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Eaves, Manning, Roddick: The Making Of Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey

There’s a new Tennessee whiskey coming to market that’s actually been in barrel for 13 years. While interesting news, this bourbon wouldn’t necessarily garner much more attention except for two major considerations. One is that master distiller/blender Marianne Eaves, formerly of Woodford Reserve and Castle & Key, is involved.

The other? The investors behind it have some major name power, including the likes of football great Peyton Manning, tennis legend Andy Roddick, sportscaster Jim Nantz and singer-songwriter Drew Holcomb, among others.

Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon
Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon (image via Sweetens Cove)

So, before we descend into specifics, let’s ask the obvious – can it be argued that the new Sweetens Cove Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey brand is a celebrity whiskey? Those behind it don’t you want to think of it in those terms, which makes sense. The idea of a “celebrity” involved in any fashion in the whiskey production process can be off putting for some. That being said, having well known personalities on-board with something like this does much for raising the spirit’s buzz level even before it is out of the gate (or bottle).

Sweetens Cove
The Sweetens Cove golf club (image via Sweetens Cove)

The story behind Sweetens Cove goes something like this, according to material from the Sweetens Cove brand. It started with a somewhat off the grid 9 hole golf course at the end of a gravel road in the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee, described by some because of its breathtaking setting as golf’s “Field of Dreams.” A group of friends (including the previously mentioned above) bought Sweetens Cove in 2019 knowing that, “if golf had national parks, this would be one – a rare, magical place to be protected, preserved and shared.”

As it happens with out of the way places like this, Sweetens never had a clubhouse or, even plumbing, for that matter. The place had its own traditions, however, and one of those was a celebratory shot of whiskey for first-timers on the first tee. Said friends thus “have been inspired by this special place, the unique traditions and the love of Tennessee that comes to life with every visit. So, they set out to create a bourbon whiskey that is much like the spirit of Sweetens – artisan, premium and to be discovered.”

Whiskey shots at Sweetens Cove (image via Sweetens Cove)

The specifics of this Tennessee bourbon tell a rather interesting tale of the direction this seems to be going in being targeted as a collector’s item, at least initially. A 13 year aged, cask strength American whiskey packaged in a higher end, commemorative “collectible design.” 14,000 bottles released just to start. The touch of a master distiller/blender. Also don’t forget that “all-star ownership group.”

If you are interestied in getting hold of a bottle, here’s how and the cost. Initially 500 out of the 14,000 bottles, each pricing around $200, will be available for pre-sale through the brand’s website on May 26 for residents of Tennessee. Afterwards bottles will begin rolling out through Tennessee, followed later in Georgia and then nationwide.

Sweetens Cove Investors
Some of the Sweetens Cove investors, including (left to right) Tom Nolan, Andy Roddick, Rob Collins, Mark Rivers, Peyton Manning (not pictured: Skip Bronson and Drew Holcomb) (image via Sweetens Cove)

Given that there has already been big media tent interviews done on this new bourbon with Manning and Roddick, let’s focus instead a bit more on hearing from others, including Mark Rivers, another one of the co-owners of Sweetens Cove, and also from Eaves herself (certainly she is most important for us from a whiskey perspective).

Rivers answered some questions for us below, and as for Eaves, a generous Q&A conducted in March and provided by the brand further below provides a lot more details on what this whiskey is all about (take note in particular about her mention of future planned single barrel releases).

The Whiskey Wash Interview with Mark Rivers

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): Talk a bit about the background of this whiskey. How did the idea of it come to be?

Mark Rivers: A group of friends bought an extraordinary, acclaimed golf course in rural Tennessee, with the mission to preserve, protect, celebrate and share it.  Before us, it had a wonderfully organic tradition of “taking a first shot before your first shot.”  People would drop off or leave bottles and it became part of the lore and experience. 

As we fell deeper in love with the place and spirit of Sweetens, we said: we should create our own local lore.  So, we decided to build a spirits business and start with a regional product that shared the characteristics of Sweetens – a hidden treasure, distinctly artisan and wonderfully authentic.

TWW: Who are the major “friends” and investors of this whiskey? We’ve seen the names of Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick, among others, mentioned.

Rivers: A great group is involved.  Peyton, Andy, Skip Bronson, Tom Nolan, Rob Collins and Drew Holcomb are all leaders and involved daily.  We’ve also got super golf folks like Jim Nantz, Brad Faxon, and Keith Mitchell and more.

TWW: Given that some of those involved in it would be considered “celebrities” what, in your opinion, separates Sweetens Cove from other “celebrity whiskeys” already on the market? Should this even be considered a celebrity whiskey?

Rivers: We launched this specifically to NOT be a celebrity product.  Our well-known names are behind it, not in front of it.  The most important objective here was to create an exceptional product that can be viewed among the best-in-class.  You won’t see us at festivals and red carpets and on billboards.  We take the process and the product seriously and want our efforts here to stand the test of time.

TWW: Why a whiskey? Why specifically a Tennessee whiskey?

Rivers: We wanted a Tennessee product that reflected the nature and story of Sweetens Cove.  In some ways, this first release is a “love letter” to Tennessee.  Whiskey was a part of the Sweetens ritual and is certainly a part of centuries of legacy in this state.   It was a natural.

TWW: Can you say where you sourced the whiskey from?

Rivers: Can’t really say but, it was distilled in Tennessee and we searched high-and-low for it, finding it in a warehouse in Kentucky after years of travel throughout the region.  We liberated and brought it back to Tennessee, its rightful home. 

But, that was just the first step – the most important step was having Marianne hand blend 100 barrels and create five distinctive batches.  That’s what you cannot get, won’t get, from almost any bourbon experience anywhere.  This is what makes it a one-of-a-kind, artisanal release and something we felt could be special.

TWW: How did you convince the likes of master distiller Marianne Eaves to put her input into helping to develop this?

Rivers: As Peyton Manning has said, we wanted a team of all-stars to do this and, Marianne is certainly that.  We were in pursuit of excellence, and she has been mission-critical to our goals there.  We started talking with her and found that we shared a common vision. 

Once I learned that she was born in Chattanooga, down the road from Sweetens, that sealed the deal!  One of the great joys in this entire process has been getting to know her and seeing the precision and polish that she brings to every aspect of the process.  What a pro she is.

TWW: At the end of the day how do you hope whiskey drinkers will embrace your initial product?

Rivers: Celebrate and volunteer to share!  Enjoy it and appreciate the love and craftsmanship behind a unique product.  And hopefully, it will remind the drinker of a special treasure, good friends and unforgettable moments.

Marianne Eaves
Master distiller/blender Marianne Eaves doing what she does best. (image via Sweetens Cove)

Sweetens Cove Brand Q&A With Master Distiller Marianne Eaves

How did you get started with the Sweetens Cove Bourbon project?

I received a message about a new Tennessee focused brand with a very pre- mium, yet stealth and mysterious approach. It was the first time I had heard of Sweetens Cove, and the amazing cult following they have built with the golf course near Chattanooga because of their passion for restoring and preserving that very special place really spoke to me. When I heard more about their vision, their story and their crew, I got really excited. We spent some time together on ideas and approach and, it all came together quickly. The Sweetens people want to create an ultra-premium, best-in-class bourbon that elevates Tennes- see-made offerings. Our passions and interests really aligned.

Is it true that you have some Tennessee roots, just like the Sweetens Cove brand?

I was born in Chattanooga, but didn’t spend much time there. I grew up in Kentucky and attended the University of Louisville. Nashville has always had a special place in my heart, too. I have so many great friends and memories there as I have grown in the spirits industry and the city also keeps blooming and blos- soming. With Sweetens, I love the Tennessee part of the story and it was really serendipitous that we share that legacy together.

Tell us about how you got your arms around the juice and the blending process?

The Sweetens team was able to get their hands on 100 exclusive barrels of 13-year aged Tennessee product that was being housed in a warehouse in Kentucky. They brought it back to Tennessee, its rightful place and I began the meticulous process to blend. I spent several days tasting and charting out every individual barrel. They were all unique and I had a ton of fun imagining ways they could be mingled together to create beautiful flavors. I found that there were four of those 100 barrels that I think are worthy of a single-barrel release.

And as you got going, what was the story that unfolded?

It became a strategy of creating five different batches, aligning different flavor profiles along the way. We will only have about 14,000 bottles – not cases – in total. So, this will be a hyper-limited, handcrafted release. One of the batches really jumped out because it had a strong caramel and vanilla aroma and linger- ing sweetness. Another had the warm cooperage of oak with sweet and spicy and lasting smoke finish. In the end, there are five different personalities and characteristics. I love them each, for a different reason and appeal.

And so, how would the Sweetens Cove first release stack up, as launch gets underway?

This bourbon is really exquisite. We hope it will become a cult product that bourbon aficionados and the best bars will all want. There aren’t many bottles altogether and each batch within the first release is distinctive. The batch isn’t going to be specifically marked, so you will have to be “in the know” to locate them with subtle identifiers. I love that this is top-notch Tennessee made product and believe like the Sweetens team, that there is a huge opportunity for higher-end Tennessee offerings in the market. No reason why a bar in Nashville or Knoxville or Chatt can’t have a local product that absolutely stacks up with the best whiskeys in the world and be proud to call it Tennessee-made and crafted.

Do you have a plan for the single-barrel release?

There were four barrels that I felt were too special to combine in the first batches, so yes! There will be single barrels to share and we’re working on a plan now for release later in 2020, with its own unique offering, packaging and story. Obviously, there are a lot of new artisan brands emerging – not just in Tennessee but, throughout the spirits space. Has the nature of the business changed, even in the last few years?

Since I started in the industry in 2009 there has been a tremendous change, and it continues now. Since starting my own business in the past year and having the freedom to travel the country I’m discovering more and more excellent locally made spirits. Part of this growth can be attributed to laws in the various states changing, due to passionate champions of the industry, who have encouraged craft products and entrepreneurship. Some of these new distilleries and brands are entering with the hopes of capitalizing on the growth, but they just don’t have passion for the product. I only want to work with brands who insist on continually raising the bar, for themselves and the industry as a whole. Sweetens is definitely in the latter category.

What do you see next with the Sweetens Cove brand?

We’ve been talking about that a bit in the last couple of weeks. We see some new and special opportunities out there that we will definitely kick the tires on. The Sweetens vision is so fresh and fun – they are treasure hunters, both with the golf and now the spirits, and are always looking for the undiscovered and special. I am excited to be a part of that journey with them, as we move ahead. Stay tuned!

And there is some exciting personal news for you. Can you share?

Yes! I’m pregnant and expecting any day now (March 9). This is my first child, a baby girl and, I am thrilled. She doesn’t know it yet, but she will spend a lot of her formative years in distilleries and tasting labs and road trips. Can’t wait to have my little wing-woman at my side.

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