Gears, Grapes and Grains: Mario Mazza and Five & 20 Whiskey Words by Clive Pursehouse; Photos Courtesy Mario Mazza

For Mario Mazza it all started on the old triple triangle. A GT mountain bike for the Northwest Pennsylvanian teenager would open up the world of bicycles, a world that eventually saw him racing at an elite level. Road racing would catch Mazza’s fancy in high school and from there he would race bikes as a student at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. 

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Mario’s family had been growing grapes and making wines beginning in the early 1970s along the shores of Lake Erie, with land in both Pennsylvania and New York State. Not initially thinking the family business would be an interest of his, Mario pursued a degree in chemical engineering. And during a stint at DuPont, he took toe-dip into fixed gear track racing at a trial day at Trexlertown, home of America’s most famed velodrome. His educational pursuits and his family’s business would eventually take him from the southern shores of Lake Erie to Australia.

Because making booze can be a lot of fun, and it runs in the family (also Australia is pretty cool), Mario decided to pursue an advanced degree in oenology at the University of Adelaide. In Australia he’d learn the ropes of both wine making and track racing.

Mario juggled learning making wine with a new found passion in the saddle. Track racing was all the rage in Australia in the early 2000s and while the classroom material came fairly naturally, it was rougher learning on the track. The racing was short and fast; the tactics were completely different than Mario was used to from both mountain bike and crit racing, including using one’s elbows. Mario caught on quickly and was racing weekly and training up to four times a week.

Adelaide’s Super-Drome hosted a burgeoning Australian development program and Australia’s national cycling operation. The development opportunities were opened to the local track racers, including the American Mazza who was suddenly training and racing alongside Aussie Olympians like Kerrie Mears, and Ryan Bailey. Mazza was able to race in the Australian nationals, and like nearly everyone else racing track in those days he lost to the Olympian medalist and three time world champion Shane Kelly.

Off the track, Mazza was working in one of the world’s most interesting wine regions, the Adelaide Hills, known for Australia’s white wines, particularly Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and the Shiraz-rich Barossa Valley. Mazza returned to the States with new found skill sets that he’d apply both in the Mazza family wineries as well as on the bicycle. His friendship with former professional racer and team director Chad Thompson saw him racing on the professional squads for Honey Stinger, A&F and Kenda professional with Frankie Andreu as the director sportif. Mazza represented the team on both the track and in criteriums racing through 2012, as one of the team’s elite regional riders. He even helped out Thompson at training camps with logistics and provided some sponsorship from the Mazza family wineries.

These days the focus is on the family business, which has grown from just wines into both beer and distilled spirits sold under the brand Five & 20. But while there was a still at the teaching winery in Adelaide, it wasn’t something the Mazza family took terribly seriously at first. That’s shifted though. “We’ve gotten serious at Five & 20 with a grain to glass focus, wanting to both support and celebrate the local agriculture. And while bourbon is popular, our rye whiskey is a connection to Pennsylvania history,” says Mazza. (The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was begun by upstart Pittsburgh-area rye farmers turned whiskey makers who didn’t want to pay the tax Alexander Hamilton was levying against them.) They were the fourth craft distillery in New York State. Now there are just under 100.

Master’s racing is still important to Mazza, so Five & 20 sponsors a master’s team. Though Mazza tells me that “We all still have to be at work on Monday, so it’s still competitive but maybe we take the corners with a little more care.”

Five & 20 Straight Bourbon Whiskey

 A 90-proof bourbon that spends two years in new American oak barrels. Master Distiller Joe Nelson still uses a 2,500-liter Vendome pot on these whiskeys, and the grains are grown by the Mazza family as well as some local farmers. The mash bill is 70 percent corn with both rye and barley malts making up the rest. For Nelson it’s about the blending, and this finished bourbon is classic with smoke, caramel spice as well as a smooth corn finish. A great small batch buy at around $40. fiveand20.com

Five & 20 Straight Rye Whiskey

An homage to America’s whiskey pioneers in Western Pennsylvania who, when George Washington showed up to quell their upstart rebellion, smartly said “uh, nevermind.” This 90-proof rye whiskey has a mash bill that includes barley malt as well, offering a classic balance of sweet and spicy with notes of vanilla and caramel balanced between rye derived spice and toasted oaky sweetness. $40; fiveand20.com