Life

A Black Bourbon Writer Reflects On Representation In The Whiskey Industry

I’ve always been labeled as different. Growing up in Texas, I was the Black girl interested in skateboarding and emo rock, while simultaneously embracing what I was culturally “supposed” to be into, like hip-hop and basketball. As I grew older, this trait went on to translate into my choice of spirits. I was the 20-something woman drinking bourbon neat. No appletinis for me. This is just to say: Being unique has never fazed me, but I have noticed that my comfort in my own skin has caused others to have reactions.

I remember the first response when I started ordering bourbon at bars and restaurants in my late 20s. There was this look of shock and awe from a Scandinavian dude who was genuinely perplexed that not only a woman but a woman of color was drinking a beverage mostly associated with bearded old white guys. Though that is often how the world markets whiskey, it’s much different from my reality. I grew up with Black men, namely my dad and grandfather, enjoying a glass of bourbon neat. So when I think of whiskey, I associate it with good times at family reunions and get-togethers that called for a celebratory dram.

Once I started writing, I was always keen to expand from fashion and music journalism into spirits, but never thought I’d fit in because I didn’t mesh with the white male motif I saw dominating the booze industry — from whiskey to bespoke cocktails to beer. That is until two years ago, when I digitally met Emily Saladino, then an editor at VinePair. Taking a shot on me, Saladino offered a platform to write my first spirits piece, a profile of the Texas whiskey boom. To cover the story, I attended a tasting in Houston featuring an array of top whiskey producers. While there, I noticed not only was I one of few women present, but also one of only a handful of Black people in attendance.

Little did I know this would be the start of a lonely journey. A sojourn that’s left me asking: Where are all the Black people, particularly women of color, in the whiskey industry? Has it always been this way? Can it change? (Hopefully, soon?)

In 1964, the US Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit.” Still, current marketing trends and history have largely ignored or erased the presence of Black producers and consumers from the story of whiskey. Sometime during the 1850s, Nathan “Nearest” Green, born into slavery but emancipated after the Civil War, was one of these voices. He was a master distiller without the title, the man who first taught a young Jack Daniel the whiskey distilling craft.

Post-Civil War, other Black people played crucial roles in the larger whiskey story. Louisville-born bartender Tom Bullock was the first Black person to write a cocktail book. Released in 1917, Bullock’s book, The Ideal Bartender, featured a recipe for the bourbon-based cocktail, “Old Fashion,” which he’s credited with inventing.

Sadly, the role of slaves in the whiskey trade was never written down. It’s lost to history.

Generations later, I think it’s fair to say there’s an inclusion and representation problem with regards to Black people in the industry. I’ve seen it. I’ve been on so many spirits-focused press trips and whiskey tastings in which I’m the only person of color. And while I’m glad to say that I’ve never been singled out as “the Black woman” on such trips and tastings in a negative way, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t appreciate more diversity — both in front of and behind the bar.

Rather than viewing being a minority in this industry as an obstacle, however, I see it as an opportunity for me to help pave the way and open the landscape for more people of color to express themselves in industries, particularly in the spirits category, that are largely white. Fawn Weaver, CEO and co-founder of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey (yes, as in Nathan “Nearest” Green mentioned at the outset) takes a similar approach.

“I don’t look at challenges as challenges,” she says. “I look at challenges as simply stepping stools. I just put every challenge on top of each other to create a ladder that I need. The greatest opportunity I have seen was that there has never been a successful African American-owned spirits brand. I’m the first to be successful at this.”

This accomplishment speaks volumes for the whiskey industry in general and Weaver in specific. She’s shown that women of color can have positions of power in the industry and be successful in it. In doing so, she’s bringing her lived experience as a Black woman to bear on the creative direction of the brand. The whiskey industry is largely open to technical innovation, I hope to see people embrace fresh perspectives like Weaver’s just as eagerly.

Samara Rivers, the founder of the Black Bourbon Society, is another woman of color in the industry who I admire. She’s on a mission to promote diversity and inclusivity in the whiskey field and her success is undeniable. The Black Bourbon Society has over 10,000 members across the country — a stat that whiskey marketers have surely noticed.

Whiskey companies, hear this: Your demographic includes Black women, such as me. And Fawn. And Samara. There’s an army of us okay with being considered different (even if that shakes the boring status quo). If your company isn’t having the necessary conversations about diversity in whiskey, expect us to call you out. It’s time to add Black voices into a story that we’ve long been expunged or excluded from.

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