The veterans at American Legion Post 303 knew him as “Whiskey Florance.”
Charles Florance, then a Notre Dame graduate student, would join the other veterans at the bar, share a conversation and knock back a drink.
“You can complain about it or you can do something about it.”
They knew him as “Whiskey Florance” because he’d muse about why there wasn’t a Hoosier whiskey that was made using Hoosier ingredients. After all, Indiana’s two biggest industries are agriculture and manufacturing, he’d tell the others.
The veterans — most of whom served in Vietnam and a few others in Korea — didn’t disagree with him. But if he felt that strongly about it, they told Florance, he should do it himself.
“In true military fashion, it was almost like a double dog dare — ‘Florance, you can complain about it or you can do something about it,’” he said.
So he did.
Florance started drafting the concept for his whiskey business while he was still studying for his master’s degree in business. His professors accepted his marketing plans and accounting for class work and evaluated them as they would “any Fortune 500 company,” Florance said.
And, true to his word, he and his partners sought out materials and equipment within the city and the rest of the state.
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“It really is something that Hoosiers can be proud of,” Florance said. “But beyond that, I think something really resonates with people when they know that the dollars don’t get sent to New York or California or Germany, and these dollars are staying right here.”
He registered The Indiana Whiskey Company in 2011 and opened the distillery at 1115 W Sample St., South Bend. Today, you can find Indiana Whiskey in 120 retail locations throughout the state.
Florance began serving in the military in 1999 on a tour of duty that has led him everywhere from the Middle East to the state of Mississippi. As part of an infantry unit, he’s been involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and guarded a humanitarian relief shelter after the impact of Hurricane Katrina.
Back then, Florance thought he’d be able to build his life around his military career.
But then his body betrayed him.
He started experiencing the symptoms during a three-day leave. It was one of the few chances Florance had to spend some time with his wife of four years, Katarina. But then he started feeling numbness up to his knees, and the right side of his face began to droop because of facial palsy. Even then, Katarina thought he was just being “a sissy.”
“I’m sure (her words were) something like ’Really? On the last few days together? This is what the problem is?’” Florance said. “That’s characteristic of her. She’s such a loving and understanding person, but she loves quality time.”
But the paralysis was too hard to ignore. It had crept up to his waist, his chest and to both sides of his face. Florance had to place a rag over his face because he wasn’t able to close his eyes.
In May 2009, Florance was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare disorder in which one’s immune system damages the body’s own nerve cells, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s estimated that only 3,000 to 6,000 people in the United States develop the condition each year.
Even though Florance had access to good neurologists and physical and occupational therapy through the Army Wounded Warrior Program, the military decided that he wouldn’t be able to continue serving as an infantry man.
“But the issue is nerve damage is so hard to predict, like how your functionality is going to come back, how your physicality is going to be afterwards,” he said.
Even after his treatment, Florance still had nerve damage in his extremities. He would drink whiskey to help with the pain.
But even though Florance couldn’t pursue his military career, the military didn’t just leave him behind.
Veterans Affairs offered to pay for his tuition at the University of Notre Dame — though the university later offered Florance a fellowship, so he took that instead. The agency has also discussed paying for some of the Indiana Whiskey Company’s raw materials for a month or two, such as grains and glassware.
“I feel like, it’s one of those things where the VA gets bad press a lot for the way they handle things…” Florance said. “But I think it’s clear, especially with going through this process, that a lot of those employees at the VA really want what’s best for vets.”
In return, Indiana Whiskey Company started a relationship with Veterans Affairs’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program for northern Indiana and has volunteered with and donated to the Miller Center for Veterans at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend.
The company also provides internships for transitioning veterans and donates three percent of its profits to veteran support programs and organizations in the state.
”Through this program, we’re getting outrageous amounts of support and so I think it’s going to be a good partnership,” Florance said.
It wasn’t easy starting a distillery that makes whiskey as close to home as possible, Florance said. Finding the right relationships with local businesses wasn’t a task to be done through computers.
“I think part of the reason is that our generation is ’Google search it’ — trying to find oh, labels.com.’ But unfortunately, you miss out on a lot of the rich local businesses when that happens,” he said. “A lot of the promoted posts or a lot of the promoted content you find on those searches takes you to people who just do mass printing or mass producing.”
So Florance and his partners got into a car and drove around to neighboring businesses to strike up a conversation.
The result is that every piece that makes up The Indiana Whiskey Company is in some way affiliated with the Hoosier state, from its fermenters to the bottling machines to the labels.
It’s the same ethos Florance has whenever he brings people in to work alongside him in the distillery — the people he insists made the company as successful as it is today.
“I don’t think the resumes are the driving force behind who we hire,” Florance said. “It’s more talking to somebody, getting to know what motivates them and what they desire to do, what kind of fingerprints do they leave in this community — because they are going to become the brand, which is more important that having a University of Chicago MBA.”
Florance is not a native Hoosier himself. He was born in Richmond, Va. But his roots in the state of Indiana go deep, from the time he spent as an undergraduate at Purdue University and later as a graduate at the University of Notre Dame. His two daughters were born at the Memorial Hospital of South Bend.
And with The Indiana Whiskey Company, he’s found a way to honor his new home.
“In 2008, 2009, especially the depth of that financial issue, I think there was a lot of negative feelings about old industrial towns and things like that. But when my wife and I were thinking about it, you really have to bring your own fun. You can’t expect to be taken care of by your community, you have to go out and take care of the things you can, the things you enjoy. You have to support the infrastructure, the ecosystem.”