Fred Minnick knew Russ Smith as most everyone knows him.
As a former Louisville basketball player. Like a local legend. Like a larger than life personality.
What Minnick didn’t know, until the time he was sipping with Smith a few years ago, is that the former Cardinal is something of a kindred spirit, a baller with a taste for—and genuine curiosity for—bourbon.
“We went back and forth over some tasting notes,” says Minnick, a bestselling author who curates, tastes, and writes bourbon. “He has a good palate.”
Little did Minnick know at the time that Smith would be launching his own private label line, Mr. & Mrs. bourbon. But he is not completely surprised.
“I don’t think we’re looking at someone trying to capitalize on the bourbon boom because it has a name and a market,” Minnick said. in it.”
During halftime of the match at Notre Dame on Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center, Louisville will retire Smith’s No. 2 jersey, a reminder of the eight-year gap since he last played for the Cardinals. Although his professional career continues with Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA G League, the end is closer than the beginning.
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But in the state where Smith made his name, basketball isn’t his only passion.
And a potential future for Smith lies in the bourbon business.
He’s off to a good start with Mr. & Mrs., which Smith said has made solid sales thus far. The $40 blue-label and $55 green-label varieties were available this week near Louisville, as well as scattered bottles of the $199 Gold Standard, which were aged for 12 years and finished in a cabernet sauvignon cask. .
Smith can’t tell you everything about the process of building a bourbon brand. It’s unclear which distillery — or distilleries — produced his juice, and he said he has a nondisclosure agreement that prohibits him from revealing some of the details.
But he did his homework.
Jonathan Blue, the former manager of the U of L whose Blue Equity owns Liquor Barn and Party Mart — and whose house served as the backdrop for Minnick’s poolside sips with Smith — helped Smith build his signature spirit.
Blue introduced him to experts like Minnick and Kevin Curtis of Angel’s Envy and took Smith to a tasting at Four Roses in January 2019, which further piqued Smith’s interest.
While Blue Smith helped along that path, Russ has been steering ever since.
“I have to give him credit. He’s worked really hard, interviewing a number of distilleries,” said Blue. “I took him to some for starters, and he literally picked up the ball himself and did it all by himself, started calling people and started tasting and interviewing and almost became an enthusiast.”
Since those early days, Smith’s Mr. & Mrs. helped build some buzz.
Smith sent a bottle to Rick Pitino, his coach in Louisville, who tweeted, “I don’t normally drink bourbon, but this one is really good!” Former teammate Luke Hancock, a financial advisor and analyst for ACC Network TV, said he bought “about 15 bottles”, some to give out to friends and customers and others to keep for himself.
Smith “will always be loved in Louisville,” Hancock said, suggesting the former cardinal’s status in the city means some bourbon buyers would prefer a bottle of Mr. & Mrs. then have a 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle.
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But the novelty wears off and Minnick said the key isn’t the face on the bottle, it’s the bourbon in it.
“In terms of how he’s going to be judged, it’s like any celebrity,” Minnick said. ‘With that fame you can sell one bottle. The whiskey gets you everything afterwards. So you judge a brand like this based on the second bottle sold, not necessarily the first.”
Minnick has a sample of Mr. & Mrs. but said he hasn’t tried it yet. A review on TheBourbonRoad.com of the 110-proof green label variety mentioned a nose of “jalapeño and honeysuckle with spice and vanilla” and “root beer candy with hints of oak,” and said that by the sip, “the pepper spice gets you up front.”
The verdict: “Glad we took a chance on this bottle.”
Many Louisville fans have and will. Smith’s face on the label guarantees that. But he aims to sell to more than 1,000 buyers of memorabilia, stressing that “we need the people to start drinking it more than collecting it.”
“Drink the juice,” Smith said emphatically. “Like people who have nice sneakers: wear the shoes.”
The jury disagrees on whether the brand has lasting power. But Minnick said Smith is “in the upper echelon” of genuine interest in bourbon among the celebrities he’s met. And Blue is bogged down by how committed Smith has become, how much time and effort he’s invested on his own.
“(Bourbon is) our Napa Valley,” said Blue. “To see a local guy figure it out and be successful is a great feeling.”
And while Louisville will salute Smith’s past achievements in the sport this city loves on Saturday, he may well have a future with the spirit he cherishes.
Hancock will miss the jersey farewell ceremony. He had previously planned a trip. But Smith’s old teammate has an idea of how to pay tribute when he’s back in the Yum! Centre.
“I’m going to celebrate that jersey forever,” Hancock said. “Next time I’m there, I might try smuggle a little Russdiculous bourbon upstairs to toast him.”
Courier Journal columnist Tim Sullivan contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared in Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville basketball legend Russ Smith tries bourbon