Life

Samara Rivers Of Black Bourbon Society Has A Message For Whiskey Brands

Sunday, June 14th, was National Bourbon Day, a celebration for lovers of the spirit around the country. This year, the context for the holiday was drastically different than years past. The widespread Black Lives Matter / Defund the Police protests touch on all parts of our lives (certainly how we eat and drink) and systemic inequity affects bourbon as much, if not more than any other industry. As UPROXX writer Gabrielle Pharms and Uncle Nearest founder Fawn Weaver both recently noted: industry-wide change is overdue.

That’s why Samara Rivers founded the Black Bourbon Society. Her goal in creating the group — active on IG and Facebook, with IRL tastings and events, pre-COVID — was to spark a shift in how bourbon is marketed, made, and enjoyed. In short, she was tired of waiting for Black people to be accepted in the whiskey world. So started a group that would command the respect of brands while also helping Black bourbon aficionados find each other.

This week, Rivers was kind enough to answer a few questions about the industry, the challenges she’s faced, and the changes that need to be made to the bourbon industry.

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Why was it important for you to found the Black Bourbon Society?

I wanted to create the change I wanted to see. There’s been a longtime disconnect between whiskey and bourbon marketers, as it relates to the African American demographic. Many were shocked that we even enjoyed bourbon — though consumer insights suggest that African-Americans are buying premium brands.

What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in the industry?

Being an African American woman in a male-dominated industry. Being a black woman in the spirits industry definitely can be challenging at times, but it also means that everyone notices your presence. I’ve gotten used to being “the only” in the room, knowing that I represent an entire demographic of tens of thousands.

How do you approach those situations?

I’ve learned to use my voice and platform to continue to create conversations for African Americans who love bourbon; the numbers speak for themselves [the BBS Facebook and IG accounts are both in the 15K range]. We are in the room — the events that I coordinate are proof of that. We are bridging the gap between African American consumers and bourbon makers to increase awareness, make our presence known, and continue to push change. I am doing the work to become known as an organizer and advocate for making real change in this industry; a voice for diversity and inclusion.

When it comes to the bourbon community, where have you felt the most welcome?

We’ve been able to have amazing experiences with brands like Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, etc and have great connections with cities such as Louisville, New Orleans, and Chicago.

When and where have you been frustrated with the bourbon/whiskey community?

There’s still a ton of work to be done in terms of diversity and inclusion. We recently put out an “Open Letter to the Whiskey Industry” in light of all that has been happening with George Floyd and beyond.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

It is known that African Americans spend at least 3.5 Billion dollars on wine, spirits, and tobacco annually. Our demographic over-indexes in spending and is a major source of revenue that the brands and the whiskey community benefit from and rely on. African Americans have long supported this industry – from the very beginning. We have made your barrels. We have built your rickhouses. We have harvested your corn. We have bottled your product. We have played every role except one of leadership to make this industry what is today. And even with that, we purchase (and collect) your products, we visit your distilleries, and we use our influence to share our love for Bourbon and American Whiskey with our families, friends, and networks.

Your silence over the past two weeks has not gone unnoticed. In fact, it’s deafening.

What conversations need to happen in the bourbon world?

As a society with over 17,000 members, we need the industry to openly and publicly stand with the millions
of voices demanding change in this country. We need to know where you stand, and we need you to show that you care. We also need tangible action to take place within our industry, to address issues of racial stereotypes and biases, lack of diversity and inclusion, and the erasure of our significant contributions in building up this industry — so that we are never faced with these issues in the future again.

We need permanent programs that foster more inclusive and diverse environments within your organizational structures and marketing practices. We need additional funding for targeted marketing campaigns for consumers of color.

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