What is it With Indiana Athletes and All These Alcohol Brands?

What is it With Indiana Athletes and All These Alcohol Brands?

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Retired athletes, especially those that succeed at the professional level, tend to have two things in common – lots of money and lots of time. While traveling for their sport, they often have time to have a drink, and they can afford to have a good drink. In many cases, they develop a penchant for good drink.

This often leads athletes to pursue their new “hobby” on a larger scale, and they have the wherewithal to try to make a business go of it. In some cases, they are involved in the venture from idea to fruition, for others, it’s more like a something someone brings them to put their name on and make a buck or two from. I like those that are steeped in their brand.

It’s no secret that many celebrities and athletes are associated with alcohol brands. Heck, three of the starting five 1995-1997 Chicago Bulls have their own brands – Michael Jordan has a tequila, Scottie Pippen has Digits Bourbon, and Dennis Rodman has Bad Ass Vodka…..because why wouldn’t he. However, many of these brands live on the edges of the common knowledge in spirits or wine. Just in the past few weeks I have learned about several brands with Indiana athlete ties, while others have been more known and around longer.

Interestingly, there are many alcohol brands tied to athletes in spirits and wine, but relatively few in beer. Troy Aikman recently introduced a light beer brand called Eight (his Cowboy number), and closer to home, we have a definite athlete that has had his brewery for a decade now, although he doesn’t tie his athletic accomplishment s into his brand(s). George Pesek, owner of Evil Czech Brewery in Mishawaka recently summited Mt. Everest (highest peak) and Lhotse (4th highest peak) on the same trip in May of this year.

Having already nearly exhausted the athletes that have ties to beer, let hone in on a list of athletes with Indiana ties who have moved into the alcohol industry to one degree or another. For several of these, look for longer articles to profile them better in the coming weeks.

Fuzzy Zoeller – born and raised in New Albany, Fuzzy won 10 PGA events, including two majors. In the late 2000s, he started the brand Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka, with headquarters in Sellersburg, IN. Then in the late 2010s, they moved production from Bend OR (started there because a lack of craft distilleries at the time) to Indiana as well, in a partnership with Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington. It can be found in hundreds of location in Indiana, and hundreds more around the country.

Wayne Gretzky – It’s a great bit of Indiana trivia to learn that the first pro hockey team that Wayne Gretzky played for was in Indianapolis. In 1978, the 17 year old Gretzky was signed by the Indianapolis Racers. In his fifth game he scored his first goal, and his second goal followed in short order, just four seconds later. He only played the eight games for the great money suck that was the Racers at the time, and then he was moved to Edmonton in exchange for a pile of cash.

Now Gretzky is involved with his own distillery/winery in Ontario, called Gretzky Estates. He started with wines, because he cherished the memories of watching his grandfather press his own grapes and bottle his own wines. After the great reception that the wines received, he expanded to distilling spirits in the mid 2010s. Now he even has a craft beer brand; the beer is fairly new, so perhaps the scores on Untappd are due to that.

Mario Andretti – Before the phrase, “….and Mario is slowing down,” became too familiar, Mario Andretti was named the racer of the century by Associated Press and RACER Magazine. He is one of only two racers to have won events in NASCAR, Indy car, Formula One, and the World Sportscar Championship, and the only racer to have won the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship.

The idea for the Andretti Winery came from Mario himself, and he talked the retired CEO of Kmart into joining him to convert a vineyard into a full winery. They make 8-10 types of wine, and the winery is one of the favorites in Napa Valley because it is a quiet villa in the middles of 42 acres of vines – no huge tanks and commercial feel, but more like an Italian family winery.

Peyton Manning – No one needs me to tell them about the contribution of Peyton Manning to Indiana sports, but his contribution to spirits and golf are a bit less well known. Manning has been friends with retired tennis star Andy Roddick for years, starting when Roddick would go to Indy to Play in the RCA Hardcourts. They played golf together, and Roddick found a great nine hole course in Tennessee called Sweeten’s Cove Golf Club.

There’s no clubhouse, no plumbing, and no lights at this great course, yet it is rated as one of the best courses in the country because the layout lends itself to hundreds of nuances. So they bought it. One of the traditions at Sweeten’s Cove was that everyone takes a shot of whiskey when they tee off on hole one. Roddick and Manning expanded on this by producing a bourbon of their own in Tennessee and naming it for the course (Sweeten’s Cove Bourbon). Look for it here locally, Manning did a lot of cold calling of retailers to get them to carry it just before distribution began in 2021.

Chris Lytle – MMA fighting is one of the most grueling of all the sports, and Chris Lytle is one of the toughest there has been in UFC. He’s also been a professional boxer, and now spends his time as an Indianapolis firefighter. He is a commentator for fights now, along with fire-fighting and doing public speaking.

His friend and work out partner, Brian Alvey, owned a bourbon bar in Franklin and they got to talking about how a private label bourbon with Chris’ nickname and likeness could do very well. They contracted with Cedar Creek Distillery to age and bottle this four year bourbon that has a decent amount of rye in the grist. Keep your eyes out for Lights Out Bourbon; it’s produced in small batches and they sell so quickly. Look for a longer story soon about how the bourbon will eventually tie in to Alvey’s Warrior 110 Project.

Alan Henderson – IU basketball and Atlanta Hawks fans fondly remember Alan Henderson from his playing days in the 1990s and 2000s. He is the only IU player to rank in the top five in school history for scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, and steals, and he played in the 1992 Final Four. He was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 1998, during his third season with the Hawks.

While in Atlanta, Henderson developed a penchant for good bourbons, and he lamented the under-representation of blacks in American artisan distilling industry. To combat this, he initiated the Henderson Spirits Group a couple of years ago, and based it in Indianapolis. All the stories of the products incorporate African Americans that were important in the history of American spirits, including the Tom Bullock’s Burnt Orange Bourbon (it’s great, as I can attest), named for the author of the first African American centric cocktail recipe book. Look for more from Henderson Spirits Group and tell them that they ought to come serve at Hops & Coaster Drops in September.

Drew Storen – The latest Indiana athlete/alcohol story I have heard about is from the MLB pitcher and radio personality/announcer Mark Patrick’s son, Drew Storen. Drew grew up in Brownsburg and was part of the State  High School Championship team as a sophomore. Although selected by the Yankees with the 34th pick in 2007, he did not sign, choosing to play for Stanford for two years, and then was selected tenth by the Washington Nationals.

While traveling in the major leagues, he started collecting bourbons, and decided that after his playing days were over, he was going to develop a spirits brand that had numbers that all relate to baseball trivia and stats (proofs, grists, names, etc). And what better way to tie the spirits into baseball than to use the corn harvested each year from the Field Of Dreams in Iowa. Yep, he uses that corn to make the Field of Dreams Bourbon and the Triple Play canned cocktails. Look for them locally in the near future.

Rick Mirer – A Goshen native, Rick had the 2nd most yards and TDs in Indiana prep football history, and then stayed local to play quarterback for Notre Dame. He led the Fighting Irish to three bowls during his playing time there, and then was selected 2nd overall by the Seattle Seahawks. He set rookie records (since then broken by Andrew Luck) for attempts, completions, and yards. He was later traded several times and spent time on the rosters of seven other teams.

While with the 49s and Raiders, Mirer developed a taste for good wines, and spent free time learning the science and the business. Four years after retiring he opened Mirror Napa Valley and now produces six different wines, including a 2019 Cabernet that goes for $110/bottle.

AJ Foyt – The only winner of the Indy 500, Daytona 500, 24 hours of LeMans and 24 Hours of Daytona (a different list than Mario above), Foyt was the first driver to win the Indy 500 four times. The last race he ran was the 1994 Brickyard 400, but he won the Indy 500 after that as a team owner.

Foyt Family Wines was actually start by cousins AJ Foyt IV and Larry Foyt, but the name is close enough, and it is a family winery and he’s still part of the family, so I’m counting it for AJ himself. They have a winery in Sonoma, CA, a museum and winery in Fredricksburg, TX, and the Wine Vault in Speedway, just down the street from the IMS.

Jeff Gordon – He’s a four-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion, a five-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Daytona 500 winner, and he’s an adopted Hoosier from Pittsboro by way of Vallejo, CA. He retired from racing in 2015, and now is the Vice Chairman of Hendricks Motorsports.

As early as 2005 Jeff had started a wine label with Briggs & Sons Winemaking, and in 2011 won a double gold medals for his 2007 Ella Sofia Napa Valley Joie de Vivre at the 2011 Indy International Wine Competition. Like Foyt Family Wines, Jeff Gordon Cellars source their grapes from Napa and Sonoma and then blend and age them on their own.

That’s ten Indiana connected athletes (eleven if you count George Pesek – and you should) that have joined sport and alcohol together into a going interest. It may not be all that unusual, given the number of athletes that end up with alcohol brands, but it still strikes me as a healthy number for one small state. Whether it’s scaling the highest mountain in the world or climbing to the peak of the NBA, MLB, NFL or racing world, the work ethic and dedication used to succeed in sport is what makes these entrepreneurs successful in the world of craft beverages as well. Look for them at your local bars, restaurants, and retailers and share in their dedication.

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