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Spirits

Who Is Bourbon For?

March 17, 2021

Story: Yolanda Evans

art: Nick Hensley

Spirits

Who Is Bourbon For?

March 17, 2021

Story: Yolanda Evans

art: Nick Hensley

A wave of Black-led groups is challenging the archetypal image of the bourbon enthusiast, and charting a new future for the category along the way.

Bourbon is a truly American spirit. It is a staple of Southern culture, a cult collectible, a drink tourism attraction. What it is not, however, is a picture of diversity.

Since its inception, bourbon’s image has been sold as the very picture of the genteel Southern white gentleman. But over the past few years, several bourbon clubs have sought to change that by reminding the bourbon industry of the power of the Black dollar—and rewriting the narrative around who the archetypal bourbon enthusiast is in the process.

Consider Black Bourbon Society. Samara Davis created her membership-based club after realizing that bourbon events did not cater to African American consumers, and instead centered an older, richer, white male audience. Part of her mission was to create a path for brands to market directly to Black drinkers. “We are a big part of the consumer base,” says Davis. “We over-index and we are still often ignored in the marketplace.”

Black Bourbon Society has grown from 50 Facebook members in 2016 to over 19,000 members today. The size, says Davis, has made the case to larger brands that they should be paying more attention to a part of their consumer base that historically hasn’t been targeted. “If our members are buying bourbon blindly just on taste, think about how much deeper that loyalty and that connection with that audience could be if you actually took a little bit of time to cultivate that audience,” she says.

For other Black bourbon groups, their mission centers on educating consumers about the lost history of bourbon, namely the routinely whitewashed contribution of enslaved people to its birth and growth. Enter Robert Beatty of Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. He founded the group in 2018 after a bourbon tour in Bardstown, Kentucky, where he noticed images of Black slaves of the wall. “I came back immediately from that tour after asking the curator: ‘Who are the people, the enslaved people on the wall and with no names and stories?'” Beatty recalls. “He was like, ‘Sir, you have to do your own research on this.'”

Beatty’s research led him to Freddie Johnson, a third-generation employee at Buffalo Trace Distillery, and the only African American to be inducted into The Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2018. “I found out that there wasn’t a group based out of Kentucky that focuses on African American involvement in bourbon history,” says Beatty. “We want to be able to just share [that] history so that we can move forward and rewrite some of those history books that, you know, did not include African American sweat equity.”

Founded in 2017 with the motto “Come for the Bourbon. Stay for the Community,” Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts (KOBBE) is not just a bourbon club. While founder Jamar Mack wants to make bourbon and its culture more accessible to Black drinkers, his primary focus for KOBBE is to use bourbon and its popularity as a means for giving back to the community. The group holds fundraisers, like its annual Bourbon & Benevolence event, aimed at raising money for local initiatives such as Change Today, Change Tomorrow and Children Shouldn’t Hunger.

“I don’t care if you like bourbon,” says Mack. “I can make you love spirits, but I can’t make you care. I can’t make you have empathy. If you can’t come to this organization with that mindset, we simply can’t accept you.”

While these groups have only been around for a brief time, they’ve already had an outsize impact on the bourbon community. The Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild has created a strong partnership with Jim Beam, building a pipeline for employment for their members; Black Bourbon Society partnered with Maker’s Mark to distill a popular private barrel that won a Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition; and KOBBE has raised more than $50,000 of in-kind donations in just four years. This activism is inspiring other brands to consider not just the power of the Black dollar, but the importance of having diverse voices in leadership positions. Tiffanie Barriere, a bartender, educator and historian who recently joined the Bourbon Board at Russell’s Reserve, sums it up perfectly: “It’s important for bourbon to make better moves with diversity because it is an American spirit,” says Barriere. “America is diverse.”

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