Peyton Manning talks about his new Saloon 16 in the new Graduate Hotel in Knoxville, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.
Knoxville News Sentinel
Andy Roddick has a bottle-and-a-half of Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey left in his pantry.
The former world No. 1 tennis player and partner in the new premium spirit brand often fields requests from friends looking to get a bottle, he told Knox News.
“Sure,” Roddick tells them. “Just as soon as I can.”
It might be a tall order. The third of five batches will hit retail shelves next week, but Sweetens Cove Spirits CEO Mark Rivers estimates the 14,000 bottles in its inaugural release will be sold out by October.
With a limited release strategy, Sweetens Cove’s partners — including Tennessee Vols and NFL legend Peyton Manning — hope to stake a claim as Tennessee’s signature premium bourbon, rather than a celebrity brand.
“(Roddick and Manning) really want to put their shoulders behind the process and the product and the business more than put their faces in front of it,” Rivers said.
From golf course to bourbon
The Sweetens Cove story began with a treasure hunt, Roddick and Rivers said, when they discovered and purchased Sweetens Cove Golf Club, a nine-hole golf course in South Pittsburg, just west of Chattanooga, in May 2019.
GolfWeek named it one of America’s best courses in 2019.
Manning joined the ownership team of the golf club, which was in need of long-term investment and, among other things, indoor plumbing.
“The course had a great ritual that preceded us, where golf guests would take a shot of whiskey on the first tee, before their first golf swing,” Manning said in an email to Knox News. “It became fundamental to the experience. People would bring a bottle, leave a bottle, share a bottle. All of us were so struck by that unique legend and so we said, ‘We need our own whiskey’ and the journey to create Sweetens Cove Spirits was born then and there.”
After more treasure hunting, Rivers discovered 100 barrels of 13-year-aged Tennessee bourbon available for purchase.
“We teased that it was being held hostage in a warehouse in Kentucky, and the first thing we did was buy it and the second thing we did was bring it back to Tennessee,” Rivers said.
A master blender with Tennessee roots
The Sweetens Cove partners brought on Marianne Eaves, a Tennessee native, to serve as master blender to the brand, which is blended in Columbia, Tennessee.
Known as Kentucky’s first female master distiller since Prohibition, Eaves spent time at Castle & Key and Brown-Forman and was named one of America’s Top 40 under 40 Tastemakers by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
Rather than embrace the traditional role of a blender — to make batch after batch of a product taste the same year after year — the Sweetens Cove team gave Eaves more creative license to craft five distinct blends under the same label and distinguished only by proof.
“Basically, they were like you are the artist and these are the different colors on your palette and you’re here to create something that that you believe is beautiful and delicious,” Eaves said.
Eaves initially spent at least 15 minutes nosing, tasting and writing extensive notes on each of the 100 barrels.
“(It’s) very rare to have someone with her skill and stature to do that deep dive of craftsmanship,” Manning said. “And so far, the reviews have really met our expectations.”
Across the barrels, Eaves found traditional oaky flavors, but also burnt marshmallow, tropical fruit, floral, herbal, black pepper and leather notes.
“(It was) fun to pull in different proportions of these different flavor characteristics to make these five unique batches,” Eaves said. “Overall I hope that people will find that it’s really approachable and then you get this really wonderful, creamy, smooth mouthfeel, but from batch to batch you’re going to get different flavors.”
Of the 100, she reserved four for single-barrel release later this year. The 14-year limited release 375-milliliter bottles will retail for $125.
Staying small in 2021
Eaves will be involved in the barrel selection for the second and third releases, which will hit Tennessee shelves in 2021.
“We’ll go very slowly, very methodically, quality over speed, but we will start to ramp up the production volume and we’ll start to look at some other markets in 2021,” Rivers said.
When in stock, Knoxville fans of the brand can find Sweetens Cove bourbon at Green Meadow Wine and Spirits, Good Times Wine and Spirits and Bob’s Package Store.
Manning, a self-described “whiskey rookie,” said he’s enjoyed learning more about the process and was thrilled to back a Tennessee product. He enjoys his Sweetens Cove with an ice cube or two.
The bourbon is on the menu at Manning’s one-of-a-kind “watering hole” Saloon 16, which opened in August inside the new Graduate Hotel in Knoxville.
An opening in the Tennessee whiskey market
Rivers realized there was an opportunity in the Tennessee whiskey market after visiting a well-known Nashville bar about 18 months ago. The extensive spirits menu featured four pages of Kentucky bourbons. There were only six Tennessee bourbons listed.
“We believe 100% there is an opening to be the flagship premium Tennessee bourbon,” Rivers said. “Whiskey, bourbon from Tennessee has a great history and a great legacy and a long story of terrific craftsmanship, often overwhelmed by Kentucky’s story.”
More than 6.3 million visitors participated in the Tennessee Whiskey Trail in 2018. Created by the Tennessee Distillers Guild, the trail is comprised of 26 distilleries across the state including George Dickel Distillery, Prichard’s Distillery, Corsair Artisan Distillery, Heaven’s Door, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and Uncle Nearest.
There are plenty of celebrity-backed spirits on the market, but Roddick said the brand has tried to focus on the quality of the product rather than rolling out marketing featuring famous faces.
“I enjoy the process of being involved in the day-to-day as opposed to just showing up and spouting off taglines and then leaving,” said Roddick.
Email business reporter Brenna McDermott at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_BrennaMcD.