The NBA legend has been very hands-on with every aspect of Digits Bourbon, from tasting and blending to pasting labels on bottles.

By Maria C. Hunt
June 14, 2021
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It's all hands on deck at the Savage & Cooke Distillery on Mare Island in Vallejo, California, 30 minutes north of Oakland. Dave Phinney's distillery has shut down its regular whiskey production to concentrate on a new release: Digits Bourbon from Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen.

Bottles are filled at a contraption that looks like stainless steel udder that dispenses bourbon instead of milk. Office workers are taping boxes together. Guys who usually tend to vats of fermenting grain are labeling bottles. And the warehouse team includes a very tall new guy named Scottie working quietly at a stainless steel table.

Scottie Pippen Bourbon
Credit: Margaret Pattillo

Pippen went casual chic for his first day on the job: grey and red Dior sweatshirt and black jeans, plus diamond studs and an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch. As "Nonstop" by Drake booms from his Ultimate Ears portable speaker, Pippen smooths the labels on each side of the short bottle. "The secret to getting it straight is this little box," he says, referring to a guide that helps him line up the labels. "It's a gorgeous bottle."

With Digits Bourbon, Pippen joins the celebrities-with-spirits club. But it's hard to imagine George Clooney unpacking bottles of Casamigos by hand. Of all the celebrities to launch a spirit brand, Pippen may be the most hands-on. Phinney, the wine-branding genius behind The Prisoner and Orin Swift, created a striking label for Digits: black-and-white photos of Pippen's fingers by Greg Gorman. 

Pippen says enjoying fine foods around the world has been a perk of being a professional basketball player. Moving to Chicago after he signed with the Bulls and traveling to play in the Olympics exposed him to high-end Italian cuisine. He's been known to dine at Rosebud in Chicago and Prime Italian in Miami. In Beverly Hills, he loves the branzino and the black truffle pasta at Celestino Drago's Il Pastaio.

Scottie Pippen Bourbon
Credit: Margaret Pattillo

He drinks all kinds of wines but prefers bold reds. "I like something that's got a little age on it," Pippen says. "I'm a Cabernet kind of guy." Lately, he's been collecting Phinney's wines, including The Prisoner (now owned by Constellation Brands) and Machete. "I think I like the little Black model sitting on the car more than anything," Pippen adds, referencing the Machete label.

During lockdown, while we were all perfecting our sourdough bread and Dalgona coffee foam, Pippen hunkered down at his LA home, cooking with chef buddy and business partner R. C. Mills. "During the pandemic we became bros," Mills says. "There was not a day we weren't cooking together." They brined a capon for 48 hours and then slow-roasted it in Pippen's Wolf range, seared some 60-day aged Wagyu, and sautéed salmon with capers and brown butter while listening to everything from Nipsey Hussle to Eric Church to the Temptations. 

After dinner one night, they were relaxing and watching old Bulls highlight reels. "He's sitting there drinking Crown Royal, and I'm thinking, That's a freaking magazine cover right there," Mills says. "I told him, 'You need to have your own bourbon whiskey.'" Pippen had considered it, but didn't know where to start. Mills, whose previous wine projects include Keyshawn Johnson's KJ1 Cabernet Sauvignon and Gabrielle Union's Vanilla Puddin Chardonnay, called Phinney.

"The part of the story that's kind of fun is [Mills] literally called our 1-800 number," Phinney says. He thought he might be getting punk'd. But Phinney called back.

Pippen and Phinney, plus Mills and Master Distiller Jordan Via, met for dinner at Capo, Bruce Marder's Italian steakhouse in LA that has an award-winning wine list. "I was like, This can be a really short dinner. If you're … gonna just lend your name and take a royalty and not do the work… that's the recipe for failure," Phinney recalls.

"And, you know, Scottie and his perfect way, he's like, 'Well, I'm going through a divorce. Obviously I'm not playing anymore, so I got plenty of time, and I like to work.'" They stayed at the table for five or six hours. Phinney remembers the Montrachet; Mills says they enjoyed a Haut-Brion from the 1990s and some of Phinney's wines.

Scottie Pippen Bourbon
Credit: Margaret Pattillo

The next morning, Phinney wondered how a Pippen bourbon would sell. He relaxed when their Chicago distributor agreed to take 5,000 cases without a taste. Digits will launch in Chicago the week of June 21, with a wine and bourbon tasting in the private club at the Clayton Hotel.

For the launch spirit, Pippen tasted with the distiller to blend the five-year-old bourbon from stock Savage & Cooke already had in the barrel. Digits is aromatic and clean with notes of caramelized apples, brown sugar, and spice. "It's smooth. There are no rough edges," Pippen says as he unloads bottles from a stack of pallets so assistant distiller Dylan Carney can fill them. "I'm looking forward to being in the bourbon business."

Pippen says their stock is resting in the barrel now. In the meantime, he and Mills are also launching a healthy superfood popcorn brand called Husk-think flavors like moringa, kale, and ginger. And he's finishing up work on Unguarded, his autobiography that drops this fall.