Tracie Franklin found her way into the hospitality business as a teenager. Her mother was managing a restaurant and restaurants were one of the few places that would hire teenagers. Having also become a performer, she realised there were plenty of ways to combine the two career paths and eventually found herself on a cruise ship entertaining passengers and seeing the world.
Between shows she would bartend in New York, setting herself on the path toward becoming a brand ambassador and later the first graduate of the Nearest and Jack Initiative, which aims to further and promote diversity in the American whiskey industry
“When I was on tour, one of the things I discovered was that I was actually able to continue singing the next morning when I had had a few whiskeys the night before,” Franklin recounts. “If I had wine, if I had Tequila, if I had other things, I had a little bit of a scratch. It was a little bit more difficult. But whiskey seemed to be this magic spirit that I was able to consume and still have voice in the morning. So whiskey became my drink of choice.”
As she returned to New York between shows to audition and bartend, she began meeting people who worked in the beverage alcohol business.
“So people started to realise, the ambassadors and sales representatives, that I really enjoyed whiskey,” she says. “I was behind a bar and I knew what I was talking about. They started offering me opportunities to attend classes or to help them at a sampler or to help educate people or to help set up classes, whatever it may be. I just had a lot of opportunities to learn more about whiskey. And as I did, I really fell in love with it.”
These opportunities have included some work with Ardbeg and Glenmorangie about 15 years ago, pouring samples at tastings and working at festivals. While she says the experience of serving at these whiskey festivals and meeting other people who understood and cared about whiskey was “exciting”, it was here that she really started to recognise the industry's lack of diversity.
Franklin knew that there were lots of opportunities for brands to reach a more diverse audience as well as to be more inclusive in their staffing. With a friend, she started a marketing agency with a mission to promote diversity in beverage alcohol – but then they both received offers to work directly in the industry instead.
“Jennifer started working for Glenfiddich, and I actually left New York and went to Florida,” Franklin recalls. “I started working at a whiskey bar called Haven. And at that bar, I took on a job with Angel's Envy. After that, I worked for a rum company because I wanted to get some distributor experience. Then Glenfiddich came calling for me and I became their east coast ambassador. I worked with them for about four years. It was really incredible. I got to spread the word of Glenfiddich all over the United States as a woman of colour, which had just never been seen before.”
Franklin began to realise the impact she was having on the beverage alcohol industry as a person of colour.
“As much as I just thought it was cool to work for a Scotch company, there were so many people who approached me just to say that they were proud of me because they'd never seen it before,” she says. “They were really excited to see that a brand had decided that this is how they wanted to be represented, because we were drinking, right? But they actually acknowledged that and wanted this person to be representative of them. So for me, that felt amazing.”
Franklin says that she so enjoyed working with Glenfiddich, where she eventually became US national ambassador, that she probably wouldn't have left if it weren't for the “incredible offer” she got to join the Nearest and Jack Advancement Initiative. She was one of two people selected to participate in the very first cohort of this unique programme, which was created to honour two of the most famous names in Tennessee whiskey, Nathan 'Nearest' Green and Jack Daniel, by the distilleries that continue their legacy.
“Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel's came together to create this advancement opportunity,” Franklin explains. “They're taking people who are already in the whiskey industry and helping them jumpstart their career. So basically they said, what do you want? And I said, I want to be a master distiller. So they allowed me to take all of the classes that I wanted to. I toured throughout the United States working with different distillers and blenders and going off to labs and conferences and taking on honestly any mentor that would help teach me.”
Franklin recently received a certification from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.
“It actually was one of the most difficult courses I've taken,” she says. “I learned so much about spirits and so much about distillation and flavour. And I really am grateful every day that that course kind of came along my way and that I had the ability to take it because of this leadership acceleration programme.”
These days, Franklin is a consultant in the beverage alcohol industry working on blending, branding, marketing, spirits competitions, and more.
“I started Get Spirited LLC where I help brands with some of their marketing, their messaging, their packaging. And I just took a consulting job with Pronghorn, which is a company that is trying to create a template to diversify different industries in the United States. I am working also as a mentor to all of the new young ambassadors that are coming up and I feel really honored to be able to offer my insights and my mistakes to people who are coming so that they don't have to go through the same things that I did. I think that is something that we should always offer. There is no reason anyone should suffer just because I did.”