For Austin-based Tennis superstar Andy Roddick, years of preparation have all been leading to this moment. No, it’s not the final match of the U.S. Open, nor is it a star-studded gala for the athlete’s nonprofit foundation. Right now, at this cozily lit cocktail speakeasy in the heart of downtown Austin, Roddick is finally stepping into his latest role: one the city’s newest bourbon moguls.
And it’s been a long time coming — a long time coming. Though Roddick and his team of investors (among them football great Peyton Manning and legendary sports commentator Jim Nantz) first conceived of this new bourbon — named Sweetens Cove, after their bucolic Tennessee golf course — almost half a decade ago, the COVID-19 pandemic ensured the celebration behind the spirit’s initial two-state 2020 rollout would be relegated to the saturated world of Zoom interviews and virtual tastings.
“From the start, we wanted to get our friends in a room, taste it together, and have that moment that captures what Sweetens Cove is really about: sharing these miniature, unforgettable moments with your friends and loved ones,” Roddick tells CultureMap.
An above par beginning
While neither he nor his investor friends knew it at the time, the story of Sweetens Cove bourbon began partly when Roddick’s business partner, real estate magnate Mark Rivers, became familiar with a 72-acre golf course in Tennessee, one whose rustic charm cast a spell over Rivers and his friends.
“It had none of the frills that you would think about in the traditional sense and in the golf world,” Roddick says, “but it had this heartbeat and culture.”
Adds Rivers, “It’s a really low-key place, like Field of Dreams meets Tin Cup. It felt like this summer camp you couldn’t wait to return to.”
While club regulars may have been wary at first, Roddick and a cluster of other investors who purchased the golf club in 2019 made it their mission to preserve and bolster what makes the club special, including one unique tradition that would come to change Roddick’s life forever.
“You’d take a shot of bourbon with your group before your first tee, then you’d leave the bottle behind on an old barrel to share with the next group,” Roddick says.
Accordingly, Rivers recalls fond memories of stumbling across storage sheds of half-empty bourbon bottles on their newfound property, and blowing the dust off shot glasses before teeing up.
“We wanted to continue that tradition, elevate it, and really be a part of it,” he says. “That’s when we said to ourselves, ‘We should have our own bourbon.’”
From there, Roddick describes the journey into the bourbon business as a series of “mini-wins,” chief among them, securing a financial investment from his golf buddy, NFL quarterback legend Peyton Manning — in “less than a day.” However, there was one glaring roadblock for the newly formed team: By their own admission, most of them knew jack squat about bourbon, much less how it’s made.
“I wouldn’t even call myself a bourbon expert now,” Rivers says with a laugh.
A perfectionist through and through, Roddick says from the outside looking in, the spirit business “seem[ed] like a pretty intimidating space.”
“I’m a firm believer that just because you were good at one thing, that doesn’t mean you’re good at all things,” he says. What’s more, Roddick knew the perils of attaching his name (and celebrity) to a subpar product. “We only get one chance here. [If] we fumble, then it’s going to be, ‘Andy and Payton suck and they’re laughable.’”
“Andy, he’s more than a name,” says Leon Chen, co-founder of Austin-based dessert delivery company Tiff’s Treats. Chen and his partner, Tiffany, first experienced Roddick’s commitment to quality when he became an investor in their business. “He said, ‘I only want to be a part of this because I am a customer myself, and have been one for 15 years.’ He’s not a mercenary. Some people will endorse whatever if it’s a nice paycheck. He’s not that kind of person.”
Securing a spirited master distiller
For Roddick and the investors, the final, most integral piece of the Sweetens Cove puzzle would come in the form of Marianne Eaves, perhaps best known as the first female master distiller to hail from Kentucky since Prohibition. Seemingly fated to fill the role from the start, Eaves had not only trained under legendary distiller Chris Morris, but also, unbeknownst to the team, had grown up not 20 minutes from the Sweetens Cove Golf Club.
“Honestly,” says Roddick, “the most incredible part of this all was that someone with her resume would take a chance on a completely small-batch offering with a bunch of dummies like us.”
Eaves took the lead on blending what would become the inaugural batch of Sweetens Cove. Shacking up in a trailer just outside of Austin, Eaves took quickly to her new role as not just a blender of fine bourbons, but also as an educator to this excited group of millionaires.
“Watching Marianne, I was worried I was that annoying guy asking all the questions, bothering somebody trying to do their jobs,” Roddick says with a laugh. “She’s been a great first coach to have as we venture into the bourbon world.”
A boozy labor of love
With the blending aspect of Sweetens Cove in good hands, all that was left was for the original five investors to secure additional funding, a task Roddick knew he couldn’t take lightly.
“The one thing that’s consistent across tennis, business, philanthropy, etc., is if you find the right people who are motivated and share your passion, it’s going to have a good result.”
For his part, Roddick reached out to Austin-based associates like Kendra Scott CEO Tom Nolan, Silicon Labs chairman Nav Sooch, and Tiff’s Treats’ Leon Chen.
Like any good feel-good sports movie, the initial success of Sweetens Cove ultimately came down to the final buzzer, the one moment when our heroes either win it all or go home empty-handed. For the team, that breathless moment came when the bourbon-elitist investors first tried Eaves’ creation.
“It was nerve-wracking” says Chen, who admits to being something of a spirit expert. “Aside from cookies, I probably know bourbon best.”
With his capital already invested, it was the moment Chen would find out whether his trust in Roddick’s dreams were well-placed.
“I figured I’d tell Andy that I like it no matter what,” he admits, “but I’m not going to lie and tell him I love it if I didn’t.”
Tiffany Chen recalls that fateful moment: “Leon tastes it and immediately takes this huge sigh. ‘I’m so relieved,’ he says. ‘I love it!’”
Even for a non-aficionado, it’s easy to see the finished product’s appeal. Taken neat, Sweetens Cove presents a thoroughly smooth tasting experience. On the first whiff, rich, round notes of corn and alcohol are apparent, tempered by a sweet red-wine flavor that spreads across the palate upon the first sip — no doubt owing to the four-year blend added by Evans.
“Last year, we debuted 92 on the Whisky Advocate,” Rivers says. “It’s a pretty humbling score for a first-time product.”
It’s been quite a while now since Roddick’s distilled dream first took flight on a Tennessee golf course. Rain is currently pouring outside the bar where Sweetens Cove is hosting its Austin VIP happy hour, but inside this speakeasy, the vibe is warm and celebratory. After a day of meeting with press for the Texas release of Sweetens Cove, Roddick’s demeanor is relaxed, the way one might imagine the athlete after a championship win. During an interview with CultureMap, he’s flagged down by Leon and Tiff Chen, who bring him a glass of Sweetens Cove. The trio take a triumphant first sip together before raving about the drink’s quality.
“Finally being able to share this bourbon with my friends, when it was just this a dumb idea I was talking about a couple of years ago, is selfishly really great,” Roddick says. “It feels like it’s alive for the first time. And fitting that it’s happening here [in Austin].”