A Spirit for the Holidays
Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon.
If you read this column then you know that celebrity-driven wines and liquors ain’t my thing.
For every Aviation Gin (actor Ryan Reynolds’ project) or Casamigos (co-founded by George Clooney) that is authentically produced for quality, there are a dozen labels that are simply batch juice vehicles launched to make a buck on the backs of the star’s names. Don’t get me started on the plethora of wines that have debuted in the last couple of years that combine a cause, a claim of “natural” wine, and a celebrity nameplate in an attempt to part you and your money.
But this past fall I tasted a Tennessee Bourbon called Sweetens Cove, whose ownership group includes NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Peyton Manning (yes, the one who won Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos) that had the right stuff. A combination of quality ingredients, a good founding story and a master blender overseeing the project was enough to intrigue me. And though it would have been easy to call it “House of Manning” or “Omaha no. 18” or some such, the fact that the group stuck with its origin story seemed, well, genuine.
Plus, the whiskey was as sweet as its source.
Sweetens Cove is named for a little 9-hole golf course in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, located not far from Chattanooga. The course was originally constructed in 2014 by a couple of guys whose ambition was to create the perfect no-frills golf track. The story of their achieving a simple dream led to acclaim in golf publications and helped it develop a cult following amongst the golf cognoscente. In 2019 a group of friends who were smitten with the laid-back demeanor and the quality of what the New York Times deemed “The Little Course That Could” came together to become co-owners and partners in the Sweetens Cove golf course.
This was not just any group of buddies. It included Jim Nantz (the voice of American golf), Andy Roddick (the Hall of Fame tennis player and winner of the 2003 U.S. Open), and Manning along with golf afficionados Skip Bronson, Tom Nolan and developer Mark Rivers, who spearheaded the project.
In addition to the course, much of the lore of the Sweetens Cove culture revolved around a friendly tradition that emerged there: First-time players would toast with a shot of whiskey on the first tee to help celebrate the moment before hitting their first drive at the Cove. Assorted bottles of fine bourbon and whiskey were being left behind in the tee box and a collection formed, which begged the question: “Why don’t we make our own?”
Now all of this has a distinctly boys-will-be-boys, frat-house feel, so it might come as a surprise that when the ownership group went looking to draft someone who could pull their whiskey dream together, they turned to a woman. Marianne Eaves is one of the most respected blenders of whiskey in America. She is, in fact, a master blender who, while still just in her mid-thirties, has a resume that includes stints at Brown-Forman and Castle & Key, where she held the title of master distiller.
“Marianne was on hiatus when we first found her,” Rivers said about the search for the perfect partner on the production side. “We told her about our commitment to making a great product and she was intrigued.”
He continued, “For our part we thought, ‘anyone can make a pizza, but if you want to do it right you get Wolfgang Puck.’” The team was as impressed with Eaves’ knowledge of the science of distillation as they were her artistic view of the blending process.
Many Tennessee whiskeys are differentiated by having gone through what is called the “Lincoln County Process,” where the whiskey is charcoal filtered before aging. But not Sweetens Cove. It is labeled as “Tennessee Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskies.” It turns out that the rules regarding what makes a whiskey or a bourbon are as rigid (and confusing) as what makes a Champagne a Champagne. A “Straight Bourbon” must be made of at least “51% corn, distilled to no higher than 160 proof, barreled at 125 proof or below and aged in new American oak barrels for a minimum of two years.” Basically “straight” refers to a proper bourbon aged in oak for at least two years.
The first release of Sweetens Cove in 2020 was a limited allocation of a 13-year-old whiskey that had been found aging in Kentucky. But this year’s release, the 2021, is a product of Eaves’ artisan blending. Eaves selected 264 barrels of whisky that were originally distilled in Tennessee on five different production dates and were then aged for four, six and 16 years depending upon the barrel. She then blended these whiskeys of disparate ages together to create the finished product.
This blend of whiskies of different “vintages,” if you will, is the kind of thing you might find in a nonvintage Champagne, where grapes of different harvest years are blended together to create different flavor profiles. It is a bold step but one that has paid dividends in a Sweetens Cove Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskies that is bright and slightly sweet but with a satisfyingly spicy finish. The mouthfeel is supple and smooth and there is a toasty, oak element that is not too smoky but still smolders.
It is as easy sippin’ as a three-foot straight-line putt.
Sweetens Cove is currently available in nine states and landed this past summer here in Colorado with a 6,000-bottle allocation. The plan to is roll it out in high-end bars, restaurants and liquor shops. It can also be purchased at drizly.com and on the Sweetens Cove website.
Of course, all of this does not come cheap. Sweetens Cove sells for a premium price of $200 per bottle. And if you find it by the shot in your favorite bar it is going to put you back upwards of $50. That’s more than the green fees at the little course that could.
Sweetens Cove is an interesting side-hustle for Peyton Manning who, before he became the NFL’s only five-time MVP, was once a Tennessee Volunteer. Can you name the man who beat him out for the Heisman Trophy in 1997? (Hint: he has his own wine label!) This year also saw Manning unveil a new way of broadcasting NFL football with his “ManningCast” programs appearing simultaneously with ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” game broadcasts. Hosted from his and brother Eli’s “man cave” studios, the shows feature the Mannings yakking and yukking it up with celebrity guests while the game goes on on a big screen.
I can say from experience that the show, produced by Manning’s own Omaha Productions (he couldn’t pass that one up), is greatly enhanced by a shot … each quarter … of Sweetens Cove.
Lewis Cellars Race Car Red 2019
Earlier this year we profiled Randy Lewis, the former race car driver who founded, along with his late wife Debbie, the eponymous Lewis Cellars in the Napa Valley. Randy was in Aspen, his favorite town, to host a wine dinner at 7908. Shortly after that story ran, Randy sold Lewis Cellars to Justin Vineyards and Winery, which is a part of The Wonderful Company (owned by the Resnick family of Aspen). The price was not disclosed, but surely Randy will be able to afford any whiskey, or whisky, he likes. I hope they continue to produce this wonderful 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with the iconic label paying homage to Lewis’ career as a dashing driver. Racecar Red is touted as “Geared for pleasure, rich and deeply fruited with responsive steering and a balanced chassis.” Take a turn at the wheel.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org