James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi Are Teammates in Tasting
October 8, 2022 –––––– Ted Simmons
James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi were already friends and Andretti Autosport teammates when they discovered bourbon. In late 2016 or so, the IndyCar drivers approached one another about this shared discovery. “Bourbon was just another thing we both sort of fell into and another common interest,” Hinchcliffe says. “I don't think it's hurt [our friendship], that's for sure, [but] it's hurt our bank accounts,” he jokes.
In contrast to their high-speed racing, the two shifted into whiskey gradually, starting with some fairly foundational bottles—Basil Hayden for Rossi and Woodford Reserve for Hinchcliffe. “We thought that that was kind of all there was to it,” Rossi says. “But clearly there was much more.” They soon connected with friends in their home base of Indianapolis who were already established bourbon drinkers, and began meeting once a month for blind tastings. That group turned into a private club that would later be known as the Indianapolis Bourbon Society, and while they started by seeking out new releases, they wound up focusing on whiskeys they enjoyed the most. “If you find something new, great. But just bring something that you'd like to share and enjoy with friends, which is ultimately what the best part of bourbon really is,” Rossi says.
Years later, Hinchcliffe's wood-paneled bar showcases a wall of whiskey—bottles of Blanton's, Old Fitzgerald, and more lining the shelves. Rossi meanwhile references Whisky Advocate's 2017 Whisky of the Year Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch B517 as a pivotal dram in his journey, saying he bought an entire case of it. Hinchcliffe has likewise become an avid whisky shopper. On a recent trip to Nashville, he visited a liquor store and struck up a conversation with a group sampling whiskey. After chatting briefly and telling them he was looking for something he couldn't find back home, they handed him a few bottles of J. Mattingly.
“One of the perks of our job is the travel, and we often will land at a new city for a race. The first thing we'll do is Google the closest liquor stores en route from the airport to the racetrack,” he says. “We love doing that—finding things that are unique to the areas and trying new stuff.” The two have also traveled to Kentucky, visiting distilleries—including Buffalo Trace, 1792, Willett, and Heaven Hill—picking single barrels for their tasting group to both enjoy and raise money for charity. “After seeing the process, the location, and then ending the tour or your day with the product definitely gives you a different appreciation of it than sipping on your porch,” Rossi says.
Along with that appreciation, both Hinchcliffe and Rossi understand the importance of responsibility. As professional drivers, they are in a unique position to serve as examples of how someone can drive cars and enjoy whiskey while keeping them wholly separate. “In a lot of ways, people who drive professionally are some of the best people to talk about alcohol use, because we understand what it takes to drive a car at the limit. We know how detrimental distracted driving can be, and we obviously know how detrimental impaired driving can be,” Hinchcliffe says. “Who better to advocate that message than someone who drives professionally?”
In December, Hinchcliffe announced that he was stepping away from IndyCar competition, joining the NBC broadcast team for the 2022 season. While he's adamant that this isn't retirement, he is using his time off the track to taste more whiskey and travel with his wife. In other words, his hunt for roadside gems continues.
Who: James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi, professional race car drivers
Tasting Club: Indianpolis Bourbon Society
Podcast: Off Track with Hinch and Rossi
Favorite Distillers: Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill
Collecting vs. Cracking: "We've always been big advocates of 'drink what you've got,'" Hinchcliffe says. "They're expensive bottles, they're rare bottles, but we've always been about learning and drinking and enjoying together."