Over the past half-decade, American whiskey has seen a serious reckoning with regards to the erasure of marginalized groups from its history — especially the enslaved Black men and women who helped build the spirit’s foundations. Thanks to award-darling Uncle Nearest (and its superhero founder, Fawn Weaver) and upstart brands like Brough Brothers Bourbon, the white-driven narrative of American whiskey is beginning to shift. We’re finally starting to see a spotlight shone on Black-owned distilleries and blenders and Henderson Spirits Group (HSG), founded by former NBA player and Indiana University legend Alan Henderson, hopes to be next in line for some love.
Regardless of the media attention, though, it certainly seems like Henderson is coming at the industry with the right intentions. His focus is on supporting marginalized voices.
“I’m trying to be intentional about trying to give African Americans opportunities in this industry,” he says. “I really am trying to think about what I’m doing, because my mission is to diversify the box from the drinks we serve, the bottles you see on the shelves, the owners, the workers, the bartenders, to the distributors selling. I want to see more diversity in everything. We’re big consumers. We have stories to tell. We have money to spend. We can learn this stuff as well as anybody.”
HSG focuses on Black history in the spirits industry, beginning with Birdie Brown Plain Hooch — which launched April 2020. Inspired by a Black woman homesteader of the 1800s, Birdie Brown is a Montana-made unaged whiskey (sourced from Dry Hills Distillery, in Bozeman). It’s comprised of wheat, oats, and barley. The toasted cereal palate and hot, lingering finish make for an enjoyable pour all on its own (though it might run a little hot for an unseasoned drinker). As a mixer, it really shines — switch out your favorite bourbon for this hooch and you’ve got a new riff on the classic old fashioned.
Henderson’s company is also in the process of releasing a gin and a flavored bourbon that will come out under their Tom Bullock’s line. The influence behind the brand is based on the story of the first African American cocktail book, released in 1917 — The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock. By the end of this year, Henderson also plans to release another expression as part of Birdie Brown Plain Hooch’s portfolio.
Inspired by what Fawn Weaver and Uncle Nearest have done with regards to representation and inclusivity in spirits, Henderson says: “They’re killing it. But they’re also like, ‘How can we also help advance diversity for other people or other companies trying to come up as well?’ There’s room for all of us and we can help each other, so that’s what I’m hoping to see.”
We spoke to Henderson about how he transitioned from a career in basketball to spirits, Birdie Brown, and what he hopes to achieve through his company by way of diversity.
You used to play professional basketball. So, what got you involved in the spirits industry?
It’s interesting. As I was playing [basketball], I was involved in a lot of different businesses. It ignited my entrepreneurial spirit. We had some quick-service restaurants. We actually had a recording studio on a label in Atlanta where we sold over 100,000 independent records. We had a recording studio where big acts would come in and record. So, that was one thing we had.
Then, I had some friends that were working on a liqueur. They asked me to take a look at it to see if I wanted to invest. I ended up not investing. But while doing my due diligence, I started looking at the business itself. I really liked the industry. As I was looking at it — this was several years ago — there was a lack of diversity on the shelf. I think that’s really what spurred me to say, ‘Let me see if I can figure out how to get some good spirits, and tell some different stories, and give people a chance to pick something off the shelf with someone that looks like them on the bottle.’
Everything I was picking up was pretty similar — primarily older, gray-haired white men and telling a story of their family history. I was like, ‘Can we get something else?’ That’s kind of what sent me on my mission. It’s taken a while to actually get things together and get things to the shelf. There’s a lot of learning and it definitely was an investment and a process but I’m glad I did it. I’m glad we’re at the point we are now. I think we’re positioned to really grow, tell some great stories, and develop great spirits.
Are you based in Indianapolis or Montana?
So, I’m based in Indianapolis. However, the spirits in the Henderson Spirits Group come from all over. Right now, we do not have our own distillery. It’s something that we’ve looked at and could be something in the future, hopefully, maybe even a destination-type distillery would be the goal. For instance, Birdie Brown was an African American lady from Missouri. She went on to Montana in the late 1800s by herself. It’s just an incredible story of perseverance, risk-taking, and fearlessness. She ended up homesteading in the early 1900s. She was distilling her own spirits and growing her own grains. She had a parlor and had a lot going on out there. She was a real entrepreneur. I was amazed by the story that there was this Black woman that could do that at that time and in that place. It just really excited me. So, we really want to tie into that Montana story.
I actually have a family farm out there and they have a distillery that’s making the Birdie Brown Plain Hooch. So, it’s made in Montana.
Who introduced you to the story of Birdie Brown? How did you stumble upon it? What really resonated with you about the story?
I was reading, researching, looking in books, looking online, and trying to learn as much as I could about where African Americans were involved in the spirits industry. I started looking closely around the time some of the different moonshines were coming out. I started learning that a lot of moonshiners who would have African Americans kept as slaves who’d keep the stills at their house. They were distilling and helping them make the liquids. I started doing more and more research on how we are involved. I was really trying to find stories that I could build a great brand around. I came across [Birdie’s] story and started trying to read as much as I could about it, learn as much as I could, and it just resonated with me. It was an unexpected story at an unexpected time and unexpected place. It just resonated with me — her grit and her willingness to take a chance. I don’t know how many of us would take that.
At the same time, I was looking, reading, and scanning for other stories because I had this vision for Henderson Spirits Group to be able to tell those types of stories. I really wanted to put a portfolio together of products that were just great products built around these real spirits heroes in history. She was the first one we’ve had to the market and I’m really proud to be able to tell her story. I’m glad that it’s something that people enjoy talking about and take some inspiration from.
Let’s talk about the actual hooch. Were you able to find Birdie’s original recipe?
No, we could not find it. We were trying to find as much as we could, like an old recipe book or anything, but what we did find was that we knew that she was growing oats, wheat, and barley. So, we knew she was growing all that on her own homestead and that’s what she would have been using to make her spirits. So, from that, we just set up using that as our inspiration for it, just working on a lot of different mash bills until we got one that we really felt good about.
That’s how we came up with the mash bill of wheat, oats, and barley.
And what do you like most about it?
Though it’s at a higher proof, it still gives you that smooth taste even if you’re drinking it neat. This is a lot different than a regular 100 proof white dog from corn whiskey. I like that smoothness. I like that you can get that oat, cereal-type nose. It’s really versatile. You can use it and swap it out pretty much with any drink you currently were making with another white spirit or vodka especially, and it just gives you a lot of options.
In what ways do you plan to keep the legacy of Birdie Brown alive through your spirits group?
I’m trying to really diversify the bar — the people, the places — and make an impact. I want Henderson Spirits Group to be a place where we brought in employees to come on, learn and grow, and maybe they go onto the big brands like Diageo and work their way up. Maybe they got their start with me, maybe some stay, and some go. We can just really create positions where people can learn and grow and become a valuable part of the industry. We have big dreams for Henderson Spirits Group and Birdie kicked it off for us.