Answering the call

Answering the call

Being counted in a world of pandemic, inequality and injustice

Thoughts from... | 17 Jul 2020 | Issue 168 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Almost everything about our daily lives has changed since the last time this magazine was published. The pandemic has swept across the world, leaving us scrambling to combat it while still retaining some semblance of normalcy. Those still working are either doing so remotely, or have taken on a certain level of danger in order to work

In the global whisky community, bartenders and brand representatives alike have found themselves out of jobs, at least temporarily, as bars and certainly large gatherings of whisky lovers have been deemed too unsafe. Distilleries across the world have shifted gears to meet the global demand for disinfectants, particularly hand sanitiser. Stateside, we are also reeling from police brutality and reckoning with generations of inequality that have erupted into nationwide protests, and distilleries are answering the call there, too. 

Brown-Forman partnered with Uncle Nearest to launch the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, which aims to advance leadership opportunities for African-Americans. Nearest Green was a formerly enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Generations of both families have remained close to this day, a fact which prompted Fawn Weaver to found the Uncle Nearest brand of whisky. Weaver initially intended to make a movie about Green, but realised that starting a brand to commemorate his contribution to the whiskey world would have a more lasting impact.

Today there’s no longer plausible deniability when it comes to diversity in the industry. Social media, for all its ills, has shown us the reality of inequality. In the midst of virtual happy hours and live cocktail-making videos, bartenders and bar owners are leading the charge to demand accountability and to care for the community. 

Realise we are going to come out of this better and stronger on the other side

The Lee Initiative, based in Louisville, Kentucky, was founded by Chef Edward Lee, a James Beard Award multi-year semifinalist for Best Chefs in America. When the pandemic began it distributed meals to out-of-work restaurant and bar staff through the Restaurant Relief Program. 

A few months later, Louisville Chef David McAtee was shot by police while tending his barbecue. The Lee Initiative again sprung into action. Lee closed his restaurant on Main Street and turned it into the McAtee Community Kitchen, which works to collect and distribute family meals, groceries, and supplies to the community McAtee served.

When people turn their noses up at my involvement in the whisky community or ask me why I would want to be part of an obvious vice, I am quick to point out the good this community does in the world. The majority of brands, owners, bartenders, and enthusiast groups have looked for ways to help where they can.

The Black Bourbon Society and the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild are two examples of groups working toward greater inclusivity in the industry.

Brands have banded together to release special bottlings of whisky to raise money to feed those without jobs. Some brands have donated money to initiatives that offer aid to out-of-work bartenders. Even bar owners like Bill Thomas of Jack Rose in Washington, DC and Larry Rice of The Silver Dollar in Louisville, Kentucky have sold off their famous rare and vintage whisky collections in order to care for staff.

In the craft distilling industry in the United States, distillers worked together across brands to develop protocols to make safe, effective hand sanitisers. According to Catoctin Creek founder and distiller Becky Harris, they went from asking whether it could be done to changing the laws to make it doable in a matter of weeks.

The world is in turmoil right now and whisky is answering the call. This industry has been through it all, from Prohibition to world wars, and has always pivoted to do what is needed to come out the other side. As you ponder the amber liquid in your Glencairn tonight, realise that we are going to come out of this better and stronger on the other side, and that your favourite beverage played a part.
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