Bourbon is booming, surging past $1 billion in sales a year in 2019, and its growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. While bourbon’s image hasn’t always been one of diversity and inclusion, change has now started trickling through the industry. According to Nielsen, African-Americans spend more money on spirits than any other alcoholic beverage category, so now would be a great time for the bourbon industry to embrace its burgeoning Black consumers, including women.
Today, bourbon has a new wave of innovators and makers who are reshaping ideas around what a bourbon enthusiast and connoisseur should look like through a broader lens. They are creating initiatives and products targeting the Black community, which has felt neglected by the bourbon industry. These programs are taking various forms, including enthusiast organizations, Black-owned brands, and educational programs. Here are six Black innovators in bourbon that you need to know.
Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild
The Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild is an organization that highlights the contributions minorities have played in the bourbon industry and works to change its image. According to Rob Beatty, the organization’s founder and president, the goal of KBBG is bourbon education in history, distilling, blending, and tasting. KBBG partners with the distillation program at Kentucky State University, a historically Black university, to promote their new fermentation and distillation program to students of color. This partnership allows the students to learn the craft to lead to jobs in the bourbon industry, which is an 8.6 billion dollar industry in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association.
Saint Cloud Bourbon
Saint Cloud Bourbon is the creation of Ray Walker, a former Burgundy winemaker, who now calls Kentucky home and creates single-batch bourbon in honor of his family’s roots in Kentucky. Walker traces his family lineage from Ireland and Kentucky, two well-known spirits production regions. Walker’s unique skill of crafting Bourbon through the lens of Burgundian-style winemaking is what makes him unique in Kentucky.
His first batch was released in 2019 and all 3,000 bottles sold out quickly. As a Black man, Walker understands that outwardly he doesn’t look like a bourbon maker. He is no stranger to racism and experienced his share of it during his time making wine in Burgundy.
Walker says that he’s found the spirits space more inclusive than the wine industry. The idea that “this man is somebody that’s of value, somebody that is working his ass off to provide the best thing in his life as possible, and being able to share that with consumers. I have a lot more of that feeling in the world of spirits,” Walker says.
Fresh Bourbon Distilling Co.
Sean Edwards, a native Kentuckian, started Fresh Bourbon in 2017. Fresh Distillery’s products are mashed, distilled, matured, and will be bottled entirely in Kentucky. Although it has been challenging to launch a spirit during the pandemic, the brand is building a 34,000-square-foot distillery in Lexington’s historic Distillery District, which is expected to open early next year.
Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts (KOBBE)
KOBBE is a nonprofit organization aimed at increasing the participation of African-Americans in the bourbon community. Founded in 2017, the Louisville-based group has a philanthropic arm that holds fundraisers to give back to local charities. KOBBE’s motto is “come for the bourbon, stay for the community.”
Brough Brothers is the first Black-owned distillery to be launched in Kentucky. The Yarbrough Brothers — Chris, Bryson, and Victor — grew up in the West End of Louisville and the distillery will be located in that area. One key goal for the distillery is to help revitalize the neighborhood by bringing more economic development to the area. The Brough Brothers chose to highlight Kentucky’s culture in their label art, which includes bourbon, basketball, boxing, and horse racing.
Black Bourbon Society
The Black Bourbon Society is the vision of Samara Davis. Black Bourbon Society is a membership-based community that bridges the gap between the bourbon consumer and the industry. In June, during this year’s new civil rights movement, Davis wrote an open letter to the bourbon and American whiskey industry, calling it out for staying silent regarding issues of racism, injustice, and police brutality.
At the beginning of the year, Davis and her COO, Armond Davis, created Diversity Distilled, an initiative that partners with spirits brands to create policies regarding diversity and inclusion. Davis said she started Black Bourbon Society in 2016 to fill a hole in the industry. “I realized that there wasn’t a lot of direct consumer marketing geared towards consumers of color,” Davis says. “I really wanted to prove a point to the brands, and so I started planning events, showcasing African American consumers, and it grew from there.”
Despite the challenges of getting bourbon brands to see the value in marketing to a diverse group of consumers, in 2018 Black Bourbon Society partnered with Maker’s Mark to develop a private select bourbon that later won double gold in the custom-finished bourbon category at the 19th annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. “That was a bucket list idea that I wanted,” Davis says. “I wanted to see our company’s name on a bottle. We sold out before it was even bottled. Our members jumped all over it.”
What does Davis see for the future of the Black bourbon consumer? “If you build it, they will come. And that’s what I’m building with Black Bourbon Society.”