We’ll always remember this tumultuous year as one that sparked necessary discussions, especially within the spirits industry. From shining a spotlight on “off-limits” topics — from sexism to the lack of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) representation — the industry felt the heat of controversy exposing its biggest flaws, leading to a welcoming influx of conversations with the focus on change. Though we still have quite a way to go as an industry, 2020 saw its share of redefining moments that offered a beacon of hope for the future.
“2020 was the year that forced us to look within,” says Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Blender, Eboni Major, one of a handful of women of color making positive advances within the spirits industry in 2020. “The positive stride is the visibility. I say that because, for a while, whiskey was seen as just liquor. For a while, it was just like, ‘Okay, this is the person that makes it.’ Now you have Black Bourbon Society and people like Becky [Paskin] that are calling out things that we knew, but it was kind of taboo.”
To Major’s point, whiskey has traditionally been marketed to solely older white men — leaving out a significant portion of its consumers, including women and people of color. Conversations that call that out are the first step in addressing it. Or, as Major puts it: “The visibility has been huge in being able to really see what’s going on because you can’t change or improve anything if you don’t take the time to really see it for what it is.”
Marketing is one vital piece of the representation puzzle, but jobs for BIPOC within the industry are equally important. This year saw massive growth for Uncle Nearest — a brand led by Fawn Weaver, a Black woman, and blended by Victoria Eady Butler, a Black woman. It also saw new voices enter the conversation, like the forthcoming Fresh Bourbon, whose founders, Sean and Tia Edwards, are the first Black owners of a grain-to-glass distilling company in Kentucky.
Fresh Bourbon will begin shipping their first batch in January 2021 to customers who supported the presale campaign, in addition to being on store shelves throughout Kentucky and expanding to six states by the end of next year. They also plan to break ground on their distillery in the summer of 2021.
“The spirits industry has been super receptive to new African-American owned brands entering the market,” says Sean Edwards. “If the industry allows a seat at the table for more people of color and women, it will only help it to be viewed more positively. It won’t just be paper statements; it will be concrete actions.”
Despite what the industry has gotten right this year, there is still room for actionable improvement.
“When it comes to diversity and inclusion within the industry, the conversations are there, but that’s all I see,” says Major. “The thing I’m looking for out of the future is more action.”
I share Major’s experience as the youngest person, the only woman, and/or the lone Black person in the room at whiskey tastings and events. So I speak from experience when I say that it’s not enough to simply talk the talk when it comes to change. Those talks need to be backed with action. As Major puts it: “Diversity is not just having representation. Having me in the room means nothing if I don’t have a voice, the power, or respect, and lastly, the equity that others do.”
Renowned author and creator of the award-winning Sorel Liqueur, Jackie Summers, has spoken on multiple panels this year about representation – and the lack thereof – in the spirits industry. Summers’ sentiments are similar to Major’s.
“The industry is beginning to listen,” he says. “They’re not beginning to institute change, but they’re beginning to listen. They finally figured out that while corporations are not required to have a conscience, they are required to produce financial benefits for the shareholders, and ultimately it is financially irresponsible to either not diversify your staff or not adequately serve a diverse audience.”
Change, he says, must start on the executive level and trickle down to employees.
“There has been a standard of mediocrity which has permeated how these companies are run,” Summers says, “and it’s insufficient for us anymore.”
Looking forward to 2021, there are big steps to be taken. How do we as an industry get past the conversations and into an atmosphere of action? How do you really diversify this industry from an equitable standpoint?
“I think that’s the next conversation,” Major says. “How do we make sure that this is something that continues on and on and this is not just a 2020 era of living in the moment? Intent is always great, but we know the more you ignore a situation, the more it gets left behind. So, as long as everyone is being held accountable, I think we will get where we need to be.”
Sean Edwards wants to see a shift on the executive level. “I think the industry still needs work on the C suites. What does the C suite look like? Is it as diverse as the customer? Introducing more diversity at the top would be a great move by the large companies in the industry.”
It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance. The key is to hold those in charge accountable and to continue to vocalize what needs to change to promote a shift.
“It’s important that as we seek diversity in this industry, I challenge those that will represent diversity – meaning the Black and Brown people – hold them accountable that we’re not just a number,” Major says. “It’s not just good enough to have us there. Make sure diversity and inclusion are included in everything you do. It’s about being able to create a future for others. As our ancestors did it for us, we need to do it for the next generation.”
The most important domino to fall is hiring practices. As Edwards states, “We also have a truly diverse team working with Fresh, that has assisted in every decision we’ve made. This not only makes us inclusive for people of color and women but also experienced professionals working with us who have committed years to the industry.”
Summers, who has written extensively about representation in the drinks industry, sees increased Black ownership — like himself, Fawn Weaver, and Tia and Sean Edwards — as the path forward.
“There are two parts to this game,” he says. “There’s what you do that everyone sees and then it’s what you do privately. Like Biggie said, ‘Bad boys move in silence and violence.’ So, publicly, I am trying to make sure there’s education. Publicly, I’m trying to make sure that there’s awareness. Publicly, I’m trying to put words out into the universe that bring these issues to light. Behind the scenes, I’m trying to make sure that I can not just work with organizations that put diversity and inclusion as a priority, but to create one. Because it isn’t enough anymore to accept crumbs from the table. We can make our own table.”
He certainly takes the initiative when it comes to not only speaking on change but driving it. Sorel will re-launch in the new year and be available in the Caribbean, North America, South America, and Africa. Summers also plans to release additional liquors “with centuries of cultural significance that have not been properly marketed.” Working with fellow advocates for diversity and inclusion on future projects, Summers adds, “I’m going to look for people like myself. Black people, women, Asians, Latin, anyone’s who been marginalized and help them grow their businesses. What’s important to me isn’t my achievement or my goals, but the community. There’s a model of consumer capitalism that is me and how much I can accumulate. I want to break that model. I want the model to be us and how much can we create and distribute.”
While 2020 saw the rumblings of significant change in the spirits industry, 2021 needs to be the year the chatter is put into motion.
“The industry finally figured out there are things not palatable anymore — like delicious rums that are named Plantation,” says Summers. “We love your rum, but we’re not going to support this anymore. So, they’re beginning to listen. But what have they done? That is to be seen. So, while I’m sick of hearing myself talk and I’m sure others are sick of hearing me talk too, they’re going to hear my mouth and more mouths like mine more vocally united over the months and years to come. Because we’re not accepting anything but change anymore.”