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New Nonprofit Seeks To Bridge Gap Between Black Drinkers And Bourbon Distillers

Erica Peterson

In his Lexington office, Robert Beatty pulls up a spreadsheet filled with names and contact information.  

“We just did a roster update, and we’re sitting over 55 members currently,” Beatty said. “So we are really excited about that.”

That’s 55 active members of the newly-formed Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild, a nonprofit Beatty founded about three months ago.

According to Beatty, since its creation, bourbon — despite going by the moniker “America’s Native Spirit” — has historically ignored consumers of color. He hopes the Guild will bridge the gap between bourbon distillers and black drinkers.

“The industry is not targeting black consumers. It’s the elephant in the room and it’s not something that’s been denied,” Beatty said.

As a group, African Americans spend the largest percentage of their alcohol-buying dollars on distilled spirits. And that number is increasing. But this group only makes up about 9 percent of bourbon sales nationally, which is smaller than the about 13 percent of the population that identifies as black.

According to Guild board member Gathan Borden, this means there’s definitely opportunity to attract more drinkers of color. He likens it to when the bourbon industry recognized women as a valuable market.  

“Women have become the fastest growing segment of bourbon drinkers for a long time,” Borden said. “But when you go look at the advertising and the marketing toward bourbon brands, they didn’t really talk directly to women.”

But in recent years, we’ve seen a shift; legacy brands like Jim Beam and Woodford Reserve are using celebrities, like Mila Kunis, as spokespeople and depicting women in print advertisements enjoying their products.

Borden says a reason for this is formal organizations like The Bourbon Women Association and Whiskey Chicks, which help educate their members about brands and, in turn, introduce distilleries to their members.  

Beatty says the Black Bourbon Guild could do the same for their members.  

“With an organization like the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild, it’s showing that ‘Hey, we are consumers. We are top consumers,’” Beatty said. “‘We love quality spirits and that we want to learn and enjoy the Kentucky native spirit of bourbon, as well.’”

Over the past two or three years, a few other bourbon social clubs targeted at people of color have formed. There’s Louisville’s Bourbon & B-Sides, for example, which hosts hip hop and bourbon events.  

Chet Johnson founded the group in 2016. At an event, just a few months after they’d formed, he was considering what it would take to attract more people of color to the industry.

“One part marketing and one part setting the record straight on the histories and the contributions of blacks to the whiskey industry, I think would go a long way,” Johnson said.

Beatty says the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild hopes to help achieve that goal through their education mission, which sets them apart from other social clubs.  

“We’re asking, ‘How can we spawn future bourbon hall of famers,'” Beatty said. “With our platform that we have, we’re getting more people involved from a tour standpoint, a workshop standpoint, tastings, teaching people how to pair, how to nose.”

The Guild will also look at the history of African-Americans’ involvement in the creation of bourbon as well; a history that involves slave labor and is often whitewashed.  

Which, Beatty hopes, will result not in just a new generation of black bourbon consumers, but black bourbon makers as well.