Sales of whiskey are surging. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, American whiskey revenue was up 8.2 percent in 2020 year-over-year, despite the 25 percent tariffs placed on wine and spirits in 2019. Web searches of whiskey makers and drinkers yield results of primarily white individuals, but over the past few years, the image of a stereotypical whiskey lover has started to change as more Black innovators enter the arenas of distilling, creating brands, and educating consumers about whiskey. These movers and shakers are working to dismantle the stereotypical image of the spirit’s consumers and creators. Just like many Black innovators in the world of bourbon, these trailblazers are developing new and exciting ways to broaden the audience and appeal of whiskey in general.
From pioneers creating their own whiskeys, to spirits educators and brand ambassadors alike, these are some of the Black whiskey innovators to keep your eye on.
When Jason Ridgel, a former health care marketing executive, realized at industry events where alcohol was served that he didn’t see many spirits brands owned by people of color, he was inspired to make a change. He had always been a spirits lover and decided to create a legacy for his family. “After moving back home to Nashville to be closer to family, I decided I wanted to create my own whiskey brand because it’s what I drink and want to share with others,” says Ridgel, who was living in California at the time.
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Ridgel founded Guidance Whiskey in 2018, naming the brand in honor of those who supported him along the way, as well as the Black ancestors who continue to inspire him.
Building any business is hard, but creating a Black-owned business is even harder, says Ridgel. When he was getting the product ready for market, Ridgel experienced racism, as well as what he calls the “snobbery that goes with liquor.” Ridgel’s spirits are anything but. “The whisky has drinkability, and that’s what we want,” he says.
“I call myself ‘the whiskey whisperer’ only because I teach people not just what to start with, but how you drink whiskey,” says Tracie Franklin, whiskey educator. That second part, “that’s what people don’t understand,” she says.
“The images we see of whiskey [in popular culture] can be college kids shooting back whiskey in movies or we’ve seen people sit with a really expensive heavy glass, but many haven’t had anyone explain to them what’s happening in their glass or on their palate.”
A former national brand ambassador for Glenfiddich, she is the first official apprentice of the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, which ams to bring diversity to the whiskey industry with the creation of the Nearest Green School of Distilling launched in 2020. Franklin works to introduce and educate Black imbibers about whiskey and all its nuances. As part of her apprentice work, she is training to become a master distiller learning the process of making whiskey.
Cameron George is the national ambassador for Ardbeg Whisky, a Scottish Islay brand founded in 1815. Based in Seattle, Cameron uses his unique personality to teach novice and experienced consumers alike about the brand with an outgoing, fun, and curious approach. “I find whisky fascinating. So many different ingredients, elements, and forces coming together to create something is truly a work of art,” says George.
As Ardbeg’s brand ambassador, George is a face of the brand in the United States — teaching classes on whisky, leading tastings, and using his platform to change the image of what a whisky drinker looks like. “Glenmorangie and Ardbeg Maison launched a new campaign which is colorful, welcoming, and aims to attract a diverse group of consumers to enjoy their whiskies. I’m energized by the efforts I see,” George says.
Du Nord is looking at the long game in whiskey. It aims to help create more Black-owned distilleries — using Du Nord’s platform to be an incubator in the food and beverage space. “We want to normalize it. This is bigger than Du Nord, we want to be an engine,” Montana says.
In 2020, Montana founded the Du Nord Foundation to encourage and promote diversity in various sectors of the business, creating pathways to economic prosperity for business owners of color in the Twin Cities. The foundation is also working to establish a business district for new minority-owned businesses.