Bourbon’s black fans are changing the whiskey world for the better

Bourbon’s black fans are changing the whiskey world for the better

Meet the founders of some of America's Black Bourbon Societies

People | 30 Apr 2021 | Issue 175 | By Felipe Schrieberg

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In 1964, the US Congress enacted the benchmark Civil Rights Act, ending the laws that enabled segregation and prohibiting discrimination based on race. In the same year, Congress declared Bourbon whiskey to be a ‘distinctive product of the United States’. The connection might not be obvious. However, the histories of Bourbon and African Americans are inextricably linked in multiple ways – spanning production to consumption – and, today, the US is changing radically in ways that could well bring American whiskey and black consumers closer than ever.

Bourbon, which has survived a dizzying number of boom-and-bust cycles over its history, has enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade. In 2019, distillers filled 1.7 million barrels – that’s four times more than in 1999. In Kentucky, home to 95 per cent of all Bourbon production, it is an $8.6 billion industry. The fan base has exploded, for the first time reaching demographic groups not previously associated with the spirit. In recent years, new black-orientated Bourbon groups such as the Black Bourbon Society (BBS), Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts (KOBBE), and the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild (KBBG) are welcoming African-American drinkers eager to learn about Bourbon. Membership of such groups has grown quickly and thriving communities have formed, bonding over glasses of America’s native spirit.

Ticket holders at a KOBBE event hosted in partnership with Woodford Reserve. Image courtesy of KOBBE.

African Americans also represent a significant potential market for the Bourbon industry, as research suggests that at present three-quarters of Bourbon drinkers are white. Though African Americans represent 13 per cent of the US population, they constitute just 9 per cent of all Bourbon drinkers – despite Nielsen research that finds black drinkers the most likely demographic to prefer aged spirits over beer and wine.

That gap between the Bourbon industry and black consumers is multidimensional and historical, rooted in the legacy of slavery and institutionalised racism in the United States, a truth that brands only recently are beginning to acknowledge and confront. As a result of this, black-oriented Bourbon groups often go further than the typical remit of whiskey clubs, and are becoming key touchpoints for Bourbon brands that seek to engage with black drinkers, their roles critical to the growth and appeal of the spirit to a market that has to date been underserved.

Nathan "Nearest" Green at work. Illustration courtesy of the Nearest Green Foundation.

It may seem an odd contradiction that a new generation of black drinkers are embracing an industry first established with slave labour. The history of this exploitation is still murky. With the support of the KBBG, board member Dr Erin Wiggins Gilliam, a Kentucky State University associate history professor, has researched those links deeper and further than anyone else so far.

“We know that Bourbon distilleries and companies owned enslaved Africans, or they leased them or rented them for work at these facilities,” she explained. “Looking at the more recent past, during Jim Crow [state and local laws that instituted racial segregation in the American South], they wouldn’t even let black people work in certain parts of the distillery. I’m trying to get the untold stories of the black Bourbon industry.”

Slavery is at the foundation of Bourbon, and many of the key figures of American Bourbon kept slaves.

This includes Elijah Craig, long celebrated by the industry as the ‘father’ of Bourbon, and Jacob Spears, another early – possibly even the first – Bourbon pioneer. The family of Catherine Spears Carpenter Frye, who penned the first known sour mash recipe, owned a slave called ‘Little Bob’.

Such links to slavery still exist in modern Bourbon branding. Elijah Craig’s name graces a prominent Bourbon brand. Colonel E.H. Taylor, a slaveowner and an important figure in Bourbon’s early history, is featured on a brand that bears his name. Rebel Yell Bourbon (recently and quietly rebranded as ‘Rebel’) honoured the war cry of soldiers fighting for the pro-slavery Confederacy in the Civil War.

However, Bourbon and whiskey brands are reckoning with history in various ways. Some have been vocal in their support for Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests. Others such as Brown-Forman, Buffalo Trace (which produces E.H. Taylor) and Jim Beam have openly acknowledged their slavery history and have engaged in tough discussions about slavery and race – and how to assume accountability for the damning aspects of their history. That said, there is still much to be done.

Black-orientated Bourbon groups are busy on many fronts. In addition to organising classic tasting events and tours typical of many whiskey clubs, each has developed its own approach to promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). The Black Bourbon Society – which has attracted more than 20,000 members since its founding in 2016 – has launched various advocacy campaigns such as #BlackManhattan
to demand diversity and inclusion within the spirits industry and another 2020 drive via an open letter, calling out Bourbon and whiskey brands that did not support protests against structural racism.

BBS founder Samara Davis advocates for change in the industry, starting with reclaiming the black socio-economic history of Bourbon: “It is extremely important that the brands acknowledge their history and it’s extremely important to our members,” she explained. “Each brand should own the role they played and make a charge to do something different than the past.

“Black people are more offended when you pretend things didn’t happen or exist. We take pride in our contributions whether they were through slavery or not. It’s a part of what builds our personal family legacies and beyond. We want to know our place within Bourbon history and among
the brands.”

Samara Davis, founder of the Black Bourbon Society.

BBS focuses on re-establishing Bourbon’s black legacy by encouraging new careers for African Americans in the predominantly white spirits industry, especially to work as distillers and to occupy leadership positions. Since its founding in 2018, the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild similarly has focused on the black history of Bourbon as well as on empowering future careers.

“One thing I love about the KBBG is that they’re education first,” says Wiggins Gilliam. “And it’s education with a focus on the contribution of African Americans to the Bourbon industry as well as education about Bourbon and whiskey.” In addition to its events and talks, the group is also helping to fund scholarships for students enrolled in Kentucky State University’s Fermentation and Distillation Sciences Certificate.

KOBBE founder and Kentucky native Jamar Mack is more interested in using Bourbon as a vehicle for fundraisers that support community groups helping the underprivileged in the Bourbon stronghold of Louisville, Kentucky, where he lives. His larger aim is to entice members into a larger philanthropic effort. KOBBE regularly hosts charity raffles featuring bottles donated by Bourbon brands, while its annual Bourbon and Benevolence events raise thousands of dollars for causes it supports.

“We began to see our footprint and the effect it had,” he explained. “When you take even $2,000 to a low-income after-school programme, it changes lives.” However, despite his love of Bourbon, he is discouraged by the economic inequality in his beloved Louisville and the surrounding area – despite its standing as a capital of the booming industry.

Jamar Mack speaking at a Bourbon and Benevolence event in 2019.

In recent years, Bourbon and whiskey brands have adopted multiple stances on structural racism and its impact on black communities as these issues have gained greater prominence and visibility through the Black Lives Matter protests. Some brands have – conspicuously – made no move to recognise their history and the legacy of slavery, while others have consciously and publicly taken action. For example, Tennessee whiskey giant Jack Daniel’s has acknowledged that its founder learned the art of distillation from a slave, Nearest Green, and has partnered with the successful black-owned whiskey brand Uncle Nearest, which bears his name, to help African Americans develop leadership careers in spirits.

According to African-American whisky writer, author, and curator of the Manhattan Whisky Club Kurt Maitland, a number of companies fall somewhere in-between: “I think many brands aren’t opposed to opening up the segment, but they’re not quite sure on how best to do that. You can work with the clubs that are out there. Brands can reach out and find out how they can support the club, their events, or sponsor useful initiatives. That’s the way to start.”

Kurt Maitland at a whiskey event with fellow writer Charles Maclean.

BBS’s Davis is also ready to help. Last year, the group launched Diversity Distilled, a consulting firm with the remit of advising spirits brands on how to implement change in business practices to promote DEI in order to better connect with black consumers. Wiggins Gilliam finds the conversation to represent a national trend: “The Bourbon industry is a reflection of what is going on in society. When we talk about race, segregation, Jim Crow, or institutional slavery, we are talking about all these things that the country has gone through. And we can see it in our industries.”

A larger reward awaits Bourbon brands ready to acknowledge their history and to adjust for the future: by admitting Bourbon’s uglier history; by instituting accountability for that legacy in their business practices, especially through outreach and recruitment; and by committing to equity, brands will grow their fan base. Still more important, they will infuse new integrity in the production and consumption of Bourbon – a cause that’s worthy of a toast to America’s native spirit.

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