Born of a Ritual

By Jennifer Sicking

Courtesy Photos

A mountain view of Sweetens Cove golfcourse

Mountain view from Sweetens Cove Golf Course.

Vol fans know to get their corn from a jar, but four UT Knoxville alumni want them to consider getting their rye from a jar— with an infusion from Kentucky.

Peyton Manning (Knoxville ’98), Drew Holcomb (Knoxville ’03), Ben Weprin (Knoxville ’01) and Dan Hathaway (Knoxville ’21) are part owners, along with tennis great Andy Roddick and others, of Sweetens Cove—a golf course with a tradition that birthed a bourbon. That bourbon, which was awarded the top spot in celebrity liquors and spirits by Esquire magazine, has now added to its offerings with Kennessee, a blend of Tennessee and Kentucky bourbons by master distiller Marianne Eaves.

Peyton Manning at Sweetens Cove.
Peyton Manning at Sweetens Cove.

“Every time I step foot in the state of Tennessee, I get a really special feeling,” Manning says. “It’s like nowhere else in the world, and I love Tennessee like nowhere else. Sweetens Cove is uniquely Tennessee, and we hope people will try it and share it with friends.”

It all began with the nine-hole Sweetens Cove golf course carved out of the Tennessee hills near Chattanooga. Well regarded in the golfing community but on precarious financial footing, a group of its fans, including Manning and Roddick, banded together to buy it.

“We loved the golf course, and we loved the idea of preserving it, protecting it and celebrating it,” Mark Rivers, one of the investors, says. “It was something of an endangered species.”

The course without a clubhouse (but there are two Subways nearby and a Domino’s pizza that delivers) came with a tradition— golfers would take a shot of whiskey at the first tee. Then the whiskey would be left for others in the shed that stands in for a clubhouse.

“It was this charming, romantic ritual,” Rivers says.

Marianne Eaves
Master Distiller Marianne Eaves

That ritual led to the idea of launching Sweetens Cove bourbon, created by Eaves, a champion whiskey maker with roots in Tennessee and Kentucky.

“She’s been the quarterback, as I like to say,” Manning says. “What makes it different? Marianne makes it different.”

Holcomb, who received the Manning Scholarship in 1999, became a whiskey fan while studying abroad in Scotland when a preacher poured him a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Now he has a 400-bottle collection. He joined Rivers and Roddick in tasting different batches Eaves created.

Drew Holcomb
Drew Holcomb

“I learned a lot from her, and I love how being a blender is a mix of chemistry and artistry, picking the right barrels and choosing the profiles to blend into the final product,” Holcomb says.

After Sweetens Cove released batches in 2020 and 2021, the brand followed it with Kennessee this year.

“We always knew we wanted to create a product that was a little more price accessible but still a premium,” Rivers says.

The bourbon is also a fit contender in the world of mixology, ready to anchor an old fashioned or sour, a Manhattan or a mint julep.

Samples of Sweetens Cove bourbon at Sweetens Cove golf course.
Samples of Sweetens Cove bourbon at Sweetens Cove golf course.

Kennessee——the child of bourbons produced in Tennessee and Kentucky and finished by submerging toasted sugar maple spirals in it—could be considered madness or genius due to the spirited rivalry between the states in all things.

“The rivalry between Tennessee and Kentucky is certainly a rivalry I’m familiar with from my college football-playing days,” Manning says. “And with Kennessee, we’re trying to have everybody get along and all play in the sandbox together.”

Sweetens Cove Kennessee bourbon
The aroma can be described as warm toasted oak, graham cracker, rich mulled spice and orange peel, and a hint of dried pome fruit. The palate offers sweet warm caramel, vanilla and baking spices, hint of citrus, gentle chewy oak, and easy creamy mid palate. The finish is long, with lingering warmth and a sweet soft woodsy ending. Master Blender Marianna Eaves’ Personal Notes on Kennessee

Eaves, he adds, did an “outstanding job bringing harmony between the two and celebrating both traditions with Kennessee.”

Rivers sees it as a continuation of the bourbon’s origin.

“I think there’s a certain sense of innovation and fun that’s at the heart of almost everything we do—and that goes back to the golf course,” Rivers says.

As does the camaraderie born of a bourbon birthed from a ritual with friends.

“The bourbon carries a lot of those same principles. What do we have in common? We’re friends,” Rivers says.

“I think, when you’re having a special drink or special spirit, chances are there are friends or family nearby.”

Vol fans could drink to that.