It was late night hunger that lured Samara Rivers into a New Orleans convenience store during a family vacation in 2015—but what she discovered was whiskey. As she waited for an order of fried chicken, the store clerk suggested a bottle of bourbon to go with the bird. Not just any bourbon, however. “My first whiskey I fell in love with was 100-proof,” Four Roses Single Barrel, she recalls. She never imagined how life-changing it would be—not just for her, but for more than 10,000 whisky enthusiasts who know Rivers as the founder and chief executive of Black Bourbon Society.
From its inception not long after that pivotal dram, Black Bourbon Society has expanded to more than 65 cities across the U.S., as well as Canada, Mexico, France, England, and Japan, Rivers says. She started the group to bring together a far-flung network of African American bourbon enthusiasts through whisky events and distillery visits where they meet master distillers and brand ambassadors, and, of course, taste whisky. The organization is open to just about anyone who likes whisky and aims to reach a diverse audience.
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Black Bourbon Society enlists unpaid volunteer “ambassadors” in various cities who help connect members with whisky brands through tasting events at local bars and restaurants. Despite its scale, this whisky club still relies on personal connections. “Really, how folks are finding out [about the society] is by word-of-mouth,” Rivers says. “Their friends bring them into the group, or their friends tell them about it.”
Like other large clubs, Black Bourbon Society has developed tiers of membership to serve different interests and budgets. The entry tier, at $65, includes perks like 10% off club merchandise and advance-ticket purchases for events and trips. Upgrading to a $90 membership scores a branded Glencairn glass and an invitation to a members-only reception during the society’s Bourbon Boule gathering held each Labor Day weekend in New Orleans. Top-tier membership at $125 nets a special holiday gift, discounts on events and trips, and more. “It’s our way of saying thank you for supporting the mission of the organization, and for really believing in what we’re doing to drive community within our demographic, but also pushing for diversity and inclusion within this industry,” Rivers says.
Rivers suggests that passion and personal connections are the keys to growing a whisky club. “I made everybody my friend, and continually connected with everyone,” she says. “I told them about my mission, that I was passionate.” Those efforts paid off as she managed to set up partnerships with a number of whisky brands that now offset some of the costs of trips and tasting events. “It’s a partnership in the sense that brands do sponsor some things, but then we have to come up with the rest of the money, or we have to charge for events,” Rivers explains.
Regardless of size, the rewards of a whisky club always come down to connecting with fellow whisky lovers. “We started out as bourbon enthusiasts, and leave bonded as bourbon friends,” she says. It’s that camaraderie, and the exciting world of bourbon, that keep Rivers and her fellow club members coming back. “Over time, I’ve sharpened my palate and look forward to one day being considered a master taster,” she says. “But of course, the only way to do that is to continue to drink, learn, and drink again.”
Black Bourbon Society at a Glance
Year founded: 2016
Number of members: More than 10,000 as of November 2019
Membership: Open to the public