The Story of UofL's Mens Basketball Program as a Fine Bourbon Whiskey

Andy Lyons

By now, we all know that Maker's Mark is in the process of rolling out part two of their Limited Edition UofL Themed bottles. Hall of Fame Head Coach Rick Pitino of the Men's Basketball team is the focus of this one. A lot of my fellow Card Chronicle brethren are aficionados, enjoyers, or at least dabblers in the world of America's Spirit, Bourbon. With Bourbon being one of my true passions, and UofL Athletics being another, I was inspired to analyze the two together, the UofL Basketball program since Pitino took the helm as a fine Bourbon coming of age. "What?" you might say. "The two aren't even related."

Read on.

Little warning, this post is kind of long.

2001: It was early in the Spring of 2001, and Master Distiller, Tom Jurich, had just wrapped production on the extremely successful Denny Van WinCrum line, a world renowned bourbon in its own right having collected six Final Four Golds and Two Best Whiskey of the Year Awards, the highest honor for bourbon whiskey. He was looking for a way to start fresh and really bring back the flavor and spiciness that people had enjoyed over the course of the last thirty years.

At this point, he had seen some very impressive characteristics come from the bourbons that had been aged and produced in Lexington a few years earlier. He knew there were successful bourbons that had won a couple of Best Bourbon Awards due to a very unique ingredient. Tom knew he had to have it. This was a scarce ingredient, one that the company in Lexington had run out of in 1997. Tom heard that he might be able to acquire this ingredient in Boston, as they had purchased some, but the environment was not suitable for making good bourbon. Tom knew what he had to do. Get the secret ingredient. A very unique grain called Rick Pitino.

Master Distiller Tom acquired that ingredient with the hopes that the climate and proper mashbill would reap dividends for his distillery. After creating a winning combination of corn, grains, and a unique strand of yeast, he began production. It was the Fall of 2001 and the white dog was already being tasted to get an idea for what the finished product would be. Early on, there were flashes of brilliance. Notes of the Reece Grains harvested from (Bryant) Northern Wisconsin were already shining through, showing that this bourbon already had a better finish than any Tennessee whiskey. This bourbon was hot, exciting, hard-nosed, and had outstanding potential. Over the next couple of years, there was good and bad weather, but ultimately the characteristics of this whiskey only grew from the hot and cold of the seasons.

2004: Flash forward to when this whiskey became a Straight Bourbon. We all know that bourbon that says Straight on the bottle has to be aged at least 4 years or it must verify how old the liquid in the bottle is on the label. Thanks to the special Rick Pitino Grain that gave this bourbon its fiery, exciting, unbeatable taste, as well as the particular RickHouse used for the aging process of these barrels, Master Distiller Tom (MDTom) named new product The RickHouse - Louisville Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

After four years of aging and developing character in the RickHouse, the product was being enjoyed by Cardinal Fans nation-wide. People were quite impressed with the maturity and subtle notes of Freedom in the Halls of the liquid, all a product of the aging and the original distillery site. In the spring of 2005, it beat out Mountain Mamma Bourbon put out by the Country Roads Distillery in West Virginia, which was highly touted for its Deep Three notes of Herber, Pittsnogle, and Beilein. The Dean of the competition declared The RickHouse had won a Final Four Gold, the first of for the (Chris) Current mashbill. However, Master Distiller Tom knew this product was still not quite finished. He had to keep working with the hardwood barrels in which this bourbon aged, moving barrels around, mingling spirits, creating a complete product for the Cardinal Fans who deserved the best.

In 2008, MDTom put forth a very respectable product, one which he still Knowles had a Goode shot of being the best EFifth at the whole competition. Had the competition that year not been in North Carolina, it may T-will have won a Final Four Gold and possibly even a Best Whiskey of the Year. In 2009, his bourbon went into the competition being the favorite to win it, but ran into a Whizzo Whiskey from the State of Michigan in the Big Ten Whiskey line that caught many folks off guard with its tall, powerful flavors. However, MDTom was delighted. He knew he was almost there. After 8 years, he now had a bourbon that many people favored to win these contests. One that people chose daily.

March 2009: Then the storm hit, a storm which no one saw coming. Hurricane Karen rolled through the state of Kentucky, most notably Louisville, knocking down parts of the RickHouse that had been aging the barrels, holding the characters together and creating the Spicy, fancy characteristics that the fans of the bourbon had fallen in love with over the past 8 years. Even worse, the secret ingredient that MDTom had found looked like it was in serious jeopardy and may have been completely depleted and rendered unusable.

Tom stood at a crossroad of whether he should continue with the same mashbill and try to salvage the Rick Pitino Grain Crop, or look for new and innovative products he could work with and try something else. Production stopped for a little while as he had to make a decision. He took little time deciding, knowing that the Rick Pitino Crop had already paid major dividends, and he had faith that it would do so again. Over the course of the 2009-2010 year, the Rick Pitino Grain began growing back, but the new crop had more of a soft, mellow, almost sweet and jovial characteristic to it. While a lot of the barrels produced that year had to be dumped, toward the end of the year, some very impressive Kuricteristics started to shine through, some that will never be forgotten in the Halls of the old Distillery.

2010: In the Fall of 2010, the doors to the new Distillery Center were opened up, which seemed like a Miracle on Main to many. MDTom knew that as he improved the quality of his distilling and aging process, he would ultimately improve the quality and success of his bourbon. He invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a state of the art distillery, one which tens of thousands of people would flock to daily, just to see the hard work and impressive aging and maturing process taking place. Tom had created something special, not just a glamorous distillery, not just a delicious product, but a Center created around that delicious product, a Yum Center of sorts.

As the aging process continued, the Bourbon developing in the new RickHouse with the new Rick Pitino Grains began taking on more interesting and complex notes, the kind that help you realize why you enjoy the complexities of a spirit. It's kind of like if you are a basketball fan, and you like a team, you like them for more deep reasons. It's not just because they win a lot, but because of the kind of defense that they play and the way they switch off of a screen or on the second pass of the offensive teams possession from Zone to Man, those kinds of nuances and complexities. In the course of one year, The RickHouse - Louisville Straight Bourbon Whiskey had made its way back from nearly being sold off to being a present that bourbon drinkers hoped to Siva under the Chris Smith tree.

2012: Tom's mastermind of a bourbon was back. Finally, the tasting notes and flavors were playing off of each other properly. After 11 years of aging, an impressive product was being distributed nationally. People were remembering why this product line had impressed them so much anywhere from 3 to 40 years earlier. Tom knew it was only a matter of time. He Gorguing to get there one way or another, and knew that the softer Rick Pitino Grain was the way to get there. He had also incorporated a wild reserve grain, a Russel Rye. This was a high risk, high reward scenario as this is a very spicy and wild grain which is difficult to predict or control. Often times if it is used erroneously it can be nauseating, but one which over the next couple of years truly paid dividends.

Although Tom's bourbon was once again on the rise, it was still a dark horse in the National Competition of Alcohol Achievements (NCAA) Whiskey Competition that year. After 11 years aging and experience, some poor luck, a bad storm, and new facility upgrades, the Rick Pitino Grains had mellowed enough to remain the leading note on the palate, but one which finally allowed the other tasting notes to be themselves and truly shine for what they were. There was a new marketing campaign put out just before the competition that year as well. Tom had allowed the marketing department to change his original trademark red label to a special edition bright off-red color, one which some people scoffed at, but which ultimately became a memorable and enchanting piece of the history of the NCAA competition that year for true bourbon lovers. That year, one of Tom's finest products to date received a Final Four Gold. It was one of the most unexpected bourbons to make such a run that year, and showed signs that it could get back to the same level the next year. Some still maintain that their run had a lot to do with the hip new label color, but Master Distiller Tom knew it all had to do with his secret ingredient, the new version of Rick Pitino Grain.

2012-2013: The most impressive thing about the bourbon after 12 years of aging is that as the flavor develops, every little thing about the last 12 years has some affect on how the product turns out. Everything from the RickHouse that was used to age it to where the Oak Van Treese grew that they used to make the Montrezl Barrels that were used to age it; even if there were warm or cold seasons or storms that occurred all come through in the flavor. Some believe that the Peak age of Bourbon is 12 years. Look out on the market right now. You will see a number of 12 year old bourbons. This RickHouse Bourbon was one of the finest on the market all year.

As early as November, the tasting notes were all there. It was smooth and complex, difficult to find fault with and easy on the palate. There were people as far away as the Bahamas clamoring to get their hands on this new batch of The RickHouse early on. It was more sought after than the Lost City of the Battle for Atlantis. Tom entered the bourbon in a number of individual taste testing competitions over the course of the year, and midway through the year, he noticed some of the bottles appeared to have been tampered with as his product lost three contests in a row. He went back to the distillery to make sure the bottling process was being handled properly, and reinstated the policy of having all of this bourbon Bottled in Jordan Bond. Once this happened, he immediately found positive results. In early February, he traveled up to Northern Indiana for a test with a difficult Golden Domed Winter Wheat Whiskey. After multiple ties ruled by the judges, they finally awarded the contest to the Indiana whiskey, and Tom found that there was still work to be done.

Then something magical happened, it was almost like The RickHouse Bourbon began talking to itself, like the Rick Pitino Grains in it started talking to all of its ingredients, all the parts and pieces, and said for some reason in a New York Mob-Style accent, "Listen guys, we took a tough loss, but I believe that we can win our next seven tasting contests, go to New York and win the Big Yeast Championship (a very impressive and illustrious Northeastern Regional Bourbon Competition held yearly in New York City named for the yeast that is added to the Mash to ferment it), and I think we can go into the National Competition of Alcohol Achievement Whiskey Competition as the favorite and win the whole thing."

The RickHouse got the top seed for the NCAA competition, but the potential match-ups it faced looked more challenging than just about any other road. The first couple of rounds weren't too daunting, as they featured a North Carolina Agricultural schools project whiskey that barely made it into the Competition and an experimental whiskey from Colorado called The Rockey Mount, on which the bottle displayed a chubby boy dressed up like a Ram being advanced upon by an actual Ram. The Louisville Bourbon easily made its way through the first couple of rounds. Then came a northwestern coast whiskey called The Bourgon Trail. The b was just turned upside down. Kind of clever. It is. Shut up, it is. This bourbon had a lot of fire to it, had some solid tasting notes, and was said to be better than it appeared, but it just wore down over the course of the tasting. The Bourbon from Bourbon Country had made it to the next round where a much more difficult opponent awaited.

The RickHouse Bourbon was pitted against another bourbon from North Carolina, but this time it was against a perennial powerhouse in the whiskey world, Krzyzewiski Bourbon Whiskey (pronounced shuz-whiskey). No one had ever beaten Krzyzewiski in anything, ever. Not bourbon tasting, not table tennis, not even Excitebike for the original Nitnendo, yeah Krzyzewiski's dominance goes back that far. In the middle of the tasting portion of the competition, one of the bottles of The RickHouse Bourbon fell off the table and was broken. No one had ever seen anything this graphic on a stage as bright as the NCAA Whiskey Competitions, and collectively, the nation was stunned. As the broken bottle was being cleaned up, the other bottles of Bourbon were devastated and appeared to be in a situation Ware they could lose their cool under the gravity of it all. But that broken bottle gathered the other bottles around and seemingly spoke to them, telling them not to worry about it, but just to go win the competition. It would be fine, just win the competition. And that is just what they did. Those bottles seemed like they had more spirit, more maturity, more composure, and more flavor than anything anyone had ever tasted, and Krzyzewiski had been defeated. The second half of that round belonged solely to the The RickHouse Bourbon. The nation had a new reason to root for the bourbon that it had again fallen in love with.

Tom's Bourbon had again made it to the most impressive stage, the Final Four Gold round of the NCAA Whiskey Competition. This Mashbill had never gotten through this round, but there was something different about this liquid. Still, it had to face one of the toughest challengers. The RickHouse was an against an up and coming Wheated Whiskey from Kansas, Shocker State Wheat. It really came down to the very Hend ‘O this round, but the complexities and nuances of being able to find something where you almost didn't expect anything really gave the final edge to The RickHouse.

Finally, Tom's Rick had a chance to prove itself in the brightest of spotlights. Earlier in the day, even having not won a Best Whiskey of the Year Award in over 15 years, the Rick Pitino Grain was announced that it would be inducted into the Grainsmith's Hall of Grains, the most prestigious honor a Grain can receive. What better way for The RickHouse Bourbon to end the Competition than by winning the whole damned thing?

The only thing standing in Rick's way was a powerful and exciting high profile Whiskey from Michigan, called Blue Maize Corn Whiskey. This whiskey had scored higher than just about any other whiskey on the market. It didn't matter. The corn whiskey was very good, but did not have the maturity, depth, or care and passion put into the barrel like Tom did for his. The scores were higher, the tastes were deeper, and the purpose was determined, inspired, and driven. It was clear to Siva, the Blue Maise would be good to Spike the punch, but it was no fLuuuke, the master plan of Master Distiller Tom Jurich had finally come to fruition. His bourbon had won the Best Whiskey of the Year Award for 2013.

The scary part is Tom still has a special reserve that he plans on releasing next year. It has a lot of the same characteristics, which includes many of the same outstanding tasting notes as the 2012-2013 batch. It also includes a bit more of the bourbon distilled with the Russel Rye, which we weren't sure we would ever see again, but over the course of this next year will have matured and become a focal point of the new version of the Small Batch. And of course, when your Primary Grain is a Hall of Grainer and defending Best Whiskey of the Year Champion, it is hard to argue with success. And don't worry, if you ever forget, look on the back of that bottle. There will forever be a Best Whiskey of the Year Champ Stamp etched into the glass moving forward. Tom appears primed to send this RickHouse Bourbon back to the spotlight and into another shot at a Final Four Gold award and even a repeat of the Best Whiskey of the Year. And to that, we can all raise our glass and say cheers, or do cheers: clap...clap... clap... clap.. clap.. clap. clap. aaaaaaahhhhhh C-A-R-D-S-CARDS!

Okay, I know that was long. If anyone made it through, I hope you enjoyed the puns and innuendos I threw in there in hopes you would want to keep reading, even if just to see what would be next. Thanks for reading. I know, some of the comparisons were a little bit far-fetched, like adding a new Rye aspect in 2010 that you hadn't even heard about for the first 9 years of the bourbon being distilled or bourbon talking to different parts of itself, but you know what? SHHHHHHHHHHHH... it's all part of the story. Anyway, I hope you liked some of the parallels. I couldn't stop thinking about them, so I had to write this whole thing and hope it would all kind of make sense. I guess it kind of does. Anyway, enjoy your Cardinal Bourbon, both the liquid kind and the team, and please do so responsibly. Go CARDS!!! And oh yeah, and Louisville won the National Championship.

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