With a new bourbon, LeGrand starts another new chapter

Matthew Fazelpoor//March 13, 2023

With a new bourbon, LeGrand starts another new chapter

Matthew Fazelpoor//March 13, 2023

As usual, Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers legend and native New Jersey son, has been a busy man, continuing an entrepreneurial journey that gained momentum last year. The most recent step was the launch of his new liquor brand, Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon, with partner Brian Axelrod, a veteran of the U.S. wines and spirits industry. Axelrod previously teamed up with professional fighter Conor McGregor on Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey, which was purchased in 2021 by Becle, the owners of Jose Cuervo, in a deal worth up to $600 million.

LeGrand and Axelrod recently sat down with NJBIZ at LeGrand Coffee House in Woodbridge – the former collegiate football player’s most prominent retail venture – to discuss the launch and life as a business owner.

The two have been friends for years before teaming up on this venture, first launching a line of motivational apparel, which also provided the chance to donate to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. LeGrand has had a long relationship with the charity that supports those living with and affected by paralysis and seeking treatments for spinal cord injuries. To date, the LeGrand team has raised nearly $2 million for spinal cord research.

Around the time he was planning to open his coffee house, and on the heels of the Proper No. Twelve deal, LeGrand reached out to Axelrod to learn how he could get into the liquor game.

Axelrod, also a New Jerseyan, said he would think about it and after sleeping on it, realized that what LeGrand does best is motivate people. People get behind the Rutgers legend to support the things he does and sells.

“With your story and your drive, you’ll be a great spokesperson for the brand,” Axelrod recalled to NJBIZ about what he told LeGrand. “I’ll use my expertise to develop a great product to make sure the liquid is right. But I said the one thing we have to do is put your name on the bottle. This is your story. This is your legacy that will live on, hopefully, longer than he and I are on this earth. And his story can continue to be told through a bottle of liquor. It’s going to be told through a cup of coffee. It can be told through a T-shirt, through a charity event. Now it can also be told through a bottle of bourbon.”

Eric LeGrand (left) teamed up with Brian Axelrod (right) to the launch his first whiskey brand, Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Eric LeGrand (left) teamed up with Brian Axelrod (right) to the launch his first whiskey brand, Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon. – MATTHEW FAZELPOOR


That bourbon is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, distilled in Owensboro, Ky., and bottled in Bardstown, Ky. It is created with quality heartland corn, limestone purified water, and the freshest rye and barley available, aged no less than two years in charred oak barrels.

The bourbon boasts a warm nose and a smooth, crisp finish.

“My recovery journey has mirrored that of my bourbon. Both take precision, patience, and trust in the process,” LeGrand said in a statement announcing the launch. “Eric LeGrand Bourbon offers a way for those who are living with paralysis and those who are not impaired by it, to enjoy sipping on a quality bourbon, while coming together to support a foundation that gives back to anyone impacted by this condition.”

LeGrand and Axelrod have pledged to donate $5.20 of every case sold to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, with that number also symbolizing the 52 LeGrand wore as a Scarlet Knight. He said the foundation is near and dear to his heart and likes having that charitable aspect attached to this venture.

“You’ve got to have an actual purpose,” said LeGrand. “There has to be a reason.”

LeGrand stressed to NJBIZ that patience was paramount to the process. The idea came around the same time he was gearing up to launch the coffee house and he knew this bourbon would take time to ramp up, especially to make the high-quality product he and Axelrod were shooting for.

So, while he got his coffee house going, LeGrand leaned on Axelrod to serve as the point person on the bourbon. LeGrand stressed that he likes to deeply learn about the different ventures and projects he is involved in and joked that he had to call Axelrod often as he familiarized himself with the spirits industry and bourbon production.

“I wanted to know the whole process, finding the liquid, sourcing it,” said LeGrand. “When do you have to buy it? When do you bring on investors? When do you go to market? What will the bottle and label look like? I learned everything from Brian because I didn’t know. He guided me along the way. But I go all the way down to the granular level. I’m always interested and intrigued to learn things I don’t know.”

Eric LeGrand announced the launch of his first whiskey brand, Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon is distilled in Owensboro, Ky., and bottled in Bardstown, Ky.. – ERIC LEGRAND

LeGrand was adamant that he will never be the kind of boss to act like he knows everything, nor will he just slap his name on a product without fully understanding it, adding that he enjoys learning from people who know more than him about a particular topic.

The March 1 launch went viral immediately as the news spread across social media. Axelrod said their distributor, Elizabeth-based Allied Beverage Group, sold out the first day.

The launch is starting here in the Garden State, with Axelrod and LeGrand making a point to say they wanted to show New Jersey respect and give first dibs before expanding elsewhere. It is also available online. Kentucky is set to launch next month, and New York and other states will follow after that.

“He’s [LeGrand] got people all across the country that know his story. But in Jersey here, this is his thing,” said Axelrod. “We knew that people would show up. I think he’d agree that the support we received has been overwhelming. It’s been unbelievable. And the people are not only going into the store and grabbing it, but resharing it and saying, ‘Hey, I got my bottle,’ and drinking it.”

Axelrod emphasized that making a good bourbon takes time, but to be a legitimate brand in this competitive space, beyond just LeGrand’s name, the liquid needed to hold up and be something that liquor stores and bar owners want to serve. And one that customers want to drink. The early feedback has been positive from the first consumers, as well as within the industry.

“From a brand standpoint, we knew people would buy one bottle. We need them to buy two, three bottles,” said Axelrod. “We need this to become their drink of choice.”

Both men view this venture as one that will take a long-game approach, and – despite the early buzz – as one that is not going to reach its goals overnight. But they believe it has the potential to create a legacy. “It’s a slow build,” said Axelrod.

Plans include continued promotion and, perhaps, some fun events, tastings and possible collaborations throughout the upcoming spring and summer to spread the word about the bourbon. “There’s going to be demand outside of the State of New Jersey. We want to make sure we gave this state first dibs,” said Axelrod. “And make sure we give them our full attention. There’s no rush. We’re going to be doing this for a long time.”

How’s business?

The launch also comes as LeGrand is set to mark the one-year anniversary of LeGrand Coffee House in May. During the conversation, he reflected on this past year operating a brick-and-mortar spot in his hometown of Woodbridge.

In previous conversations with NJBIZ, LeGrand pointed to the book, “Shoe Dog,” which chronicles how Phil Knight built Nike into a global brand. He has said that the book served as an inspiration as he set out on his entrepreneurial journey in his native Garden State. The book highlights the long road and many trials and tribulations along the way for Knight as he built Nike, which LeGrand keeps in mind through these early stages as a business owner, serving as a reminder to just keep going.

LeGrand Coffee House
Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac and Gov. Phil Murphy assist Eric LeGrand in cutting the ribbon to officially open his new venture, LeGrand Coffee House, in May 2022. – MATTHEW FAZELPOOR

“Things happen and you just have to adjust to it. And that’s what I’m doing with my business,” LeGrand explained. “Every day is not the best day in the world, but you learn from it.”

LeGrand spoke about the myriad challenges that exist for a small business owner in New Jersey, which many readers can certainly relate to.

“It’s a seven-day operation. Once the media stops coming around and that all fades out, the newness wears off, what’s it like running a business? It’s a grind,” said LeGrand.

He made sure to shout out his team for their efforts throughout this first year.

“They’ve done amazing things to make this place feel warm and welcome, so I don’t have to be here from the time we open until the time we close,” he explained. “Because I can’t.”

LeGrand cannot be there all the time, in large part, because of the time and effort his morning process and therapy routines require each and every day. He estimates he is at the shop two to three days a week for a few hours at a time but is constantly engaged and on the phone with his manager, Victor Morales, stressing again that he has a great team.

“They know me. They know what I represent, what I stand for,” said LeGrand. “They live up to those standards each and every day. I really have a great staff that I love, and I trust these people to run my business.”

As for the biggest challenge: the overhead. LeGrand said part of the adjustment is facing the high costs of running a business. The first year was spent learning the ebbs, flows, and trends of the business. And, as he likes to do, soaking up all the lessons and learning along the way.

“Now, going into year two, I know what things are like in the summertime. I know what things are like in the fall. I know what things are like at the holidays,” he explained.

LeGrand said the most rewarding part of operating the coffee shop has been the community support from his native Woodbridge, as well as seeing the people who have heard about it through word-of-mouth and social media and come from other communities to visit. They often then post about their visit on Facebook, Instagram or other channels, which has helped establish the spot as something of a social media and cultural icon.

“My goal was to make this place a destination spot for people that come here, visiting New Jersey,” said LeGrand.

Not surprisingly, the most popular drink has been the Scarlet Knight, which is flavored with mocha and chocolate raspberry. “People hear the name, and they just want it. They don’t even really know what it is,” LeGrand joked.

Before he opened the coffee house, LeGrand told NJBIZ he was also hoping to create an atmosphere where people from all walks of life could come in and feel relaxed and comfortable. “Our Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday crew, we got a bunch of workers that come in here and they post up with their laptop, they take calls. We see people come read books,” said LeGrand. “That’s exactly what I wanted. The weekends, families will come from all over the state. They’ll sit down, have a cup of coffee with their family members from all over the place.”

Other ventures

In September, the coffee shop was selected as the recipient of the New Jersey Devils’ Buy Black Partnership, which has included the shop’s logo on the Devils’ road helmets, LeGrand’s coffee being served at National Hockey League games and at other Prudential Center events, as well as mentoring and consultation with Prudential Financial on different business matters.

The New Jersey Devils and Prudential Financial announced that LeGrand Coffee House was the winner of this season’s Devils Buy Black Partnership.
The New Jersey Devils and Prudential Financial announced that LeGrand Coffee House was selected as the winning black-owned, Garden State-based business for this season’s Devils Buy Black Partnership. – LEGRAND COFFEE HOUSE

That partnership has come at a timely moment as the Devils will skate into the upcoming playoffs as a potential favorite to win a championship. “If they win the Stanley Cup, Brian and I will be chugging Eric LeGrand Whiskey out of the Cup,” LeGrand joked.

“That is the plan,” Axelrod added.

And if LeGrand does not have enough on his plate, he has also partnered with Jersey City-based Malka Media to launch “A Cup of bELieve Podcast,” which debuted recently with a show featuring former New York Giants star Michael Strahan. Other upcoming guests include Bryan Cranston, Paul Rabil, Ryan Clark, Triple H, and another Jersey legend, Carli Lloyd.

“I’m excited for people to see a different side of me as well,” said LeGrand, who pointed out that he will have the opportunity to be the interviewer after so many years of being the interviewee. “I feel like when I talk to people, they feel more vulnerable and maybe open up a little bit more, because they know all the stuff that I’ve been through.”

As he summed up where he is professionally and how he juggles all these different business ventures while also maintaining his daily process and, just simply, his quality-of-life, LeGrand said the most important lesson has been trust. He came back to the reality that he was never going to be able to be at his shop every day, though he was there five to six times a week early on as it got off the ground. So, it was imperative to surround himself with people and a team that he trusts.

But he has enjoyed going through the grind, learning the lessons, and adjusting as he continues on this journey. “It’s the whole process of learning and growing as a business owner,” LeGrand explained. “Obviously, I took that leap of faith. I’m the type of person when I’m into something, I’m fully in. I want to learn. I want to know. And then if I don’t know, I’ll put the trust in other people to get the job done.”