display your six best bottles of bourbon, the ones you probably wouldn’t drink. We teamed up with Clayton & Crume, a local maker in Louisville, to cover the shelves in full grain leather, so its pretty fancy. Perfect man-cave type thing,” says Cruise of their largest piece.

While the sizes are standard, each flag can be personalized with names, military branches, and more, laser etched by a 100% disabled veteran who is now able to work with Cruise Customs from his home.

Since winning the American-Made Hero award, Cruise plans to further expand operations. “It was really surreal, and it’s been surreal ever since, to see my face on the side of a bottle,” said Cruise. “But ultimately what I want this to do is give my business a platform to grow so we can hire more veterans, and this will definitely help us.”

Chris Cruise holds one of his handcrafted bourbon barrel stave flags.
Chris Cruise holds one of his handcrafted bourbon barrel stave flags.

As a bonus for his business, “Evan Willams has kept us pretty busy with a large flag order,” he says.

“Since Evan Williams is American made and American owned, that’s why we have the American-Made Hero program,” says Emily Gahafer, a spokesperson for Evan Williams. The program has grown each of the last five years, and the brand expect it to continue to develop in years to come.

“We honor the veterans that are protecting the American spirit that Evan Williams embodies, and we just truly appreciate everything they do,” says Gahafer.

“I always use the metaphor between veterans and bourbon barrels, and I think the bourbon community will appreciate it,” says Cruise of his mission. “Bourbon barrels once served a good purpose aging bourbon, and veterans once served a great purpose serving their country. We’re helping them both find their new purpose making American flags for patriots and veterans.”

Check shelves near you for Chris’ bottles this month, or click here to see more of his work.

Caroline Paulus
Caroline Paulus is the Senior Editor for The Bourbon Review. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Instagram @misswhiskeyhistorian to keep up with her latest in bourbon news - and a few old finds, too.