It wasn’t until Russ Smith found himself surrounded by cherry trees, waterfalls and miles of bright-green foliage among the Fujian province in China that he began to truly appreciate the little things.
Maybe it was the 62 points he averaged in China’s National Basketball League, or the 81 he dropped with Luoyang in 2017. But mostly, as Russ tells us over Zoom, it was the time he spent alone that allowed him the needed headspace to fall in love with a new craft, bourbon.
“It allowed me to really take in what I was doing and just be happy again. My first three years as a pro, yeah, I was getting paid pretty well, but I was unhappy,” he says. “I want to be respected for my craft. And I think that means more to me, my craft being appreciated, my creativity being appreciated.”
After captivating the college basketball world at Louisville, the 47th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft bounced around from the Pelicans and Grizzlies to the G League—and even a short stint in Turkey—before reinventing himself once again in China’s NBL.
The 32-game season over the summer was coupled with an immense amount of downtime, in which Russ thought to himself, When I get home, what am I gonna work on?
As someone who meticulously mastered each craft he fell in love with, the 6-0 guard’s passion for creating, innovating and acquiring new skills blossomed into Mr. and Mrs. Bourbon, founded, owned and operated by Mr. Russdiculous himself.
Seeing how 50 Cent, Hov and Diddy executed different partnerships with alcohol brands inspired Russ to one day launch his own liquor company. But he also always knew that he was going to do things a little bit differently, just like he does on the hardwood.
The Brooklyn native set college basketball ablaze at Louisville, leading the program to the 2013 NCAA national title while averaging 18.7 points, 2.9 dimes and 3.3 boards a game as a junior.
With a nickname just as cold as his illustrious career—and floater-game to match it—it was only a matter of time before his jersey was raised into the rafters. On January 22, during halftime of the Cardinals’ home game against Notre Dame, the program’s fifth highest-scorer (1,908 points) and all-time steals leader (257) was honored as Louisville’s fifth retired jersey.
As Russ leans back on his egg-shell white desk chair, he talks about how that night was as full circle of a moment as anyone could find. The videos of Rick Pitino, Peyton Siva and Luke Hancock on the jumbotron talking about their favorite Russdiculous moments was a nice surprise, too.
“There was a point in time where it was hard for me to get on the court. So, just doing whatever they [Kyle Kuric and Peyton Siva-Ed] said, listening, following instructions,” Smith says. “I guess that’s the best memory because if you don’t listen, you ain’t gonna get nowhere.”
Now surrounded by barrels of bourbon, flasks and tasting glasses, he did more than listen when his passion for bourbon whiskey started to take form: he examined, picked brains and soaked up knowledge from the industry’s best.
His obsession with bourbon started two years after his career at Louisville, as he continued to foster connections with donors and supporters of the program. The college-shelf stuff that he was used to drinking at the Ice House was worlds away from the brown colored spirits he was now dabbling into.
The notes, hints and avenues of flavors that filled his nostrils and palate piqued his interest and soon he was having conversations with the top liquor companies in the world—Brown Forman, owner of Jack Daniels, master distiller Drew Kulsveen and the folks at Peerless Distilling Co. Having direct ties to the whiskey-bourbon capital of the world by way of the rock paved the way for a deep-dive master class into the industry.
“Being here, I felt like it was almost like a calling,” Russ says.
From legal paperwork to calls with the dry goods department, to sourcing out his own lawyers and taking part in each step of the tasting process, Russ is involved in every single aspect of his company.
His hands-on approach and unrelenting desire for more knowledge made it clear to vets in the industry that Russ was indeed ready to break in the same way he broke out on the collegiate hoops scene—with a little bit of grace and a whole lotta flair.
As he and his team narrowed down the staple flavor of the brand, Russ picked up batches from the warehouse and sent them around to friends and family, still looking to balance the sensational notes a bourbon connoisseur would appreciate while fulfilling that burn that his boys desired from spirits like Hennessy. That’s when his peculiar palate and excellent understanding of a well-finished bourbon came into play.
Russ keeps all of his ideas, critiques and feedback from his journey thus far in a small leather-bound notebook. Its purpose serves as more than a collection of recorded notes, it’s a symbol of the goal for his brand, creating a flavor profile that lasts much longer than a lifetime.
Finalizing that long-standing flavor took years of tasting, experimenting and countless trips to different distilleries around Kentucky, settling on four different labels of bourbon.
Having just recently returned from a tasting a few days earlier, the notes and hints from Mr. and Mrs. are fresh in Russ’ mind as he breaks down the differences between the four different labels for us.
He starts with the black label, the brand’s premium product, aged 12 years straight out of the barrel with no cut, and finished in a cabernet sauvignon cask. Notes of licorice and cherries fill your nostrils while it sits like honey on the palate.
The red label is “incredibly hot,” sitting at a 125 proof with initial notes of vanilla and a jalapeno-peppermint finish that’s accompanied by a state staple, the Kentucky Hug. The blue label is cut to a 110 proof and is accompanied by heavy vanilla notes, while the green label fills its consumers with wafts of butterscotch, candy corn and honey, incorporating the brand’s signature jalapeno-mint finish.
In the land of whiskey and horse racing, Russ says he’s connected most with the pace of becoming a Kentuckian. The state’s pastimes and passions have rubbed off on the former Louisville guard, as Russ has immersed himself in the world of bourbon, reveling in sharing experiences over honey-colored liquor.
He needed it too.
Most recently, Smith joined the G League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants, proving yet again why he should be on an NBA roster, dropping 43 points off the bench in his January 6 debut. He still holds the G League all-time record for most points in a single game (65). In just seven appearances, the Brooklyn native averaged 16.4 points in 20.1 minutes before announcing he’d miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury.
“It’s like, damn, another time, another time. This is gonna be the fourth time,” Smith says. “I want it to go well, but to have people around me that care about me, that show me a lot of love, that support me, that means a lot.”
With a shoulder on the mend and basketball dreams still as bright as ever, Smith’s new passion serves as a homage to the state and the people that have supported him ever since he touched down as a college freshman in 2010.
Constantly thinking about how they can all win, Russ knows he’s not just selling a spirit, he’s selling himself to consumers and to the community he’s come to call his own.
As our conversation begins to wrap, his passion for longevity in this space is crystal clear—he begins to talk about the monumental figures in the industry: Brown Forman, Pappy Van Winkle, E.H. Taylor. Real people, hundreds of years old, whose names continue to remain relevant thanks to the legacy they built ages ago.
“It’s like having a legacy in real time,” Smith says. “That’s how I want to treat my brand, and that’s how others look at myself. So there’s no better way than to have a spirit that we can all share in that experience.”
Photo courtesy of Russ Smith and via Getty Images.