Leah Kelly isn’t fazed by being called the “fun police.” While some people spend their 20s drinking and partying, at 25, the Louisville, Ky., native has spent hers rising through the ranks to lead alcohol responsibility for one of the world’s largest liquor companies, Brown-Forman.
“I’ll always get the ‘fun police’ jokes,” she tells VinePair. “When I tell people I do alcohol responsibility for an alcohol supplier, sometimes I get laughed at, sometimes I get funny looks, and sometimes people say, ‘What does that even mean?’”
While modern campaigns like Dry January and the rapidly growing no- and low- alcoholic beverage market enhance her efforts, responsible drinking hasn’t always been a welcomed message. Kelly witnessed this firsthand, growing up with an alcoholic family member who began drinking at age 12 and ultimately broke up her nuclear family.
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She also grew up in the bourbon capital of Kentucky, where her mayor — upon hearing she was studying international relations and fearing she would leave town — convinced her to intern at Brown-Forman. Home to brands including Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, and Herradura, the internship enlightened her to how an alcohol company could encourage responsible drinking without “killing the party.”
Remaining with Brown-Forman while juggling four jobs to put herself through college, Kelly became passionate about the role of multinational corporations in sustainable, equitable change, and social impact. She soon joined the company as an alcohol responsibility specialist — starting just one day after her 2019 graduation.
Now working as Brown-Forman’s manager of global alcohol responsibility and ESG reporting, Kelly spoke to VinePair about life inside a liquor company during Dry January, her efforts to make non-drinkers feel included, and the future of the no- and low-alcoholic beverage space.
1. How much were you exposed to drinking culture growing up?
I grew up around alcohol and was raised by a single parent as a result of alcoholism. My cousins, siblings, and I weren’t interested [in drinking] because it was established it was for adults. I didn’t start drinking until college and found I had a higher tolerance than friends, which made me think about my relationship with alcohol.
Then I started working in residence life and had hundreds of students, so I started recognizing the role of empowering people through my own actions — like not always having a cocktail and recognizing from a disciplinary standpoint that writing someone up because they’re drunk is a completely different conversation to checking in with them the next day, since their body’s probably punishing them at that point.
2. What were the biggest industry trends when you joined Brown-Forman?
Mocktails, which is a dated term now, were a huge conversation, as was having alcohol-free options. There was a focus on taking the Uber home and planning ahead. All our branded events followed a responsible event checklist: Is there food? Have you partnered with somebody to provide safe rides? Are there alcohol-free options besides water and Coca-Cola?
Where we’re evolving is leaning into inclusion. We don’t pat ourselves on the back for making sure people get home safe or for offering water at events. We pat ourselves on the back for creating truly inclusive experiences, where if you decide, “I’m not having a cocktail tonight,” we can still enjoy a nice beverage together and you still feel included in the occasion.
3. How do you achieve that?
Every day’s different. I got a call before the holidays from one of our market managers doing a big festival in New Orleans, where you can find a cocktail anywhere. But not everybody wants a cocktail, so we talked about having a Pause Lounge, reflecting our Pause campaign — “pause to think, pause to reflect, and pause to savor.” It’s reinforcing this idea that if you take a second and evaluate, you’ll make a better decision. We created a Pause Lounge with branded alcohol-free options at the same bars with alcoholic cocktails.
We’re often creating alcohol-free recipes for events and are supportive of bars and restaurants serving Jack-inspired and Herradura-inspired alcohol-free recipes.
4. N/A cocktails have long been enjoyed by non-drinkers, but it seems there’s been a stronger shift in the industry’s acceptance of low- and zero-alcohol wine and spirits in recent years. When did you start noticing this?
When I first started, we were seeing alcohol-free brands like Seedlip coming out. Now, the market’s full of them. I’m based in Atlanta and just saw an advertisement for an entire alcohol-free bottle shop!
People choose not to consume alcohol for so many reasons, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to share a drink with friends. So, we’ve definitely seen a greater prevalence of it. The trend’s here to stay, particularly among the younger generation of legal drinkers. Gen Z and millennials are drinking less, but better.
5. What efforts do you make in-house to encourage responsible drinking for employees?
If we don’t believe in alcohol responsibility and live it ourselves, it won’t be authentic when you look at our marketing or when we have sales folks going into bars selling our products. So, it’s about employee education around things like what it means to have a responsible event.
We’re also providing resources for employees to explore their own relationship with alcohol. We had a session called Awakening the Autopilot around the holidays because sometimes, we go to holiday parties and get a cocktail because we think that’s expected of us. We’re asking people, “Are you choosing to consume because you want to celebrate? Are you choosing to consume to decompress?”
On the reactive side, we have a strong employee assistance program and ensure employees have resources to delve deeper into their own relationships with alcohol if they realize there’s an issue or that [they’re] drinking more to decompress than to celebrate.
We also have an entire group focused on non-drinkers who are saying, “I don’t drink, but I’m an awesome salesperson and can still promote our brands.” Often, the folks who choose not to consume are our best sales reps. Destigmatizing that you have to be a drinker to work in this industry is really cool.
6. Do you still have Friday drinks like other companies, or is there anything special in the office during Dry January?
It’s balanced. At our global headquarters, we have Bourbon Street Café and part of working in this industry is having beautiful products, so you can get a smaller cocktail at lunchtime, but you can also get a smaller alcohol-free option. The same level of effort we put into creating unique cocktails goes into the alcohol-free options.
And we just announced we bought Diplomático Rum, so there was a Diplomático Rum celebration, but in addition to Diplomático Rum cocktails, we had thoughtful, alcohol-free options.
7. Is there talk about creating or acquiring alcohol-free brands at Brown-Forman?
It’s always on the radar, but we just acquired two brands this year, so I don’t think that’ll be on the docket at this point.
8. Some might argue that you have a duty as a responsible alcohol company to include zero-alcoholic beverages. Do you feel your role is more about embracing them as an industry and making them more accepted socially?
Alcohol responsibility is the responsibility of the industry, and one way we approach that is to respect everybody. Our organizational model is about enriching life, and if we’re going to talk honestly about enriching lives, we have to recognize there’s a level of harm that comes with our products if not consumed responsibly. So, we’re educating consumers on the best, safest, and most enjoyable way to enjoy our products.
That doesn’t just mean providing alcohol-free options. Another focus is bystander intervention because we recognize that while alcohol does not cause people to be violent, it’s used as a tool for people choosing to be violent. We’ve partnered with experts like SAFE Bar Network and we’ve worked with Alteristic to provide bystander intervention training for bartenders and folks serving our products. That helps create a safer, more respectful drinking culture, which is part of our vision.
9. How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Pause started as an internal-only campaign to think, reflect, and savor — whether you’re in sales, marketing, or accounting — but it started to trickle out externally. Our distributors, business partners, and stakeholders started catching wind that Pause was really resonant because who can’t benefit from a pause, whether it’s before you send that email or have a drink?
At the onset of Covid, when some governments started allowing to-go cocktails, we put Pause on to-go lids to remind people, “Yes, the world’s completely different right now and you’re picking up your Margarita and going home with it, but pause and wait until you’re home to try it.” The pandemic gave us an opportunity to think about what this campaign looks like outside of Brown-Forman, and we’re since leveraging it externally. If you look at ReserveBar, you’ll see a highlight of the campaign. We’re encouraging people to pause to make the best choices.
We also doubled down on empowering people — showing how to make the perfect Manhattan or Negroni at home, but also saying, “Here’s something [non-alcoholic that] you can use in lieu of Woodford Reserve, and it’s still a good drink.”
10. What are some of the challenges of promoting alcohol responsibility in a liquor company?
A natural challenge is educating and helping people understand, especially when it’s someone new to the industry who might argue, “My bonus is tied to sales. How does alcohol responsibility fit in?” But if you want to be in this industry for a long time, alcohol responsibility has to be personal, especially when you’re constantly in bars and venues.
11. What trends do you foresee going forward?
We’re still at the earlier onset of the no- and low-alcohol trend. Beer was working on their 0.0 percent [versions] for decades and now, people choosing 0.0 percent beer can have a comparable experience because we’ve gotten to the point of taste. I’m excited to see if we’re able to figure out the science of having a really well-crafted alcohol-free spirit or brand.
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