To most people, “American whiskey” and “Kentucky bourbon” are basically the same thing: Think of Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, or Wild Turkey.
Yet the top-selling brown spirit from the U.S. does not hail from the Bluegrass State. Nor is it, even technically, a bourbon. Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee whiskey, as its label conspicuously notes, and in 2019 it produced one-third higher volume than Jim Beam.
Despite its ubiquity, the category has been historically underappreciated. A bottle of Jack Daniel’s usually costs no more than $20. George Dickel, its closest competitor, comes to about the same. Nelson’s Green Brier is considered high-end at $30. While Kentucky has spent the last decade carving out a sizable premium segment for whiskey—Michter’s, Willet, and Pappy Van Winkle are the clearest examples—that phenomenon had traditionally stopped short at the state’s southern border.
The style got an all-star upgrade in May, when NFL legend Peyton Manning announced his involvement in a Tennessee whiskey called Sweetens Cove. As one of six principal owners, he is joined by other notable sports retirees, including his brother Eli and tennis star Andy Roddick. Named after a celebrated 9-hole golf course outside Chattanooga, Tenn.—which Manning also co-owns—the small batch run of 13,500 bottles came with a price tag of $200 apiece.
Initially rolled out in Tennessee and Georgia, it quickly sold out. A second release in July did the same. Fans discovered it as a complex, 13-year-old expression blended by another all-pro: Marianne Eaves, who trained under Chris Morris at Woodford Reserve and eventually became the first female master distiller in Kentucky.
This month, Sweetens Cove will exhaust the remainder of its inaugural supply. “This whole thing has really hit fast,” says Manning. “Nobody knew what to expect, but once word got out that we had hired a star in Marianne Eaves, people started drinking it, and they liked the story that goes with it. It’s a fit with the golf course—this hidden Tennessee treasure. And that’s what drew me to it, a Tennessee connection.”
Legally, the state’s native whiskey is a more specific sort of bourbon. It has to hail from the state, and it adds a step of charcoal filtration prior to barreling—a traditional refinement known as the Lincoln County Process that “softens the profile,” according to Eaves.
Manning is as appropriate an emissary as any to uplift the Tennessean variation. His Hall of Fame career kicked off at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and he maintains a house in the Chattanooga area, not far from the golf course. His wife and her family are from Memphis, and he is a partner in Saloon 16, a sports-themed watering hole down the street from his alma mater.
Over the past decade, the state has had a few upstarts, including Chattanooga Whiskey, Heaven’s Door in Nashville (in a partnership with Bob Dylan), and most recently, Uncle Nearest out of Shelbyville. These have legitimized liquids inching closer to triple-figure price tags.
“Tennessee deserves this long-overdue elevation,” Eaves says. “The state has just as impressive and long a history in making fine whiskey as Kentucky. Folks just don’t pay much attention to it because, for such a long time, it’s been treated as a mass-market shooter—or something to be mixed with Coke.”
While what’s left of the current stock unloads, Eaves will be formulating the next iteration of Sweetens Cove that’s set to come out in February. “Some of the ideas that Marianne has are real game changers, and we’re eager to build off of this,” Manning says. She was recently named the brand’s official “master blender-in-residence.”
New markets, notably Texas and several other southern states, are in the game plan. “We’ve taken it real slow and chosen quality over speed,” Manning says. “A lot of people can have a flash of brilliance, doing something good for one year. But in any sport or business, consistency and longevity are what you’re looking for. We’re not sitting back on our laurels.” And Tennessee whiskey won’t be sitting on the bottom shelf either.
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