Malini Patel is helping herald in a new era in bourbon whiskey. Patel, who has worked with some of the biggest alcohol brands in the world, is currently pushing to create a more inclusive and accessible environment in bourbon. She likes to call this work “democratizing bourbon culture.” And while a big part of that means demanding space in the boardrooms of spirit companies for women and people of color, it’s also about making certain products more accessible to all drinkers.
Patel has the advantage of persuing this endeavor from one of the highest posts in the entire spirits game. She’s the managing director for the world’s biggest bourbon brand, Jim Beam. That means Patel is blazing a path at the literal head of the pack when it comes to the whiskey business, in specific, and the spirits industry, in general.
Last week, I spoke with Patel about her work. Our discussion ranged from how Jim Beam is trying to reach a wider audience to how Patel sees a formerly very white and male American industry evolving to where she’s steering that image and culture right now, with real-world initiatives and tangible action.
I think for the average consumer, they see Jim Beam and they think that’s a singular brand even though on the same shelf they’ll see Old Crow, Old Overholt, Old Grand-Dad, Knob Creek, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, etcetera — and not connect that they’re all coming from the same warehouses. How do you do to help people differentiate between these brands while creating a sort of path of breadcrumbs for people to sort of go, “Okay, I know I like Jim Beam, let’s give Old Grand-Dad or Basil Hayden’s a shot next!”?
When you talk about what you just talked about to the Beam family, it’s always been there. But I know consumers don’t see the brands that way. And so actually in my new role, this is the first time where we’ve actually put all of the brands together with oversight in a central way. It’s unlocked so much richness and storytelling. Hopefully, you’ll see more and more come from us in that way.
But what the family has been trying to do over the last 225 years is to invite people into bourbon, and we’ll say more broadly American whiskey now. To do so, we’re finding different paths for people to enjoy it. The idea has always been to share the bourbon with the world because the Noe family believes so much in what they’re making and how good the quality is. They want to just invite people in. And then if you fast forward to your Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, Baker’s, those brands were only introduced in the ’90s, right?
So that was a time when actually vodka was really popular. People weren’t drinking bourbon like they are today, and Booker Noe was looking at ways to help show people that there is more to bourbon. He wanted to create expressions that showed the breadth and depth of what bourbon could be.
And so that path of “breadcrumbs” is you take something as refined and subtle but yet complex as Basil Hayden’s — it’s only 80 proof — and you use it as a really good introduction. For most of my friends who don’t drink bourbon, I’ll start them there.
Then it goes to a small batch Knob Creek. 100 proof, aged nine years, it’s a quintessential bourbon. Next, is Baker’s which is taking on more, with a single barrel, seven-year-old vanilla core. Then I think it’s the right time to introduce Booker’s, which is uncut and unfiltered.
You’re able to express what bourbon could be and take it away from just being one thing. We want to tell the story of all of the brands. And, I don’t think people understand how they’re connected. So we think there’s an opportunity to share that more broadly. Whether you know any of that or not, I think you could probably still find something that you like in our array of offerings.
How is Jim Beam trying to stand out on the shelf as the shelf becomes oversaturated with everything from local craft to more scotch and Irish whiskey coming in every single day, and then, of course, everyone else is also putting out tons of different expressions as well? I mean… Buffalo Trace alone has something like 42 different bottles that they put out. As you’re looking ahead, how are you finding ways to highlight new things that are going to grab people’s attention?
When we think about Jim Beam, it’s an iconic American brand, right?
Oh, for sure.
It’s been around forever and there’s something about quality, at scale, that’s at the heart of that brand. So there’s something in the White Label that will always hold as our flagship. It is what embodies what that brand is about. But you’ve seen us come out with, more recently, Jim Beam Black and Double Oak. Then there are different expressions that will tap into what people might be looking for as they’re hearing, “Oh, rye whiskey is growing? Let me try something.” And I think with Jim Beam, it’s always about: “Can we make something approachable in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience?” After we consider that, we then look at what occasions are people drinking bourbon. One of the things that I think is most exciting about Jim Beam is that there’s an opportunity to democratize bourbon culture.
What I mean by that is as we look to the future, one of the things that we think about is how do we reduce the barriers that may be stopping people from coming in to explore the category. Those barriers could be, “I’m not sure I like the taste of it,” or “I may not be able to find it,” or simply “I don’t think about drinking bourbon, in general.”
And I think that’s where we start to explore and to keep it relevant. We think about how can we get people to think about drinking bourbon, specifically Jim Beam, on an occasion that they may not think about it.
How does that play out in real life?
A tangible example is with our newly launched RTD [Ready To Drink] line. It was a Classic Highball and a Ginger Highball. The Ginger Highball has a little bit sweeter and more approachable flavor. It’s really for someone who might not think to drink bourbon. But if you take the Classic Highball or Ginger Highball, and it’s a really good refreshing light drink and something that, if you’re new to the category, you could enjoy without being strongly put off by strong alcohol burn, then hopefully that’ll get you thinking about maybe trying more bourbon in different ways.
It’s an interesting space that allows us to go to places that you normally wouldn’t see bourbon show up. Now, you’re able to take Jim Beam to places that it couldn’t have gone and, therefore, get people who may not have considered trying it a chance to [try it].
There’s been a shift in the narrative around whiskey over the last couple of years. We’re talking more about women working in whiskey. We’re talking more about people of color both historically working in whiskey and in the present. We have heritage brands like Uncle Nearest starting up with a clear focus on women of color running the whole show. Where do you see yourself highlighting those voices in such a huge industry, given that you’re at Beam, which is pretty much the most iconic bourbon on the planet?
I’ve always felt immense pressure to do things that matter. I’ve seen in my roles — no matter what the organization was — that representation matters. Giving diverse voices a seat at the table matters. In my current position, it affords me that opportunity and so I take that very seriously. And I think that reflects on the organization and the industry as we start to see ourselves in it and make the shifts towards being representative of the communities and the culture of the society that we serve.
I think it’s very important for a brand like Jim Beam to think about the idea of democratizing bourbon culture. I do think that a lot of people don’t see themselves in the historical pictures of white men on labels. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot that’s happening. We need to move into a world where anyone can enjoy bourbon — male, female, any color, anyone. And I don’t think it was always that way. People still don’t think women drink whiskey. All of that is changing.
As someone that has the perspective as a female and has a perspective as a minority, I need to make sure that my experiences and the experiences that I know are happening around are reflected in the work that we do and in the offerings that we create. This is why I think the strategy of democratizing bourbon culture feels so natural to Jim Beam. It’s always been about inviting people in.
I think there are big opportunities for us to just be more inclusive in the offerings we put out into the marketplace and the way in which we talk to and engage consumers.
Not to veer off-topic, but you also work with Inspire Girls Academy, which helps young girls get into STEM fields. Can you tell us how this all comes together?
Inspire Girls Academy was an idea that my sisters and I had. It started as an idea of building an all-girl school. The insight that we built everything off of was that girls’ self-esteem peaks at the age of nine. If you allow the norms of society and what we’re typically told is appropriate behavior for girls, we risk creating really low self-esteem in our young girls that they eventually carry with them into the future. Psychologists talk about low self-esteem as a thinking disorder — I’ll call the little bitty shitty committee — that’s kind of on your shoulder and it’s just chirping here that feeds self-doubt.
So through adaptable afterschool curriculum programs or summer camps, we use STEM-based learning — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math — to teach girls competence. It’s about exposure. STEM practices teach you the idea of trial and error, experimentation. We are trying to teach girls that failing is part of the process. If you don’t fail, you won’t learn. We observed in a lot of situations that failure usually meant that girls wouldn’t try it again or would suppress that ability. Unless you undo that way of thinking at a young age, it becomes this behavior that’s innate.
Then you layer on societal norms of what we expect of young girls and what we’ve always taught young girls. It’s changing rapidly now. But even in the times when I was growing up, you raise your hand, you wait your turn, you keep your head down. Those aren’t the messages that I think young girls should be hearing.
So we thought, why not start at the core of the problem? Let’s start with our youngest girls and give them the skills and ability to think about problem-solving and boundary-breaking in a really positive light and to see role models. They should be able to see themselves in people doing things that they weren’t used to seeing. The heart of it is really about how do you teach girls that taking risks and sometimes failing is part of the learning and growing process and allowing them the ability to do that in safe environments early enough in their life that they can take that with them.
Some of the best blenders and distillers out there are chemists and engineers by trade. They get into whiskey because they know the math and they know the science behind it. So you could be burgeoning a new generation of whiskey makers — it all ties together!
It is! It’s the blend of the art and the science, right? We talked about it at Beam all the time. There’s a scientific part of it, and there’s a lot of that. But there’s also an art to it as well as judgment, and it’s that comfort in the gray areas that create the magic. You need to be confident in order to play in that space. You have to be willing to accept that sometimes your experiment won’t work out the way you wanted it to. You have to know how to fail to make good bourbon.
It’s absolutely all of that. We do talk about it a lot at Beam because we think about the next generation of distillers that we’re bringing in, whether it’s partnerships with the University of Kentucky or just when we think about how we build our talent pipeline. That is absolutely the lens that we’re putting on it.
When you get home from work, what whiskey are you going to pour yourself tonight?
Ooh, this is actually an interesting one. My usual go-to, if I want something light and refreshing, like early evening, is Basil Hayden’s. I’ll make a buck or a mule with Basil. But tonight, I have an Old Overholt 11-year-old that I think I’m going to use for an old fashioned.