Perhaps best known as the reliable teammate of some guy named Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen is now making a different name for himself in the worlds of tea and spirits. Pippen, the Arkansas native who went on to win six titles with the Chicago Bulls, remains one of the best small forwards the NBA has ever seen. Turns out, the seven-time All-Star is interested in bourbon as well, running his own brand called DIGITS. That project recently intersected with another one of his passions in tea and — as the new enterprise suggests — the two play well together.
DIGITS launched in early 2021, a collaboration between Pippen and Dave Phinney of Napa Valley wine fame. The current offering is predominately corn-based, aged in barrels sourced from Indiana and Tennessee and assembled at Savage & Cook in California. It’s part of a giant wave of premium bourbon that has come out of American distilleries over the last decade.
Pippen’s latest collaboration is with Steven Smith Teamaker in Portland. Appropriately named Blend No. 33 (the number he wore on his jersey), the barrel-aged tea is crafted from Pippen’s own bourbon barrels. It mixes up three black tea blends, aged for five months in the barrel before being hit with coconut, cinnamon, and vanilla. The result is a complex tea that’s enjoyable on its own but equally good with bourbon or as the base for a Hot Toddy. It incorporates Assam, Ceylon, and Keemun tea types. The latter is a traditional Chinese variety considered by many to be the whiskey of the tea world, often showing woodsy, malty, and stone fruit notes with floral aromatics.
The move is savvy, as it covers a couple of bases. First, it honors the growing number of consumers looking for non-alcoholic options, perhaps while still pursuing some of those flavors and experiences (the tea sips like a complex whiskey). Second, it meshes well with his spirits brand and is a bit of an homage to something he grew up drinking.
Like a lot of NBA players, current and former, Pippen has an appreciation for wine but simply prefers spirits and tea. “When you grow up in the south, you grow up drinking tea,” he admits. “It was iced when I was younger and now, I like hot tea after dinner.”
Pippen says tea was always in his fridge growing up in Arkansas. “You throw a little ice in that and it’s a great way to beat the southern heat,” he says. “The older I got, and the further north I lived, I started to drink more hot tea.”
The collaboration works on a lot of levels, not only the complementary flavors of the tea and the bourbon but also Pippen’s connection to Portland where he played for four years as a Trailblazer. “Smith embraced me and it was truly a collaboration from start to finish,” Pippen adds.
As for bourbon, Pippen has grown to appreciate the spirit over the years, especially a good pairing. “I spent most of my NBA career in Chicago and it’s a city with several world-class steakhouses,” he says. “The combination of a perfectly-cooked steak and a smooth bourbon to sip on is tough to beat. I definitely kept that in mind as DIGITS became a reality.” When the label did drip its maiden bourbon, Pippen’s team managed to move 5,000 cases of it in the first two months alone.
Pippen credits his current teammates for the growth of his spirits brand and the new collaborative tea. “My biggest takeaway is that I couldn’t have done it myself,” he admits. “I’ve been fortunate to have a team that is experienced and intelligent. They know about the industry, how to introduce a new product, and how to grow it. I’ve appreciated getting a chance to understand everything that takes place throughout the process.”
As for the future, Pippen isn’t entirely sure but he’s looking forward to it. For him, it’s as much about ethos as the brand itself. “Do what’s right, operate with honesty, and act in a way that makes you and your team proud,” he says.