“I once bought a bottle out of curiosity and I couldn’t even mix it with Coke, it was so bad,” says one man.

“I remember buying this off the bottom shelf, with dust on it, at the Class 6 [store],” says another. “Rough times.”

“This is the kind of bourbon that three privates buy with a bag full of change they collectively scrounged out of their cars the last weekend of the pay period,” says yet another. “I know, I was one of those privates.”

What the three men are talking about is Military Special, “a recipe that espouses the spirit of the Revolutionary War,” according to its packaging, but the product is really just a tax-free, $9 plastic bottle’s worth of bourbon, sold by the liter, and strictly available at United States military exchange stores across the world.

If whiskey geeks crave the obscure and tough-to-acquire, Military Special would fit the bill, given that civilians simply can’t buy the 80-proof, 3-year-old straight bourbon whiskey. At the same time, however, there are over 4,000 military exchange stores in all 50 states, 4 U.S. territories, and 34 countries on every continent, meaning that it’s not exactly rare. Untold numbers of service men and women have encountered the low-brow elixir over the years — and most don’t seem to think all too highly of it.

“I’d say, universally, people think of Military Special as swill,” says active Army officer John Tramazzo, author of the 2019 book “Bourbon and Bullets: True Stories of Whiskey, War, and Military Service.” “The young kids don’t buy it. They’re into flavored whiskey and vodkas, seemingly. The officers don’t buy it — my demographic seems to go for the Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, Bulleit, and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel picks.”

The Origin Story of Military Special

The War Department officially issued orders to establish military post exchanges in 1895, and Military Special has been around since at least the early 1940s, when it was a blended whiskey produced by Monumental Distilling Company, a once-great Baltimore-area distillery partially destroyed by a smokestack fire in 1942. That location eventually was taken over in 1943 by Majestic Distilling. In 1972, Majestic quit actually distilling products like its famed Pikesville Maryland rye whiskey, but has continued bottling Military Special under the name Atlantic Distillers.

“We buy much of our spirits from a large producer by the tractor-trailer load,” explains Jody Palmisano, the company’s Eastern Shore representative. “Delivered to our tanks in Baltimore. Top quality mass-produced.”

At one time, that large producer was Heaven Hill before being switched to the Sazerac Company around 2013. The products are now distilled at Sazerac’s Barton 1792 Distillery. In a way, it’s kind of fitting that Barton distills Military Special — the company owned the Tom Moore distillery in Bardstown, Ky., which produced neutral spirits to be turned into antifreeze and antiseptics for the military during World War II.

It’s not just the juice that is much-maligned; the packaging is as well, with most servicemen I talked to calling it “cheap” or “hokey.” Today, Military Special appears to be packaged in the same bottles Barton uses for Zackariah Harris, another budget product. If, in the 1940s, the labeling was red, white, and blue, today the label is black and white with gold trim. “Military Special” is written in a swooping serifed font, with the left side of the label featuring a downward quadtych of images — a World War I biplane, an anchor, a wheeled Civil War cannon, and a Revolutionary War-era soldier. Back when Military Special was produced by Heaven Hill, it came in the brand’s distinct tapered-neck bottle, and the images included an M1 tank and Desert Storm soldier.

Finding a Use for Military Special

“Most members of the military are men under age 24 — think about how most 18- to 24-year-olds drink,” says “Mark K.,” an Army lieutenant colonel who was not authorized to speak on the record. The lieutenant colonel notes that he sees most of them opting for Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s. Which is interesting, as Military Special is charcoal-filtered, a similar process to how Jack Daniel’s is made more mellow via a method known as the Lincoln County Process. (A tagline of “smooth and mellow” is even written on the neck of Military Special bottles.) While he doesn’t really drink it himself, calling it “unremarkable,” he adds, “I always bring a bottle to family events and stuff with non-military colleagues because they think it’s fun and funny.”

It’s those non-military folks, however, who seem to be a lot less critical of Military Special’s taste.

“That is one of the best bourbons I’ve ever had — wow! That is fucking good,” exclaims Jim Bob McClane on his YouTube show “Whiskey Drankers.” While his show partner, Clint M. Black, also cops to liking it, Black says the initial taste is “like you just swallowed a mouthful of kerosene.” Oddly, most non-military men I spoke to found it surprisingly decent. And, far be it for me to steal any valor, but Mark K. offered to send me a bottle from his local exchange. Though I’m not used to drinking bourbon that comes out of 1.75-liter plastic handles, I found it solid — your standard vanilla, caramel, and baking spice notes with just a little bit of oakiness on the finish. Sure it’s quite thin at that low proof, but it’s eminently drinkable and I’m happy to now have it around my house. Maybe it’s simply familiarity that breeds such contempt for Military Special and causes troops to wonder why this thing need be in their lives

“Does it have a purpose? Can it be put to good use? Will it ever claim it’s rightful place in the sun as something other than an overpriced solvent?” asks one soldier on a Reddit bourbon forum.

Besides producing an array of novelty-like alcohols, many with a fishing theme like Gills Gone Wild Vodka, Atlantic Distilling also makes other Military Special products that all seem to be generally loathed by the military. The company produces a blended Scotch, a rum, a gin, a vodka (“dirty dish water mixed with rotten asshole,” jokes a former soldier on Reddit), and even a tequila (“if you truly want to experience death without dying,” cracks another in the same thread). Military Special is both ubiquitous, a fact of military life, yet almost completely disregarded.

In fact, John Tramazzo still has no idea who this stuff is actually meant for. “I literally don’t know who buys Military Special,” he claims, while admitting it’s mysteriously becoming harder to find these days. “Everyone knows about it, though. ‘Oh yeah, that stuff that’s in every exchange around the world and always on the bottom shelf.’ I guess some people, like me, buy it to have stuff on hand. It’s so, so cheap — why not?”