The next time you walk into a pub to overshare with a bartender, consider ordering a wrought of bourbon from a distiller who is ethnically diverse.
Bourbon is a punch of singed honey and ash making you gag as it coats the back of your throat. Arguably one of the most distinct spirits in the U.S., it is stored inside of a charred or toasted barrel. The fermentation process in the wood-based container gives the spirit its signature smoldering, yet sweet notes so good it makes you want to backhand yo mama–once you are tipsy enough.
Yet, unlike its taste, what often goes by unnoticed are the Black and Native contributions to the American whiskey industry. Added to the difficulties of both groups experiencing generations of injustice, they also remain almost invisible in the mainstream annals of the spirit industry. It was quite common for the work of Indigenous and people of color to go stolen and overlooked. Still, their efforts are undeniable, leaving imprints in every batch of bourbon they create.
“When you see the bourbon industry, you often don’t see a reflection of African American people, but we helped build the foundations of the bourbon industry, so it is an African American industry too,” conveyed activist and Kentucky State University associate professor, Dr. Erin Wiggins Gilliam.
Contrary to popular belief, African Americans were integral to spirit history and its multi-billion dollar industry. Historically, they worked and taught white distillers who eventually went on to become major players in the industry. While there are no records crediting enslaved African Americans as distillers, there are plenty stating they did. In the case of Nearest Green, a master spirit-maker born into slavery, he is said to have taught Jack Daniel of the highly popular Tenessee whiskey, the how-to’s.
“[Nearest Green teaching Jack Daniel how to distill is] rumored and it probably is true because there’s so many different influences and different touches from people across the diaspora free and enslaved that we don’t get credit for,” commented Christopher Gandsy owner of DaleView Biscuits and Beer.
If alcohol manufacturers existed during the enslavement period of African Americans in Kentucky and the bourbon area, they were often exploited for these institutions. For instance, Gilliam was able to uncover an enslaved African who worked with local historian Gary Gardner. Prior, he was owned by Stephen Chastain and loaned out to various spirit makers around town.
“If it’s more expensive to rent this [B]lack man to work in your distillery, it kind of gives you this idea that if you’re paying $114, he’s doing more than just cleaning the stills and doing something with the wheat. He’s probably key to the distillation process,” added Dr. Gilliam. She opines that African Americans should claim their economic stake in the bourbon industry today.
Entrepreneur Francisco Garcia highlights that the first reports of a Black owner with a distilled spirits permit in the U.S. did not happen until 2011. Hence, showing the industry’s lack of diversity.
Similarly, Indigenous people were barred from becoming economic stakeholders due to the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act banning the sale of alcohol on tribal lands.
Included in the longstanding struggle to prevent the looting of recipes and profits, several entrepreneurs have become all too familiar with the practice of claiming that their business is owned by a person of color to distinguish it from others. In the future, Gandsy predicts that will no longer be necessary.
“It’s going to be known that we have the dopest product out there because of the lineage we carry, the dedication, the expertise and the work we put behind what we create,” Gandsy told Ark Republic.
Today, Black and Natives continue to open their own whiskey spots. Here are five short, but strong shots on entrepreneurs mixing up the bourbon industry:
Established in 2012 as a bourbon and spirits import and export business in the U.K., Brough Brothers is one of the few bourbons that can be mixed with a cocktail because of its green apple and pear notes in conjunction with its nutmeg flavor. “We want our communities to be proud of the work we’re doing,” expressed Brough Brothers co-founder Victor Yarbrough. Take your taste buds on a journey by using this bourbon to make a Whiskey Sour or a great Old Fashioned cocktail.
Fresh Bourbon Distilling Co.
When Ark Republic first reported on Fresh Bourbon Distilling Co, they had just broken ground on their distillery located in Lexington, Kentucky. Now, Fresh Bourbon stands out because of its oak smoke and nutty flavor. This in conjunction with its dark chocolate and toffee finish gives it just the right amount of sweetness to offset the fresh lemon juice bitterness found in a paper plane cocktail. “We have been very intentional and deliberate in crafting our spirits—from the mash bills up—and building our Fresh Bourbon team, including the selection of our master distiller,” noted Fresh Bourbon founder Sean Edwards.
Seventy-five miles south of Seattle, Heritage Distilling flows Brown Sugar bourbon. Owned and operated by the Chehalis Tribe in Washington state, the establishment opened a brewery and tasting room at Talking Cedar. One of a kind, Heritage Distillery is the first tribal-owned distillery in the U.S. and the first allowed on Native American land since 1834. “If someone wants to tell us we can’t do that, it just spurs us on,” said David Burnett, CEO of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises.
Strivers Row Distillery
Latinos shout “Salud!” The Spanish expression for cheers, their good wishes are followed by a long cacophony of ballads over fast-paced beats and bad decisions. So, a “Salud!” is in order for the first Latino-owned distillery to open this year.
Garcia launched Strivers Row Distillery in Kensington, Philadelphia. “I hope that my sort of the Dominican drink that I’m producing is something for those folks that need a little bit of a subtler spirit,” stated Garcia who owns the smallest distillery in the country at 200-sq ft..
Named after the African American middle-class popular Harlem neighborhood, St. Nicholas Historic District, Garcia’s ode to Strivers’ Row, the sobriquet for the area, is because he lived there for years. More importantly, the district represents the determined, but thriving entrepreneurial spirit that once thrived there. As one of the growing New York transplants to Philadelphia, Garcia is laying multiple roots.
Power move at Jim Beam
Move over Jimmy. In 2014, Beam Suntory, a Japanese multinational consumer product company bought the business at a 25 percent premium over market value, or $16 billion. But Jim Beam is not the only one. In fact, Bourbon drinkers would be taken aback by the amount of Kentucky favorites such as Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek that are hauled from overseas. Boober’s and Basil Hayden are also owned by Suntory.
Currently, the expansion of Black and Native distilleries looks bright. Serial entrepreneur and CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, who launched the company in honor of Green, recently announced the Uncle Nearest Venture fund would invest $50 million in minority-owned spirit brands. During the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, she asserted that although the past cannot be undone, there is still hope for the future.
“Recreating a Black Wall Street of sorts within the spirits industry is a great place to start,” affirmed Weaver.
Indeed, the unveiling of deeply embedded bourbon history and the growing number of Black and Native business owners supporting their own is a dream that has become reality for the spirits and the ancestors. Cheers to making a deeper imprint in the new year.
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