A year after the launch of the star-studded Sweetens Cove brand, this Marianne Eaves-blended bourbon is hitting shelves in Kentucky.
The story of Sweetens Cove begins south of the Kentucky border at a golf course affectionately called “the little golf course that could.” A few famous friends discovered the nine hole course tucked between the Tennessee mountain ranges, lacking plumbing but full of natural beauty. Although the business had had its ups and downs, the group, led by Mark Rivers and including brothers Peyton and Eli Manning of football fame, sportscaster Jim Nantz, tennis player Andy Roddick, and Tennessee singer-songwriter Drew Holcomb, saw the potential in this little course and loved the whiskey tradition of taking a shot before teeing off.
But the group thought the course merited its own bourbon, one that paid respect to the spirits of discovery and camaraderie that Sweetens Cove Golf Course brought them. So Sweetens Cove Spirits was born, with Rivers and Co. bringing on Marianne Eaves as their Master Blender.
The Kentucky release is a homecoming of sorts for Eaves, who gained fame as the first female master distiller in the Bluegrass State since Prohibition. She began her bourbon career there, working for big names like Brown-Forman and start-ups like Castle & Key before striking out on her own, consulting on whiskey, wine, and more from a mobile lab as she travels the country. Born in Tennessee, her connection to Sweetens Cove also felt natural – and when handed the reins to the first 100 Tennessee 13-year bourbon barrels, she dove in to tasting to each and every one.
Their first release, Sweetens Cove 2020, was very limited, made up of just 5 small batches and 4 single barrels from the initial set of 100, totaling around 14,000 bottles and only found in Tennessee and Georgia. The 2021 release, however, will top 40,000 bottles – and will now be distributed across six states, including bourbon’s home state of Kentucky.
This year’s release, Tennessee Bourbon 2021, blends 4, 6, and 16-year-old barrels, which the brand says allows Eaves to truly showcase her palate’s prowess.
“[Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon 2021] is primarily 6 year whiskey with an even split between 16 and 4,” says Eaves. “It was five different lots in three different ages, and it was really fun for me to go through the process of blending all those together. I started with my signature process of tasting every single barrel, taking notes and pulling the ones that I wanted to keep an eye on, whether they were really good or it felt like they were a little unbalanced, and in little bits at a time pulling those all together. In this release I started with the older product first, creating small batches and adding in the younger product layer by layer. I felt really strongly that if at some point it was as good as it was going to get, I would stop adding the younger 4 year product.”
Eaves breaks the cask strength, 113.7 proof blend down for us further.
“The 16 year bourbon to me has this really beautiful kind of red wine quality, nice baking spices, clove, ripe red fruit, and dark sweetness. The 6 year old had more of that dark sweetness and dark spice, leather and pepper, and even more prominent oak. With the 16 year you had that antiquey, very mature oak that meshed with the red wine characteristics, but with the six year it was more like that wood sugar and oak resin and it really balanced those dark characteristics in different lots. So I had those two combined together, and it was a beautiful expression of Tennessee Bourbon, but it really did kind of need something to lift it up, so that’s where the 4 year old came in, with the honey and the citrus fruit and the apple peel, pom fruit, those types of notes. It had a little more grain present, and a little more sweet, round mouthfeel, so the blend needed that influence. I’m really happy with how it all came together.”
The final expression may not be what bourbon lovers expect when they see the word Tennessee on the label. While older Tennessee Bourbon can sometimes have a distinctly mineral and citrus flavor profile, the 2021 release of Sweetens Cove contains a bit more balance.
“I’m really excited to share this product with Kentucky – it’s a profile I’m really proud of,” says Eaves. “I think that folks more and more are starting to appreciate the art of blending as a way to create unique profiles, if you’re tasting something that has had a truly thoughtful hand to do the blending process, its completely different than a standard profile that you think of from that particular source. So even though we don’t disclose the source, some people have this idea of what a Tennessee Bourbon is going to taste like already, but I think we’re delivering a really unique experience that people are going to love.”
And I love delivering a surprise, and that full palate experience is really important to me. So having a nose that offers something that is a little bit different from the palate – its like a treasure hunt not just for the product but in the experience of the palate itself, which is something that we value a lot at Sweetens Cove.”
While the brand will never stray too far from its Tennessee roots, Rivers confirms that they are not totally tied to Tennessee sources.
“Even if we blended with products beyond our borders, I think you’d always find a little Tennessee bourbon in there – it’s rooted in our brand and in our story and in our place,” says Rivers.
“I really appreciate Marianne’s artisanship in this process,” he continues. “There may not be anyone more suited to talk about the blending of Sweetens Cove Tennessee bourbon in Kentucky. We have so much respect for the history and legacy of bourbon that comes out of Kentucky, and we hope people in Kentucky will have that same respect for the history and legacy of the craftsmanship of bourbon out of Tennessee, especially with someone like Marianne involved.”
Eaves admits that her process is all hers – she only presents blends to Rivers, Holcomb, Nantz, Roddick, and the Mannings when the blend is complete by her exacting standards. The only input the men have is when she isn’t happy with the product she’s working with.
“Before the pandemic, Andy and Drew had the chance to get together with Marianne when she was blending the 2020 release and it was really fun – they were somewhat awestruck seeing her do her thing, like they had front row seats to a concert or to the U.S. Open,” remembers Rivers. “We had front row seats to the Marianne Open and everybody just loved it.
“I hope Marianne would agree that we haven’t pressured her on timelines or price points – rehearse your blending, sample your barrels, dial it up, dial it down, just do your thing,” he continues. “We’re ready when you’re ready. And there have been times where she’s not finding what she wants to go into the blending, we’ve had to stop and find her more.”
The idea of building the blend with no specific flavor profile in mind may seem daunting to some, but Eaves revels in the freedom.
“That’s the beauty of this team and this brand is that they’re not afraid of things being different each time,” she says. “It would be concerning if we were trying to hit the same profile for this premium product with every release, but we’re just going out to find the best product available and pulling those pieces together in the most beautiful way that we can. That journey of discovery and the treasure hunt allows us to embrace that uncertainty knowing that we have the scale and the right contacts to be able to find and make excellent product.”
You can find Sweetens Cove 2021 Blend on shelves in Kentucky this week for a suggested retail price of around $200. If you miss out on this release, don’t fret – the brand promises one to two more releases this year, including a specialty release like last Christmas’ Foursome.
“We’re proud to be a Tennessee Bourbon sharing our brand in Kentucky, and we’re not going to shy away from the idea that we can be in Kentucky and be enjoyed by as many people there as it is in Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Colorado,” says Rivers.