Putting the Swig in Swing

And we may take a glass together;
The whisky makes it all so clear;
It fires our dulled imaginations,
And I feel so near, so near.

~ Dougie MacLean

By Ryan Lutz
Photos courtesy of Sweetens Cove

Once upon a time, at the end of a country road in the foothills of a mountain valley, there lay a little nine-hole golf course called Sequatchie Valley Golf and Country Club. It was beloved by many who lived near it, for it always held a quaint charm, but, for reasons only the wind knows, the little course languished. Years passed. The little course was all but forgotten. And then one day, two men found the little course and, because they saw the charm behind its disrepair, they decided to help it. Knowing that nothing great comes of little work, they spent many months laboring on the little course — not because it was beautiful, but precisely because it could be again. By their labor they breathed such life and beauty into the little course that nobody who had known it before would recognize it, so the men gave it a new name — a new name for the course that had been given new life. Soon, many golfers came to play its nine holes — the old and the young, the expert and the beginner. The little course — with its wide fairways and humpy, bumpy, rolling greens of every shape and size — gave its golfers much delight. As children who have found a small but endless treasure, they told their friends about the little course so that they, too, could share in its joy.

~ The End.

That romanticized Mother Goose beginning is neither the end of the story nor a mere personal artistic indulgence. In fact, even for the urbane and mildly eclectic audience of this magazine, that introduction is appropriate, because this course’s story is nothing short of a Cinderella-like romance of commitment, camaraderie and creativity. Maybe even a little unexpected irreverence. It is the story of Sweetens Cove.

It’s not an entirely new story. Some in the know might be saying to themselves, “Oh yeah, I played there last October,” while others may be thinking with a grin, and just as sincerely as the first group, “Oh yes, I sipped some of that just last night.” Without the faintest hint of contradiction, both would be speaking truthfully. How can that be? Is Sweetens Cove played or sipped? The short, Zen-like answer is yes. The straightforward translation of that koan is that the thing played is a nine-hole golf course at Sweetens Cove Golf Club, near Chattanooga, Tenn., and the thing sipped is the whiskey called Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon.

That the golf course shares its name with the bourbon is not merely a coincidence. Essentially, the bourbon is the distillation of a dream that the golf course inspired in several men. This particular brand of the beautiful brown drink exists because of the golf course.

How? What dream, what men? Pull up a chair. Pour yourself a drink.

YOU KNOW HOW MOST DREAMS ARE.

They do not lend themselves to apprehension. They’re that area of human experience where in one way or another we are led to suspect the reality of splendors (or terrors) we cannot name; where we sense meanings no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at; where in great laughter, perhaps, and certain silences we glimpse a destination that we can never fully know until we reach it.

If that sounds a bit like the mysterious voice in Field of Dreams, it’s because it must, for the golf course seems to have enchanted many. That enchantment took root in the hearts of seven men who, in 2019, became investors in Sweetens Cove Golf Club. That seven has since grown to 39. A few of them bear a mantle of significant celebrity (probably why anyone knows of Sweetens at all): longtime CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, former world No. 1 tennis champ Andy Roddick, and one of the NFL’s all-time greats, Peyton Manning (who, just six days ago as I write, was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) and his highly decorated NFL champion brother, Eli — to name only a few.

Another one of the core investor-owners of Sweetens Cove is real estate developer Mark Rivers, who has been widely quoted for describing the course (devotees call it “Sweetens”) as a marriage between Field of Dreams and Tin Cup. In my Zoom meeting with Rivers, he offered some interpretation.

“It’s a dream course, simply magical. You cannot believe that this level of excellence [lies] down this gravel road in the middle of nowhere. It’s, like, how is this here?”

That’s Rivers’ rhetorical way of expressing his delight; unrhetorically, the course is “there” because, as the bedtime-story introduction above hints, two men discovered what remained of an older public course and rehabilitated it. These men are Rob Collins, landscape architect and designer of the course, and his business partner (and co-constructor), Tad King. Describing Collins, Rivers stuck to his magic metaphor.

“Collins was the unicorn architect, the one who was spilling blood, sweat and tears to keep this place open. There was something of that Tin Cup aspect when [Sweetens] was just kind of a local golf course in a small community. Those [courses] often don’t work economically, especially a nine-hole course with no amenities. It was kind of just there.”

In other words, after Collins and King resuscitated it, the course became more than a mere fact of existence, more than “just another course”; it became a clarion call to the golf community that what could be found there was anything but ordinary. That clarion call, however, did not have a very strong signal at first, when Collins opened Sweetens in 2014. Social media became just the signal boost it needed to be heard, especially when both Roddick and Manning tweeted snippets of their time there. “People started to hear about it and started to come and realize this is a special place, and supported it. Patrons became loyal patrons,” said Rivers.

What exactly commands the loyalty of Sweetens’ golf patrons? It can be difficult to pin down, but clearly there’s the reputation of the course. I’m no golf expert, but it requires no expert to acknowledge the course’s allure when Golfweek ranks Sweetens in its Top 100.  Of note, it’s the only nine-holer on that roster. A course’s ranking may whet an interest to play there, but (unless they’re completely vain) golfers don’t decide to play on that basis alone. Surely what keeps patrons loyal—keeps them returning — to a course is rooted, in part, in the material features of the course, no matter the venue’s reputation.

Testimony of such material details of Sweetens are not difficult to find. One golfer, for example, touts the greens as “the show stopper,” explaining that they are “wild and comically difficult in some places, bordering on unfair, but that is the whole allure.” Another articulates, “This course absolutely floored me. Each hole presents a unique challenge from the tee to the green that requires thought, conviction and precision. It is a shame more courses like this can’t be built. Fun, challenging, exciting and enjoyable don’t even start to scratch the surface.” Two others testify that even though the course is at once “interesting, engaging and frustrating — a wild combination of vast, multi-option fairways and putting surfaces that defy gravity and logic,” perhaps the best remedy to mounting frustration is to “just take a deep breath, a quick look at the mountains, and realize that there is more to golf than posting a low score.”

A quick look at the mountains. A deep breath. Depending on your background, that sounds either like one of those Old Milwaukee beer commercials (“It doesn’t get any better than this!”) or like the note Emily Dickinson strikes in a poem that praises the restorative power of natural beauty. Frustrated with your short game? Ticked that your drives don’t stick to the fairways? Bunkers got you beat? Dickinson says, in effect, relax, take a good look around you and “taste a liquor never brewed.” That liquor is nature’s glories, and Sweetens Cove, tucked away in the Sequatchie Valley, marshals many of them.

There is one glory, however, that Sweetens offers its guests that is most certainly a “brewed” liquor – namely, a shot of bourbon.

IN THIS STORY, TRADITION IS A WORD WHOSE ETYMOLOGY IS NOT A MERE ACADEMIC INTEREST.

The word descends to us from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over, deliver, entrust.” At Sweetens Cove, the salient tradition is for golfers to take a shot of bourbon before the first tee.

Why? “Why not?” may be the best answer. None of the seven core investors knows when this first-tee bourbon shot became a tradition at Sweetens, but it is what endeared them to the place. Where did the bourbon come from? The patrons. They would bring a bottle, take a shot before teeing off and leave the bottle behind so that golfers who came after them could enjoy the same pleasure. Sometimes it would be more personal: A golfer from one group would actually hand the bottle over to someone from the next. This act concretely expresses the Latin heritage of tradition: The bottle was being handed over, delivered, entrusted. This was the gesture that endowed the bourbon with a meaning greater than itself. The bourbon became, in other words, a symbol.

Bourbon is — thank God! — delightfully, deliciously material (more on that aspect in a moment), but its symbolic potency is what captured the core investors’ imaginations. Rivers spoke of this potency in familiar abstractions — camaraderie, friendship, authenticity — but he got a real grasp of it with a figure of speech.

“There’s this collegiality and almost a summer-camp vibe, where the kid you’ve known for an hour is suddenly your best friend, and then you’re friends forever. It’s very much like that when you’re at Sweetens: Everybody is your friend, and you build these memories together. We like adding this level of fun. We’re not a rigid country club. We’re more about bring your own beer, put your cooler on a golf cart and your Bluetooth on, and go have at it. There’s a playfulness about it, you know — what with bringing in the Waffle House food truck, and lighting up the course at night so we can all play at night and shoot off fireworks. Isn’t that what you do when you’re at golf summer camp?”

This ethos of the golf course is precisely what inspired Rivers one day to suggest to Manning and Roddick, et al, that they take it to the next level — “it” being all these immaterial aspects of Sweetens’ culture, and the “next level” being an attempt to distill them into a new bourbon brand. On one hand, that idea might sound about as weird as Willy Wonka’s attempt to make a stick of chewing gum that tastes like breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, in stages — impossible. On the other hand, that a shot of bourbon should be a symbol of “golf summer camp” doesn’t strike me as odd at all: Is there anything more symbolic of friendship than sharing a drink? And is there any tradition more attractive than one that nods to friendship and fun?

Rivers recalled with a laugh his first time partaking of the tradition.

“When I discovered that tradition myself for the first time, it was just the coolest thing. ‘It’s, like, It’s 9:30 in the morning and I’m taking a shot of whiskey! Well, OK.’ Every single investor, all of the 39, we’ve all done the traditional shot. I think veterans typically welcome in the first-timers, appropriately, with a little bit of repetitive hospitality.”

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Sweetens is not a partying mecca, a watering hole catering to wealthy sub-“bourbonites” who have nothing better to do with their time than get warmed with whiskey and cruise the links. In an interview with Golf magazine last May, Roddick dispelled that absurd impression and then offered a telling remark about the bourbon tradition:

“Everyone [is] respectful. No one’s cruising around, falling over. But it was just a great, great tradition. And so we [core investors] thought there was an opportunity to build off that tradition that was made by people who loved the golf course.”

He could just as easily and perhaps no less accurately have said “by people who loved whiskey.” That he didn’t say that is, to me, important, for it underscores the right order of the parts of the dream, without which its purpose is lost, or at least obscured. It’s akin to knowing where you came from, your parentage. Who sired this bourbon tradition? Golf lovers.

Tom Nolan, CEO of Kendra Scott; Andy Roddick, Tennis Hall of Famer; Rob Collins, King Collins Golf (he designed the course and is a key founder); Mark Rivers, Co-founder; Peyton Manning, NFL Hall of Famer

 

AS IMPORTANT AS IT IS FOR THE INVESTORS TO REMEMBER this right order of the parts of the Sweetens dream — the role Collins played in it, the enchanting beauty of the locale, the courtesy and fun of the first-tee tradition and its causal connection to the bourbon — none of this knowledge, this history, is required for the ordinary person’s enjoyment of Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon.

In fact, in my own interview with Roddick, he acknowledged the importance of this right order, but both he and Rivers didn’t hesitate to explain that the bourbon venture has demanded more of their time and involvement than the golf course has.

“Whatever successes we may or may not have with [the bourbon] are ultimately the brainchild of a crazy golf course at the end of the road, 20 minutes outside of [Chattanooga],” said Roddick. “But there wasn’t much work to be done on the golf course, maybe some organizing, making sure the bookkeeping was a little bit better.” Rivers described their work with another of his colorful metaphors: “Our involvement was just rocket fuel. The rocket had started; it just would’ve probably taken a little bit longer, I suppose, [to get off the ground]. So, we’ve definitely been spending more time on the spirits than on the golf.”

Speaking of rocket fuel, what’s the bourbon like? Has Sweetens Cove Spirits Co., launched in May 2020, managed to distill the investors’ dream of an ultra-premium Tennessee bourbon that can compete in an industry that is quickly becoming filled with many notable competitors?

Absolutely.

When nearly 14,000 bottles of 13-year-aged Sweetens Bourbon hit the market last year in three separate releases over roughly six months, the product sold out rapidly — despite the pandemic’s nixing the original plan to introduce the bourbon in March.

To explain the product’s popularity, skeptics may shrug and point to the celebrity of certain Sweetens team members. Sure, from a marketing perspective, having a Roddick and a Manning (or two) on your team certainly helps draw attention. And it might easily have been “just another” celebrity liquor (in mid-February Delish.com listed 22 such brands) were it not for the circumspection of — guess who — the high-profilers on the Sweetens team.

Roddick said, “I think a big mistake that we could have made with Peyton on board is trying to go too big, too early — sacrificing credibility. That was something I was pretty adamant about. I think we have that credibility, and we want to keep it going, but without losing the soul of the brand along the way.” Manning told Bloomberg much the same, saying “We’ve chosen quality over speed,” and Rivers echoed the idea: “[Launching the bourbon] wasn’t about pro and beach parties. It was about creating something that was serious and bespoke high quality.” The Sweetens team was keenly aware that serious bourbon fans don’t drink it because some
bigwig does; they drink it because it’s what’s in the bottle that matters.

Honestly, despite having the luck to have found a bottle of Sweetens at Cork & Flame restaurant and, more important, to have sipped it neat from a Glencairn nosing glass, I’m not the one who could convince you to try it. I must say that this was probably the best bourbon I’ve tasted, but I’m not an aficionado by any stretch, so I just don’t have the vocabulary to persuade you. (I just now found out that it’s called a nosing glass because one of the pleasures of bourbon, as perhaps with any fermented, brewed, or distilled drink, is to smell it, i.e., to use our nose.) The aficionados and bourbon pros, however, do have the vocabulary, and they’re the ones praising Sweetens, whether in magazines — Whiskey Advocate, Luckbox, Maxim, Bloomberg Businessweek — or at the dot-coms—Breaking Bourbon, Drinkhacker, Liquor, Whiskey Consensus, Distiller. The accolades are many. Just listen to one reviewer talk about it; if he doesn’t persuade you, well then, at least try to enjoy the creativity. 

“This may be the best nose on a Tennessee whiskey I’ve ever come across. It’s thick and rich, with intense aromas of worn saddle leather, orange oil, hazelnuts and Belgian dark chocolate. There are few bourbons, let alone one from Tennessee, that have merited this much nose bobbing. The palate doesn’t disappoint, either, although it’s surprisingly brighter than the nose suggests, with lots of fruit. It’s syrupy but not heavy on the tongue, with a consistent, almost too gentle, heat. The mid-palate reveals Werther’s Originals candies, Almond Joy, pie spice, a bit of barrel char, and soft-edged barrel notes that let you know you’re drinking a well-aged and well-built whiskey.”

Who talks like that about any drink? Someone who savors it or, dare I say, loves it. I read the reviews with the curiosity of a novice who, standing at an unobtrusive distance, gets to overhear lovers talk about their beloved. It makes me smile, sometimes even chuckle, as when one worries that Sweetens’ finish leads “down a dangerous path … on a dry note that is neither exciting or beneficial, leaning more towards acceptable than outward glee.”

Part of the experience of any ultra-premium bourbon is accepting its cost and the inconvenience of not being able to go to just any liquor store to get a bottle. Right now, a bottle of Sweetens will run you $200. According to Rivers, however, fans can expect some happy changes.

“We’re starting to see a clearer path in terms of where we want to be from a product perspective. Probably three lanes: The first is to offer, much like we did [last year], a very ultra-premium, rare, cult-like product. I think we’ll release one every year. This year we’re going to quadruple our production and add new states — Texas, Colorado, Louisiana and Kentucky. [Last year’s product was released in Tennessee and Georgia only.] Second, we’ll probably start to morph, in 2022 especially, towards a more moderate price-point product — something more in the $60 or $70 range. The third piece is to develop unique specialty products that really allow Marianne [Eaves, the company’s superstar master blender] to go be the mad scientist in the best of ways, [developing] some products that are perhaps more revolutionary than evolutionary, really artisanal.”

GIVEN THE SOBERING REALITIES OF THE PANDEMIC, I suppose it’s inevitable that some readers will feel that rhapsodizing about a bourbon or gushing over the joys of a golf course is somehow inappropriate — proof of privileged insensitivity. Normally, I might agree. It’s easy to feel that no one is entitled to pleasure as long as anyone is suffering. In preparing to write this story, however, I was reminded of a truth that helps to stave off the nagging suspicion that enjoyment is unjust, that our human tendency to rhapsodize about simple pleasures is wrong. The reminder came from Peyton Manning.

Before he and three other high-profile sports celebs participated in The Match: Champions for Charity, a golf event to raise money for COVID-19 relief last May, he told Esquire, “Look, I’ve realized that we can live without sports, and [the pandemic] has probably reemphasized what our priorities should be. But sports can be a distraction from a tough time, so hopefully we can help a little with this golf match.” He said practically the same thing about the release of the bourbon: “Maybe in some ways this can be part of the recovery process.”

That Peyton Manning — the most high-profile celebrity on the Sweetens team — should be the one to give this reminder somehow made it even richer: How can someone so highly seated be so down to earth? He certainly has a grasp of the right order of things. If Sweetens is a “celebrity” bourbon, maybe it’s by default, but in light of Manning’s remarks above, no one has a right to call it a vanity project. This is an authentic premium bourbon put out by authentic people.

That should be where the story ends, but there is one more piece: Sweetens is coming to Augusta just ahead of the Masters Tournament! I don’t mean that you cannot already find a bottle in town (although, of the 12 liquor stores I called, only two had a bottle of it, and more than half of the others had not even heard of it). On April 7, the Sweetens folks are hosting an informal “Sweetenseque” golf tournament from noon to 4:00 p.m. for 100 golfers, plus 75 additional attendees, at our own little public golf course, The Patch. A bourbon-and-barbecue party will follow. The purpose of the shindig is to celebrate the launch of a new Sweetens Cove product. Why at The Patch and not the Augusta National? Roddick shed some light on that.

“[Having this event at The Patch] kind of fits our whole brand: this big bourbon, certainly not cheap, that came from a small golf course. It sort of makes sense that [this event] — though it might be a bit of an underdog in the shadows of the Augusta National — is in the orbit of the most important golf tournament in the world.”

Did you hear it? It “makes sense” that the venue be The Patch because, once again, it’s a matter of acknowledging the right order of things. Like the bourbon, this event is the opposite of a vanity project, because the Sweetens team fondly remembers its modest origin — that rehabilitated nine-hole course — and, for love of it and its traditions, is dedicated to supporting other public golf courses. To show that support, the team plans to have a donation moment for The Patch.

Speaking for the team, Rivers said, “We thought it would be fun to celebrate a golf and barbecue and bourbon tradition unlike any other. And where do you do that? You do that in Augusta! Hopefully, it will become a new tradition for Sweetens Cove during Masters week.”

Appears in the April 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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