Eric LeGrand is something of a hometown hero in central New Jersey. Since suffering a spinal cord injury while playing football at Rutgers University in 2010 that left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, the Garden State native has dedicated his life to uplifting his community on both the local and national level. In the small town of Avenel where he lives, he’s a famous and friendly face. In the public eye, the now-philanthropist and activist offers his football expertise to his alma mater’s broadcasted sports coverage and hosts motivational speaking engagements at businesses, organizations, and schools across the United States. But in his latest ventures, LeGrand has taken a two-pronged approach to breach new territory: the beverage industry.
In 2022, the now-32-year-old opened Woodbridge, N.J., coffee shop LeGrand Coffee, which was recently named this year’s recipient of the New Jersey Devils’ Buy Black Program, an initiative dedicated to supporting and growing Black-owned businesses. And this year, LeGrand expanded his entrepreneurial portfolio with Eric LeGrand Whiskey. The former athlete joined forces with co-founder and spirits veteran Brian Axelrod to launch the whiskey brand’s debut bourbon, which is aged in charred oak barrels in Owensboro, Ky., and can now be found in liquor stores and on bar menus across the Garden State. In a full-circle moment in July 2023, Rutgers Athletics announced a multi-year partnership making the brand the university’s first spirits partner. Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is now available to football and basketball fans in select hospitality areas at the university’s sporting venues, SHI Stadium, and Jersey Mike’s Arena.
The new brand also provides another avenue through which LeGrand offers support to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to supporting those with spinal cord injuries. LeGrand and Axelrod have pledged to donate $5.20 — a nod to 52, the former defensive tackle’s jersey number — of every case of bourbon sold to the foundation, adding to the more than $2 million fundraising branch Team LeGrand has already raised to fund rehabilitation and research toward curing paralysis.
Here, LeGrand talks breaking into bourbon, patience, and changing the narrative around spinal cord injuries and indulgence.
1. Why did you make the decision to get into the bourbon business?
It was something that I’ve always been interested in, and I wanted to be able to change the narrative that someone with a spinal cord injury or disability can’t enjoy the finer things in life. I wanted to create my own brand around that to celebrate life, too. Bourbon-making fits who I am as a person: [I love] the patience, the toughness, and the grittiness that comes with it.
2. I know your injury happened right around when you’d be entering drinking age. Can you talk about how that changed your personal drinking journey?
I had just turned 20 the month before my injury, so by the time I started outpatient rehab, I was going into my 21st birthday. I was coming right up on that age, and obviously, 21-year-olds are going out all the time and that’s when I was trying different things. With my injury, I really wasn’t on so many medications that would prevent me from drinking. But as I got older and older, I’d be out and having a drink, and people would look at me and say, “Eric, you can drink?” And I was like, “Yeah, just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean that I can’t.”
I know not everybody can; everyone has their own different medical reasons why they can or can’t drink. But I’m someone that can, and I kind of wanted to end that perception that people have automatically when they see me as somebody in a wheelchair — I can enjoy those finer things.
3. How did you go about finding the right people to work with, and what was development like?
My partner [and co-founder] Brian Axelrod has been in the spirits business for 20 plus years, and I remember when we were talking about where the juice is going to come from, he kept on telling me, “Be patient, be patient.” You don’t want to just jump on anything that’s gonna come along; we want to make sure it’s solid. And through his connections in the field, we were able to get partnered up with Green River Distillery, where the bourbon is distilled, and Bardstown Bourbon Company, who bottles the whiskey.
They sent us a sample at 115 proof, and I’m not gonna lie, I was a little bit nervous. But when I tried it, it went down nice and smooth. I said, “Hold up, I think we have something here.” Then we proofed it down to 88 to make it versatile. I wanted to make it a little bit sweeter, something that you could have multiple drinks of — not only one and be absolutely done. We’ve been able to come up with a great formula with that cinnamon [note] as well as chocolate and vanilla tastes in there.
4. Was it always your intention to bring the brand to Rutgers?
It was always a goal to somehow tie my brand to Rutgers. I like to get them involved [in my work] in any way possible, and being able to be the first spirit sponsor that they’ve ever had and a proud partner of Rutgers Athletics is just amazing. With all the things that they’ve given to me and all the things and lessons I’ve learned at that university, to now be able to work with them through this business is huge.
5. You’ve entered the beverage field in two different ways. What made you decide to open up a coffee shop, and why in Woodbridge?
I wanted to find a way to bring people together during the pandemic, when [it felt like] everyone was hating each other and at each other’s throats. I started to think about things that people need on a daily basis, so I went with coffee. It’s a great way to have conversation and meet up with old friends. I knew once we got out of that pandemic era, it’d be great to get the whole community rallied around that because we have a lot of people that live in Woodbridge, but not a lot of coffee shops. LeGrand Coffee’s online store opened in January 2021 because I wanted to be able to get the brand out there to everybody, and our brick-and-mortar opened up on May 14, 2022.
At the beginning, I was boot-strapping: working hard, learning, taking courses with my business advisor. Now I’m [at the shop] a few times a week, but I talk to my manager on a daily basis, so I’m still very heavily involved with the business.
6. How has being the recipient of this year’s New Jersey Devils’ Buy Black Program strengthened the business?
We’ve been able to sell our coffee at the Prudential Center at different events with them, and have been able to gift the players and a lot of their other partners our coffee. Being able to grow the brand — especially with the LeGrand Coffee logo on the side of the helmets for all their away games — has made this a truly amazing partnership.
7. Why are pleasures like bourbon and coffee so important when more typical physical movement might not be an option?
People can relate to certain things. You have a cup of coffee [together] in the morning, you know, you can catch up on life. Then, when you have your glass of whiskey in the evening, you’re thinking about everything that happened that day, whether it was good or bad. Not every day’s gonna be great, it’s just a reminder that, you know what? I made it here. I made it this far.
I want to make sure a lot of my focus is on the good, and celebrating all the greatness that’s going on in people’s lives. I’ve been telling people that I’ll take care of you in the morning, and I’ll take care of you in the evening.
8. Do you have any more areas of the beverage industry you’re dreaming about breaking into?
I‘ve definitely got my hands full with these two [businesses]. As of right now, not yet, but I’d never say never. I can always change my mind or come up with something on a dime. Right now, my main focus is getting these two really cooking and where I want them to be at.