$3K bottles and star power: Tennessee whiskey barrels into ultra-premium liquor market

Brad Japhe
Southern Kitchen
Sign along Interstate 65 in Louisville.

Whiskey ads are hardly a curiosity in Kentucky. When you count more than 10 million barrels worth of the liquid within your jurisdiction, boozy billboards come with the territory.

But here, in the heart of Bourbon Country, one such sign has locals scratching their heads. Perched proudly above I-65 along the outskirts of Louisville is an outsized display depicting a premium bottle of brown spirit — from Tennessee.

“Meet the Neighbors,” it demands of commuters in cars whizzing by.

Sweetens Cove, the brand behind the ad, entered the Kentucky market earlier this summer with a high-proof whiskey retailing at $200 a bottle. It’s a compelling arrangement: zesty and fruity with a peppery punch on the back palate. And yet the price tag is every bit as bold as the liquid, especially for a blend of 4-, 6- and 16-year-old bourbons sourced entirely from Tennessee, where whiskey has long been viewed as a value proposition.

A Manhattan, made with Tennessee whiskey at Bourbon Steak Nashville in the JW Marriott hotel in downtown, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

Lynchburg-based Jack Daniel’s unloads more than 13 million cases of its “Old No. 7” each year. That’s enough to cement its status as the No. 1 selling whiskey in the world. But the Volunteer State's whiskey industry — as a whole — has been a victim of that runaway success: the familiar black-labeled liquor rarely fetches more than $20 per bottle and so the category it represents came to be associated more with frenzied frat parties than sophisticated speakeasies.

A slew of upstarts has mounted a convincing campaign to combat this stubborn perception. Uncle Nearest, named after a formerly enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to distill, launched in 2017 with a $60 ultra-premium product.

More:Record-breaking sales for Uncle Nearest whiskey, named for a slave who mentored Jack Daniel

Try this at home: Learn how to make a Manhattan cocktail, its history, here 

That same year, Nelson’s Green Brier debuted a similarly priced single-barrel sipper celebrating the state’s time-honored whiskey-making traditions. Today the brand’s tightly allocated Honey Cask Bourbon has become a runaway cult hit. Finished in barrels seasoned with the eponymous sweetener, it nets as much as $3,000 on the secondary market. 

A Manhattan cocktail, made with Tennessee whiskey at the Bourbon Steak Nashville in the JW Marriott hotel in downtown, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

Sweetens Cove is doing its part to foment that sort of fervor, releasing well-aged, meticulous blends in limited supply. And it benefits from the backing of another Tennessee gamechanger, altogether.

“We are proud of it and proud to bring something really unique to the market that celebrates Tennessee,” said University of Tennessee alum and NFL hall-of-fame quarterback Peyton Manning, a primary investor in the company. “There is a big piece of me in Tennessee and always will be.” 

In order to justify its price, however, Sweetens Cove relies on much more than star power. It leverages the talent of a top-notch whiskey-maker who was poached from across state lines. In 2016, Marianne Eaves became Kentucky’s first female master distiller. Now, as master blender for Sweetens Cove in South Pittsburg, she brings her expertise to a competing category.

Peyton Manning at Sweetens Cove Golf Club in Tennessee, the namesake of his bourbon brand Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon.

"I’ve had the privilege of producing local product in both Kentucky and Tennessee and while we all know that Kentucky is the bullseye for bourbon worldwide, Tennessee is stepping up its game and producing product that can rival anywhere else,” Eaves said. “We don’t have to be bashful about the fact that Tennessee bourbon can be as good as any bourbon in the world."

How we got here

Unlike some billboard on the side of a highway, $200 Tennessee Whiskey didn’t appear overnight. Nearly a decade before Manning and crew entered the local whiskey scene, a playbook for prestige was already being drafted.

On May 13, 2013, the Tennessee state legislature signed House Bill 1084 into law. It established a stringent set of production standards for any bottle that could bear the name “Tennessee Whiskey” on its label — the first state in the nation to effectively establish its own denomination of origin for a distilled spirit.

In 2016, Marianne Eaves became Kentucky’s first female master distiller. As master blender for Sweetens Cove, she brings her expertise to a competing category.

These guidelines were identical to the federally-backed parameters for bourbon (made predominantly from corn, aged in new, charred-oak barrels) with the added qualifiers of a charcoal filtration process and provenance. That last bit helped restore some pride. After all, bourbon could be made anywhere in the 50 states. Tennessee Whiskey was now a phenomenon all its own — and a protected one.

A craft explosion would soon follow, from Memphis to Mountain City. Today, the Tennessee Distillers Guild counts 31 producers, enough to form a whiskey trail that rivals its Kentucky bourbon counterpart, currently home to 38.

“There were really only a couple of distilleries for many decades after Prohibition,” said Maggie Kimberl, president of the Bourbon Women Association. “To see the variety of Tennessee distilleries coming online these days is inspiring."

Peyton Manning sits with Marianne Eaves, master blender of Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon, which Manning is launching in Indiana.

Connoisseurs and collectors are similarly inspired to open their wallets. After Whisky Advocate magazine named a George Dickel 13-year-old bottled-in-bond expression its “Whisky of the Year” in 2019, the $36 release was stripped from shelves within hours. Today it’s not uncommon to see it sell for as much as three times the initial retail value.

Gertie’s Whiskey Bar in Nashville's Gulch owns one of the widest selections of whiskies in the state. Of its 50-odd selections of Tennessee tipples, nearly a dozen pour out at $30-plus per shot. A single dram of Sweetens Cove tops the list at $120. By comparison, entry-level Pappy Van Winkle — the most esteemed name in all of Kentucky bourbon — gets just $70.

Fine whiskey, limestone water

For enthusiasts such as Kimberl, the only surprise is why Tennessee Whiskey took so long to get here. After all, there’s next to no qualitative difference between whiskies from either side of the divide. All factors said to be responsible for Kentucky’s persistent eminence including specific climatological conditions and limestone-filtered water are also present South of the state line.

Tennessee whiskey like Sweetens Cove is giving Kentucky Bourbon a run for its money.

“Tennessee makes great whiskey and always has,” she said. “Many Kentucky distillers have learned from Tennessee distillers and vice versa. This region of the United States just makes some damn fine whiskey all around.”

Even Jack Daniel’s is now doing its part to solidify a sense of superiority, recently launching its first 10-year-old whiskey in over a century.

The bronze-hued hooch is a tobacco-toned spice bomb with edges of burnt caramel, bottled at 97-proof. It’s currently moving fast at $70 a pop, more than three times the cost of its non-age-stated cousin. That's an undeniable indicator that any lingering stigma surrounding the category is slowly vaporizing.

"I don’t claim to know all the reasons why Tennessee whiskey has not, to this point, garnered the reputation of premium quality that Kentucky has,” Eaves said. "But I am so excited to be a part of elevating it.”

Whether poured in the glass or posted above interstate 65, things are surely looking up in the world of Tennessee whiskey these days.

Try this at home: Learn how to make a Manhattan cocktail, its history, here 

More:Stock your bar with these 8 budget-friendly Southern bourbons under $40