Each year, Evan Williams bourbon honors six veterans around the country who not only served our country but also continue to inspire and serve their communities. The honorees get much-deserved acknowledgment as well as a $10,000 donation to the charity of their choice and their photo and story on a special, limited-edition bottle.
This year, the Evan Williams American-Made Heroes Program chose a Shepherdsville resident, Sgt. Chris Cruise, who served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division during the Iraq War as one of its honorees.
When Cruise decided to retire from the military in 2006, he found settling back into a normal routine to be pretty difficult — a common issue many veterans face once they leave the service.
He eventually took up woodworking because it was productive and therapeutic for him, and one Christmas he decided to combine his talents with his wife’s Kentucky heritage, creating an American flag fashioned from used bourbon barrels.
Most who saw the piece immediately wanted one for their own homes, so in 2017, Cruise started Cruise Customs, which allowed him to stay busy with his passion and also help other veterans who had a knack for woodworking and needed help transitioning back into the workforce.
“I wanted to help other veterans find their new purpose, just as we find a new purpose for bourbon barrels through our work,” he tells Insider. “We currently have five veterans working, including myself.”
Cruise recalls the challenge of acclimating to everyday life once he was out of the Army.
“I really missed the camaraderie and the ability to serve,” he says. “It can be difficult to relate to others once you have been through the rigorous training and combat of the military.”
He admits when he found out Evan Williams had chosen him as a veteran honoree this year, he was shocked.
“I honestly didn’t know what to think … I don’t think of myself as a hero. I am just a regular guy who wants to give back,” says Cruise. And about his photo ending up on a bourbon bottle? “The best word to describe it is surreal. It is truly an honor, and I hope it helps share our story so we can grow to help and hire more veterans.”
The limited-edition label of Evan Williams is available nationwide through the Fourth of July. On May 30, Cruise was awarded his charity check and special bottle at Liquor Barn Springhurst. We caught up with him before that event to ask him some very important questions …
What was your first concert?
My first concert had to be Garth Brooks if memory serves me. He is one great entertainer!
What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
Football for sure. I tell my family all the time that I should have been a football coach. I played from third grade through two years of college.
What job would you be terrible at?
Any job where it was hard to see success or a finished product.
What is your favorite restaurant or bar?
My favorite lunchtime place is Mai’s Thai in Jeffersonville. I have been going there for over 12 years for lunch almost on a weekly basis. My favorite bar/restaurant would have to be Hammerheads. Best ribs ever — the duck sliders are legit, too!
What is something you think everyone should do at least once?
Join the military or jump out of an airplane — or both?
Where would you direct a newcomer of Louisville to get a feel for the city?
Louisville has so much to offer. Spend the night at the Omni Hotel, visit NuLu, do a distillery tour like the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Visit Bardstown Road, check out a sporting event and finish back at Garage Bar with some pizza and a beer.
What keeps you here (in the Louisville area)?
Family for sure. My wife is from Louisville, and we have children now. I have lived in a lot of different places, and I will have to say Louisville offers the small-town feel with big-city activities.