This bourbon story has everything: Andy Roddick, a shed in Tennessee and a trailer in Buda
Like all good drinking stories, this one involves a traveling circus, a champion tennis player and the capital of Texas.
Well. Maybe all tales don't have those things, but they should.
Drinkers hip to the whiskey world might have heard of Sweetens Cove, the Tennessee bourbon brand named after a golf course near Chattanooga and Nashville. It’s booze with a big-name backer in Peyton Manning, but it’s also one with deep Austin ties. The other owners include tennis hall-of-famer Andy Roddick, Tiff’s Treats co-founder Leon Chen, Kendra Scott CEO Tom Nolan, Silicon Labs chairman Nav Sooch and real estate developer Mark Rivers — Austinites all. (Nashville musician Drew Holcomb also is on board.) And trailblazing distiller Marianne Eaves blended the company’s second release while living in a trailer in Buda and working out of Austin proper.
That new release is launching in Texas, where bottles are now in on shelves (the suggested retail price is $200) and in bars and restaurants. So, it’s a sip that’s about as Texan as it is Tennessean.
Again, like all good drinking stories — OK, but for real this time — it started with a round of shots.
How Sweetens Cove came to be
Rivers says that he and Roddick were trawling around the internet a few years ago, looking for a 9-hole golf course where they could kick back for a casual round or two. They stumbled upon the Sweetens Cove course in Tennessee, established in 2014. They took the trip.
Rivers says it had an “amazing unicorn design.” On the way out, he remembers thinking, “Why don't we try to do something together here to really protect and preserve this place? Because it was an endangered, extraordinary place. I've said a couple times, if golf had national parks, it would have been one of the national parks.”
Rivers, Roddick and the other owners bought the course in 2019. It didn’t have functional plumbing or a clubhouse. “It was truly ‘Field of Dreams’ meets 'Tin Cup,’” Rivers says.
One thing the course had: vibes to spare. Rivers likens it to summer camp, and like any summer camp, the traditions were the best part.
One of the rituals that they discovered at the course was "taking a shot of whiskey before your first shot on your first tee," Rivers says. He continues: "It was stacks of bottles in a shed, essentially a tool shed, asphalt, in no order.” The bottles were often drained by half or more, and the spirits were of varying quality and age. Blow a shot glass clean. Pick your poison.
“We said to ourselves, well, why don't we create our own bourbon, a bourbon that really celebrates the spirit of this place as much as the physicality of it? The spirit of friendship, of discovery, of treasure,” Rivers says.
"It wasn't an obvious thought,” Roddick says of entering the beverage world. The retired athlete has already made a name for himself several times over — former No. 1-ranked tennis player in the world, philanthropist through Austin’s Andy Roddick Foundation, husband to actress/model Brooklyn Decker (who popped into a recent Zoom with the American-Statesman to sneak some of her husband’s bourbon). "It wasn't something that I sat around, you know, five years ago and I was like, ‘Gosh, I just have to get into the spirits industry.'"
But the pieces gradually fell into place. They just needed, well, someone who could bring Sweetens Cove bourbon to life. They found their quarterback in Marianne Eaves, Kentucky’s first woman to be named a master distiller.
How Marianne Eaves blends a world-class bourbon
The barrels of whiskey might be from producers in Tennessee — Eaves calls it a "treasure hunt" — but the blender herself is kind of from all over. Her partner, Kevin Venardos, runs the traveling Venardos Circus.
"He had several dates in Texas, scheduled for right when the pandemic started,” she says.
She first joined Sweetens Cove in 2019 after the owners reached out to her via email, on the recommendation of a production facility they were working with. The brand’s sense of mystery and exclusivity intrigued her: “They didn't want to be the next Jack Daniel's. They really wanted to elevate Tennessee and do something special.”
And the 100 barrels of 13-year-old whiskey they had for her to taste sure didn’t hurt. Her first Sweetens Cove blend came out last spring.
New Austin restaurants:Seafood at Simi Estiatorio, pizza at Love Supreme and more
Eaves and Venardos had their daughter, Andi, on March 13, 2020. They bopped around the country a little, and Eaves is in Colorado right now, but she did the blending for the second release while she was hanging out in Hays County.
“We decided this past Thanksgiving, after having a successful socially distant circus in October, that we would try a Thanksgiving show and be in Buda.” The circus shows didn’t go too well, Eaves says, but the venue, Buck’s Backyard, invited the young family to stay awhile on the property.
“Luckily, this team is extremely flexible with me,” she says of her mobile laboratory. "Essentially, I had them ship samples to me at a local distillery.” She would pick up the spirit samples and try blends at home, or sometimes right at the distillery or from her co-working space at Vuka in Austin.
While Eaves was in Central Texas, she soaked up the culture, including judging at the Texas Whiskey Festival.
"Hanging out in Texas, I had made it a point through my circus travels to make friends,” she says. “I visited a few different distilleries, and they knew about the project and what I was doing and talking about, about blending and the differences in the profiles of Texas whiskey versus Tennessee-produced whiskey.”
Eaves formed a relationship with Heather Greene of Blanco distillery Milam & Greene. The two hung out and talked about Greene’s blending process. Eaves says those conversations probably influenced how she went about her blend for Sweetens Cove.
“It's still the same very thoughtful process, and a little bit neurotic, I would say. Sometimes I am obsessive about flavors and nuances, and to a point that it probably was driving Mark and the team crazy,” she says with a laugh.
The new Sweetens Cove release is a blend of three different ages of bourbon, the oldest being 16 years old, Eaves says. During the process, she went through the older stuff first. If you’ve ever read the label on a bottle of bourbon, you’re familiar with the colorful tasting notes that come into a blend. The 16-year-old was “exceptional,” Eaves says, with a red wine quality and notes of clove, baking spices and dark red fruit. It had a "mature, almost antiquey kind of oak characteristic,” she says. A 6-year-old was “much more rich and viscous, with the dark, sweet notes, the caramel, the molasses, those deep spices, like the leather and black pepper,” and the toasted, charred flavor of the barrel “was even more dominant."
Eaves found the blend of those two whiskeys to be wonderful, but it was leaning heavy. She introduced a 4-year-old with notes of honey, citrus, apple peel and palm fruit. "It creates that longer finish, too, because it had this nice warm, rich, clean, sweet finish.”
It’s a full-palate experience, she says.
Sweetens Cove, now in Texas
It bears repeating: Eaves, Roddick and Rivers all say that Sweetens Cove is not meant to be a mass-market booze. It’s a limited-edition product. Roddick estimates upward of 13,000 bottles of the first blend were released in Georgia and Tennessee last year. The team’s heard of retailers putting one-bottle limits in place for customers.
"The demand far outpaced the supply," Roddick says, adding that “we kind of want to dip our toes and make sure we know what we're doing, make sure the processes are right.”
If the expansion into Texas goes well, “then it changes the narrative a little bit,” Roddick says. The conversation hasn’t really moved to a nationwide rollout yet. “We want to make sure Texas really enjoys what we're bringing, what we're offering,” he says.
“This is this is only our third state, so we have 47 ago," Rivers says. "I think Andy's right. We'd rather walk and get it right than run and misstep."
Roddick is excited about the rollout on an admittedly selfish level. He’s excited to walk into a familiar bar or restaurant and order his own bourbon brand. He knows Texans love their whiskey, and they know their stuff. The bottle is meant to be shared, and for most of the brand’s existence, the “experiential” part of enjoying a drink has been missing because of the pandemic’s effect on bars and gathering. As Austin starts opening up more, Roddick likes to imagine sipping the drink at a bar like Mean-Eyed Cat.
“It is very different having someone reach out from Georgia and say, ‘Hey, we enjoyed your product,’” Roddick says, “but then having your friends from home say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we just got the last bottle at Spec’s’? It's a cause for celebration.”
The tennis star's family first moved to Austin in 1986, and he admits the city’s changed: “It used to be the best kept secret, and now it's nobody's secret.” But he's excited that Austin still has the kind of energy that can help birth a special product.
"There's space for a lot of different kind of ways of thinking, and so that's probably my favorite thing about Austin,” Roddick says. “And it's maybe the one constant. The buildings get higher, everything gets bigger, a little more traffic, but the motivation of thought and innovation has always been there. It just wears a different hat now.”
Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor for the American-Statesman. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @webbeditor.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Silicon Labs CEO Tyson Tuttle was part of the ownership team of Sweetens Cove, according to information provided by the company. Tuttle is not a co-owner; Silicon Labs chairman Nav Sooch is.