VinePair Podcast: Can Celebrities Crack the Bourbon Code?

On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe look into the category of celebrity bourbon. Unlike vodka and tequila, there aren’t as many bourbon products on the market connected to celebrities. But why is that? And do bourbon drinkers even care about brands with famous backers?

For this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try one of the few celebrity bourbons on the market: Sweetens Cove. The brand is owned by Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick, but their names alone are just one of many reasons why the product is so acclaimed on the market. Tune in to learn more.

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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.

Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: And this is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.”

Z: It’s party day.

A: Oh, gosh. Anyone hung over?

Z: I’ve just been drinking tequila. We’re good.

A: Right, exactly. No hangover at all. It’s the best.

Z: I’ve been told that’s the case.

A: Yes. So I know on Monday, we had a conversation about flavored tequila and celebrity tequila. This wasn’t on purpose and it is a coincidence that today we are talking about why there are not a lot of well-known celebrity bourbons and celebrity whiskeys, but really celebrity bourbons. It’s a category that’s continuing to be on fire, but you don’t see a lot of well-known bourbons owned by celebrities. I think everyone knows that Matthew McConaughey is connected to Wild Turkey. He doesn’t own it.

J: No.

A: Creative director is the title that Campari USA has given him, who owns Wild Turkey. He does not own Campari, let’s be clear. There is a bourbon they make with him as well called Longbranch, which I think is his. But again, I don’t know how that works. Maybe there’s some sort of deal in terms of percentage of sales he makes in fee or something for Longbranch. I would say that’s kind of the only bourbon I could tell you immediately that has any connection to a celebrity. I remember the Mila Kunis Jim Beam commercials, and that’s really it.

J: Does she have a bourbon?

A: She was a big spokesman for Jim Beam.

J: OK. But it wasn’t hers?

A: No, it was a few years ago. They ran during all the sports.

Z: Let’s maybe differentiate briefly between celebrity endorsers, which have been around in bourbon and otherwise for a long time, versus a brand that is created maybe with the aid of an established distillery or drinks company. It’s very much the product of the celebrity as opposed to just, “Hey, we paid this person to say nice things about our product.”

A: Which I guess would be Longbranch, because it’s created with McConaughey. He’s very connected to the brand. Can you think of any others?

J: I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head, but I did look some up.

A: Let’s see if Zach can think of any and then you can share with us the one that you looked up.

J: OK.

Z: I could play this clever and say that I didn’t hear Joanna talking about this before we recorded. I could not really think of any either, well, for reasons that we’ll get into, I guess.

A: So what are some other ones then, Joanna?

J: Other ones that we’ve discussed before also at VinePair have been Bob Dylan’s Heaven’s Door.

A: It’s actually pretty good.

J: Right. Jamie Foxx has a bourbon, Brown Sugar Bourbon.

A: Did not know that.

J: We know about Ian Somerhalder’s Brother’s Bond Bourbon.

A: Who’s Ian Somerhalder?

J: He was in “Lost.”

A: No idea who that person is. I’ve never heard of him. Did you know who Ian Somerhalder was?

Z: No, and I watched every episode of “Lost.” Who did he play?

A: Sorry, Ian.

J: OK. Terry Bradshaw’s Bradshaw Bourbon.

A: Oh, God.

J: A lot of people related to the sports world, which makes sense.

A: One of the ones we are going to taste is in the bourbon world, but OK.

J: Scottie Pippen’s Digits Bourbon.

A: I had no idea, and why is it called Digits?

J: Really? I don’t know. I’m guessing it’s basketball-related.

Z: He has long fingers? I don’t know.

A: Long fingers, maybe.

J: OK.

A: Interesting.

J: It’s maybe not a bourbon, but Drake has Virginia Black American Whiskey.

Z: An American whiskey? That feels off brand for Drake.

J: I know, right?

A: Yeah, that feels off brand.

Z: If we’re talking whiskey, obviously, there’s Proper 12. That would be the most successful celebrity whiskey as far as I’m aware.

A: Yeah, let’s keep to bourbon. Also, because there are some other whiskeys, but I honestly don’t really know a lot of celebrity whiskeys at all. I don’t think most consumers do. Everybody knows Proper 12 because, again, we can go back to Monday’s conversation. But there’s that true iconic natural connection. And also, McGregor owned it before he sold it to Proximo. He was the brand. He designed the label. He owned the brand. He pushed the brand. But anyways, back to bourbon. Why do you guys think that is, besides potentially the obvious reasons?

J: I don’t know if this is an obvious reason, but I feel like the bourbon world takes itself very seriously. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it would reject the idea of celebrity spirits in the bourbon world.

A: I think that is a very good reason.

J: So nobody talks about them, and they only talk about the major houses. That’s all they care about.

A: I think that’s a very good reason. That wasn’t my thinking of the obvious reason, but it’s a very good reason.

Z: I want to piggyback on that and add to it that it’s not just that the trade itself feels that way, but I think American consumers feel that way. Bourbon is held in a different regard.

J: Taters.

A: No, taters?

J: No, I’m talking about taters. I’m talking about bourbon drinkers.

A: They’re called taters?

J: Yeah.

A: Oh, I didn’t know that.

J: I know this from Aaron Goldfarb. Anyway, yes. I mean trade and consumers.

Z: Whatever you call them —

A: Call them taters from now on.

Z: The taters, apparently, I think they treat the history and legacy of bourbon differently than almost any other spirit in America. Some of that’s because it’s America’s spirit. It’s made here exclusively. We can talk about this in light of what we’re going to be tasting. But I even think you meet a lot of people who turn their nose up at anything that’s not from Kentucky now. There are some historic reasons for that. It’s also kind of silly, but there is a lot of that Kentucky snobbery around bourbon. We think about how these new products are launched by some of these large distilleries or conglomerates. It’s like they find an old defunct label or distillery name or brand name and revitalize it. It’s got the word “old” in it somewhere or it sounds like someone who settled in Appalachia 250 years ago. People respond to that in a way that they don’t respond with the same degree of fidelity to the history of all these other spirits. That is what it is. But I think that’s the biggest obstacle to any kind of new brand; it has to be, it has to fit into people’s preconceived notions about what bourbon is. We think of bourbon as American history in a way that we just don’t associate with anything else.

A: The thing I thought was obvious maybe is not, because I think your answers are much clearer. I think it could have been easier had bourbon not had its renaissance.

Z: Oh, that’s a good point.

A: If we didn’t have taters. In the ’90s, they couldn’t give this sh*t away. Bourbon was not popular.

J: We know the Pappy story.

A: Yes. If we look at this with what’s happening in tequila, we cannot forget that Mexico is a very poor country. Even now, with the amount of successful tequila brands that there are, there are still struggling distilleries in Mexico that have access to great agave. They are happy to have an entrepreneur from outside of the country come in with foreign currency and buy the liquid and put their name on it. They’re happy to do that. There are lots of fixers that will help you figure that out, etc. Bourbon is not willing to let you do that anymore. It is really, really, really hard to get access to good juice because they want all the juice for themselves at this point. And those distilleries that couldn’t give it away now need to keep it because they’re selling too much of it.

Z: Especially if you want already aged liquid, that’s the real issue. It’s not that corn is hard to get your hands on. And raw distillate is probably not hard to get your hands on. But if you want to have something that you’re going to put on the market, not even at a crazy price point but at $50 or $100 for your bottle retail, you need aged spirit. That is the part that’s really hard to get or you have to have a sh*tload of patience. You got to say, “I’m buying this and I’m going to commit to aging it for eight to 10 years and we’re going to release my celebrity bourbon in 10 years.” If anyone is doing that, I think they would be well received because it would show a degree of commitment. But if you’re just trying to go in and buy juice, it’s not even like getting into other whiskeys, like rye or whatever, where you don’t need to age as long generally. You can just go buy it as an MGP product and wait a couple of years. But with high-quality bourbon, no one can get their hands on it. There’s no loose juice floating around.

A: What’s interesting is the bourbon we’re about to try, they did get their hands on, which is really interesting. We’ll try it at the end of the episode. Joanna, were you going to say something?

J: If the product is bad, it’s just not going to fly. I think that’s the other part of this. You can’t just rely on the celebrity in this category to sell their product. It has to be good. And so many of them aren’t.

A: We’ve realized this with lots of bourbon. It’s really hard to make young bourbon be good.

J: Exactly.

A: The other thing that I will say, and this is speaking now as someone who grew up in Alabama.

J: You play this card when you want to.

A: Yeah, I do. There’s not a lot else to be proud of. We don’t like carpetbaggers, and we don’t take kindly to them. Like it or not, bourbon is seen as a Southern spirit, and there are not a lot of authentic Southern celebrities.

J: There’s the McConaughey thing.

A: That is why it works, because he’s a Texan. And I think people are willing to accept him as the spokesperson because he has this connection to the South.

Z: Well, this is an important question here: is Texas the South?

A: OK, look, we can split hairs here. It’s f*cking not. But in the world of America, it is. There are a lot of people who would say it is. He’s not originally just from Texas; I think his family is from Kentucky and his parents went to the University of Kentucky. He tells that story that he is Southern. The bourbon we’re going to try, they are Southern guys. So I think that is where it works or there is just this deeper connection to the liquid throughout their career. I think Bob Dylan’s works because he’s a musician and musicians drink bourbon.

Z: He’s so connected with Nashville and Memphis and all these places.

A: Exactly, it just makes a lot of sense. And that’s why I think there probably are a lot of bourbons from country music singers that we don’t know. We’re sitting here and there’s probably listeners being like, “You f*cking idiot, there’s like four of them.” I think that that is why it’s been harder. Again, I think in the ’90s, the bourbon world would have accepted anybody from anywhere. But now, part of the legend of bourbon is the South. That’s why you’ve had so many bourbons from around the country that are amazing; ones being made in New York State, in Michigan, etc., still having a really hard time becoming liquids that people actually want to chase and hunt for. The taters go hunting. Like it or not, it’s a Southern spirit. I really think that that is a huge issue. Now we’ve talked a little bit about it, because I think we’re all on the same page as to why it hasn’t happened, do you guys want to try this bourbon?

Z: Sure. Let’s do it.

J: Tell us about it.

A: We have two bottles in front of us. This is Sweetens Cove. So Sweetens Cove is a really famous nine-hole golf course outside of Chattanooga, Tenn. It is considered to be one of the greatest nine- hole golf courses in the country. People are obsessed with it.

J: It’s exclusive, right?

A: Very exclusive to play it. And I guess it had fallen on hard times. Two people who play it a lot are Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick and a few of their friends, and they decided they would buy Sweetens Cove. We all know Peyton Manning has lots of Southern history. His father played at Ole Miss. He played at the University of Tennessee. His brother played at Ole Miss. This is a Southern family. Andy Roddick was born in Nebraska, but then basically grew up in Texas and then Florida when he went to train. So he’s also Southern. I think he has a home in Nashville or something, I read. He is also very much tied to the South. They buy this golf course. Apparently, because of who they are, they are offered to buy 100 barrels of Tennessee bourbon. There are a lot of rumors as to where this bourbon comes from. Some people think it’s Dickel, Dickel being the other pretty well-known distillery in Tennessee, besides that one with Jack in the name. But no one really knows. It’s Tennessee bourbon. People think it’s Dickel because no one really thinks that there’s any way that any other distillery would have had bourbon that was 16 years old in barrel still.

J: Right, and that’s good.

A: And that’s good. Dickel is a great distillery. Just as a plug for there, if you ever want pretty high- quality bourbon, you don’t have to have it come from Kentucky, just go buy Dickel. So they came out with Sweetens Cove Release 1 and it was one of the first celebrity spirits that a lot of people and a lot of critics — including Aaron Goldfarb, who writes for us and is who taught us about the word tater — said it’s really, really, really f*cking good. We have Release 2 in front of us. They do it as a cask strength, so this is 113.7 proof. Inside of this are bourbons that are 4, 6, and 16 years old. Because these bourbons are over $200, this month they also have released Sweetens Cove Kennessee, which is a blend of Tennessee and Kentucky bourbons.

J: Very clever.

A: Yes. And this only comes in at a little over 50 bucks. I believe this is their shot at trying to be a brand that, now that it’s gotten a ton of press and is doing really well, can now be found around the country. It’s not the easiest to find Sweetens Cove Release 1 or Release 2. It’s going to be a little easier to find rivals no more kindred spirits with Sweetens Cove Kennessee.

Z: Do you think they considered Tennesucky as a name?

A: That was actually a good one. Zach, that was a good joke. How long do you sit on that for?

Z: The last two minutes or so.

A: That was a good one, Zach. I talked about the order we should taste these in and now I actually think we should do the reverse of what I said. I think we should taste Release 2 first because this is the thing that they’re really well known for. And then we can decide if we think Kennessee is representative. If you’re buying Kennessee, it’s because you’ve read all the press on how delicious actual Sweetens Cove is. Is it just as good? Let’s drink some Sweetens. Also, I used to be a really big golfer. I used to play golf a lot when I lived in ‘Bama.

Z: Oh, I see.

A: I’d like to play Sweetens Cove. So if anyone’s listening, and you’d like to let me play Sweetens Cove…

Z: Have you played a round of golf in New York?

A: Yeah, I’ve played on Staten Island before. It’s classic Staten Island, the groundskeeper of the golf courses was also growing grapes along the fairways to make garage wine. I loved it so much. I’ve never played Trump. I have a friend who plays Trump all the time in the Bronx. He’s like, “They’re renaming it. It’s fine.” It is considered the best city courses, which is really annoying. All right, it smells good.

Z: It does. I don’t feel like I have a great handle on what differentiates anything Tennessee versus Kentucky.

J: Oh, me neither.

A: I think the whole reason Tennessee Whiskey was created was, at the time, this desire to be different as a state. They were also making whiskey. As now the story goes, Uncle Nearest taught Jack Daniel’s how to charcoal filter and distill. And that charcoal filtering is what then created what Jack Daniel’s is. It’s the only thing that really makes it a Tennessee whiskey; it’s still technically a bourbon. To differentiate itself, Dickel does make a Tennessee whiskey but then also has always made bourbon as well. You can’t go up against the gentleman at this point. I think that that’s why we may never think of it, because Jack Daniel’s is such a strong brand and says it’s Tennessee whiskey, not bourbon. Even though technically, it is.

Z: I’m amazed at how smooth this is for the proof.

A: I mean, it’s really good.

Z: Yeah.

A: It’s really, really good. As celebrity spirits go —

J: I mean, this is definitely it. This doesn’t need the celebrity.

A: No, it really doesn’t.

Z: To be fair to them, it’s not on the bottle. You don’t see Peyton Manning’s giant forehead staring back at you.

A: OK, just because you don’t like him…

Z: I love Peyton Manning. He’s one of my favorite football players of all time, actually.

A: Oh, really? Oh, good.

Z: Absolutely. I enjoyed beating his ass in the Super Bowl a lot. That was a lot of fun.

A: I mean, I guess he just does have a giant forehead.

Z: It’s not a secret.

A: No, it’s not a secret. This is really good bourbon.

J: It’s really good. Cask strength isn’t my thing, but this is very good.

Z: Let’s be clear, part of the story of this brand, too, is not just the celebrities, but also a celebrity master blender. I mean, Marianne blends this and she’s incredibly accomplished. I don’t think Andy Roddick is as responsible as she is for its success.

A: No, it’s true. Marianne Eaves is very famous and she makes these bourbons. Yes, very true. Honestly, I can’t get over how good this is.

Z: Are you guys going to fight over who gets the rest of the bottle?

A: No.

J: No.

Z: I have my own. I don’t have to share with either of you.

J: That’s true.

Z: I might have to share it with my wife, I suppose.

A: She’s a bourbon drinker, right?

Z: Oh, yeah. She’s actually on a work trip right now, so I get to have these all to myself for a couple days.

J: Can you finish it before she gets back?

A: How far away?

Z: She’s apparently in the South. She’s in Texas. She’s certainly drinking bourbon there, I assure you.

A: All right. They just don’t make barbecue the same way. It’s not right.

J: But it is the South.

A: They’re not the South.

J: What are they?

A: They’re their own country. They’re Texas forever.

Z: They’re f*cking Texas, that’s all they are.

A: Texas forever. Anyways, so.

Z: I actually think this is a very good representation at a lower price point.

A: Oh, we haven’t even tasted it yet, Zach.

Z: That’s where we are. You told me that’s where we’re going.

J: So you’re drinking the Kennesee already?

A: Yeah. He probably had his pre-poured, because he’s prepared. I think the nose is very similar, actually.

J: It’s opened up a little bit.

A: The Release 2 is giving off more. I’m sure the aged whiskey is providing something more, I would assume, since they’re not putting the age statement on the back of the Kennessee.

J: I was going to say, what’s the blend here?

A: They’re not telling you the blend, so it’s probably a much younger whiskey. If you put an age statement on the whiskey, it has to be the youngest. So they’re not doing that here.

Z: Where you see the difference is on the finish. There’s just an unmistakable hotness to this that speaks to that younger spirit. Because they’re trying to put this out at a similar proof, it’s a little lower. It’s 110 instead of 113, but still, that’s high for a distilled spirit. You get to more of the youthfulness of the distillate. You’re not getting the roundness and smoothness that you get out of the Tennessee Bourbon. You can’t quite get that at this price point, I don’t think.

J: It’s a little sweeter to me.

A: It’s a little sweeter. I like it, I think it’s really good. I think that that toasted sugar maple wood is what’s giving you that. It’s probably helping the younger whiskey be a little bit rounder and give it a little bit more. I just want to say the word again. Speaking of the proof and speaking of the taters, the taters really care about proof. I think that’s also where some of the celebrity spirits that you see go wrong, because they don’t understand the core community. They’re like, “Oh, we’re going to create a spirit that is accessible to everybody,” but you kind of need the core community to fall in love with it and buy in and not go after it. The reason I think this liquid has never been attacked is because of the first one’s cask strength. The second one is a little bit less than cask strength. They don’t put cask strength on the bottle. But it’s at this higher proof that the tasters believe is what bourbon needs. Part of what taters want to do is they want to water it down themselves. They want to add their own water to make it at the level that they’re OK with. They want it to open up their way. That’s sort of what’s happened in the world of bourbon. When you lower the proof yourself, as the distiller and the blender, you are then taking that control away from the taters. The taters would like that control. It’s such a good word, tater.

J: I hope people don’t email us and be like, “You’re misusing this term.”

A: I don’t care. Now I want tater tots for dinner. But I think they’re both really well done. With most celebrity spirits, you don’t really know. But I like that they don’t even have their signatures on the bottle. The only name on both bottles is Marianne Eaves. I think it’s amazing they’re giving her all the credit. It’s just really smart. These are both very well-done bourbons.

Z: Yeah, can’t argue there.

A: Wow. Well, I think this is the way to do it, if you’re going to do a celebrity bourbon.

J: Yeah.

A: These are both really good and a nice little nip to get on a Friday.

J: Yes.

A: Zach and Joanna, I’ll talk to you Monday.

J: Talk to you Monday.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

Published: May 9, 2022

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