At his Army base in the Afghanistan desert, Mike Girard would feel the rumble from rockets and hear the pop-pop-pop of gunfire, and the thought constantly lingered in his mind that it could be his time, like it was his commander's time during a close encounter with a suicide bomber, or like it was years prior for his good pal Mike, who had died before Christmas, or like it was for Matt and Jason, who had died a week apart. Girard had to find peace somehow. He did in the secrecy of a locked room.
There he kept a pressure cooker, the kind that insurgents would pack with explosives and hide under the dirt, leaving Girard and his fellow explosive ordnance disposal technicians to ever-so-carefully pull out. He'd done that for two prior deployments in the Middle East. In 2012, during the last mission of his 23-year military career before his return to retire in Colorado Springs, Girard used the cooker to discover a new passion:
He crafted his first batch of moonshine.
"Been hooked ever since," he says inside 3 Hundred Days of Shine Distillery, his quaint operation hiding out in the back of an industrial zone in Monument.
Tough reminders from the past hang on the wall: That's Mike, Matt and Jason in the frames. For years Girard carried around the strange, difficult feeling of being alive. It's easier now. And that has a lot to do with the purpose he's found at the distillery, which, to his pleasant surprise, has been profitable since year one and is more so than ever into year three. 3 Hundred Days' label is seen on mason jars sold at nearly 300 stores around Colorado.
"It gave him something to do," Girard's wife, Jennifer, says of the hobby he brought back to the States. "It can be hard to come back and have to refind your place, and I think this helped him."
Once home, he researched methods and mashes and practiced in his garage, developing the 10 flavors he offers today. His friends loved the stuff, as did a distributor who tried it and connected Girard with investors and business partners.
And so what started as a hidden science project took off - as unlikely as the rest of Girard's life path.
He joined the Army as he was struggling to make a living for his wife and daughter, born during high school in small-town Montana. Wages from the grain elevator and lumberyard weren't cutting it.
He thought he'd serve for a few years, but then he discovered the need for soldiers willing to put their hands on bombs. He went to school to learn the science of explosives, to see if he had what it took.
"About half the people who go to school to be EOD don't get certified," Girard says. "When it comes to EOD, either you're a perfectionist, or there's only one other consequence. . It's success or total failure, and total failure is a pine box."
The choice terrified Jennifer, but she wasn't surprised by her husband, who she considers "an adrenaline junkie," fond as he's always been of fast cars and motorcycles. And, he says with a chuckle, "fond of the drink since I was 15."
As an EOD tech, he felt an utmost respect. And he was more inspired by his duty months out of school, when one of his fellow classmates was killed in 2000 in Kuwait. "That drives you," he says. "Then, after 9/11, there was no getting out."
First he was deployed to help wrap up a job in Bosnia, which angered him, because he felt he needed to be in the Middle East, where Mike had just been killed. Girard went off to Afghanistan in 2006, Iraq in 2008 and back to Afghanistan in 2012, when he needed a distraction as much as ever, "something to take your mind off what's going on," he says. "You need that, otherwise it'll eat at you."
There's comfort at 3 Hundred Days. Soft string music plays in the wood-themed tasting room, the aroma of apple spice hangs in the air, a 130-gallon still beneath an American flag churns away in the back. What catches the eye are the walls of old newspaper clippings, the mugshots and the Thompson submachine gun - nods to Prohibition-era moonshining. It's a history Girard has come to appreciate.
His military mementos are on a side wall. "That's not all I am," he says. "I'm not trying to sell the fact that I'm a veteran, I'm trying to sell good quality liquor."
Apple pie is the No. 1 seller. And it's his favorite, too, with a finish that tastes sweeter all the time.