The Whisky World Responds to Global Anti-Racism Movement

In the weeks following the killing of George Floyd, as protests against police brutality and structural racism toward African Americans roiled seemingly every aspect of American life, many businesses released statements expressing their intent to be more diverse and inclusive. Yet initially, American whiskey brands largely remained silent, prompting the Black Bourbon Society (BBS) to publish an open letter on June 7 to the bourbon and American whiskey industry, calling out whiskey brands for not publicly speaking out against racism; the letter also details the many ways that African Americans have played an important role in the industry’s success, and continue to support it. Major distilleries and smaller companies alike are now reckoning with and confronting enduring forms of racial injustice—including within their own industry.

Since the letter was made public, “We have received overwhelming support and response from the majority of the bourbon brands,” BBS founder and CEO Samara Rivers says, noting that it was “not necessarily directly,” but also came through social media. “So far, everyone is committed to figuring this out.” Major brands and companies such as Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, and Heaven Hill have released statements expressing their support for the Black community while explicitly denouncing racism and outlining initial steps they’re taking to combat it. “A lot of them said, ‘Look, we have a lot to learn internally. This is over our heads—we weren’t prepared for this. We want to show up, but we just don’t know how.’ I appreciate the honesty,” Rivers adds. “The cause, the movement, the consumers, our followers, our members—everyone needed to know that they at least were thinking of how to be a part of this conversation, [and that] they were not ignoring it or pretending it didn’t exist.”

Black Bourbon Society founder and CEO Samara Rivers, in a red dress, and COO Armond Davis, in a brightly colored long-sleeved shirt, raise their glasses in a toast during a during a private dinner on Dec. 5, 2019, at Harlem soul food eatery Sylvia's in New York City.

Black Bourbon Society founder and CEO Samara Rivers (left) and COO Armond Davis raise their glasses for a toast during a private dinner on Dec. 5, 2019 at Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem. Rivers and Davis are spearheading a movement to bring greater diversity and inclusion to the spirits industry. (Photo by Daphne Youree)

Significantly, the letter came out a day before Rivers and BBS COO Armond Davis announced the creation of Diversity Distilled Inc., a nonprofit consulting firm that seeks to partner with spirits brands and help them develop diversity and inclusion policies. But it appears that change is also brewing within the industry itself. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) released a statement on June 9 outlining plans to expand diversity and inclusion within the bourbon industry, starting by creating and funding distilling scholarships and internships for “people of color, women, and other minority groups.” The association says it also will establish an advisory panel with partners from outside the industry to work directly with the KDA’s board of directors on developing other diversity initiatives, and will offer more anti-bias training to its member companies. While the association has offered such training in the past, “quite frankly, we just don’t do it often enough,” KDA president Eric Gregory tells Whisky Advocate. “A lot of our members—especially our smaller craft members in the last few weeks—have told us they would like to see us do more diversity training, especially for newer members that just came in the past year or two. So we’re going to be…offering that as part of our best-practices sessions that we do throughout the year.”

To contribute in “an immediate and tangible way,” the KDA donated money to Du Nord Craft Spirits—located in Minneapolis and owned by former American Craft Spirits Association president Chris Montana, who is Black—which was damaged during protests on May 29, days after George Floyd’s death. Additionally, the KDA is auctioning off special bottles to raise money for a University of Louisville scholarship fund named after Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old African American emergency room technician who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers when they raided her apartment last March. These initiatives are “just the beginning,” Gregory says. “As we look inward, we are, by far, a mostly white, male industry that has, until the last few years, done very little to even recruit and retain women. So this is an area where we need outside voices to assist us, to make sure we’re doing the right things to create more diversity and inclusion, but also that we’re headed down the right path. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but we want to be sure we’re doing everything we possibly can [so] that our industry reflects the population and culture a lot better.”

American Whiskey Makers Step Up

A number of major American whiskey companies have spearheaded their own initiatives to boost diversity. On June 11, Jack Daniel’s and Uncle Nearest announced the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, pledging a combined $5 million to launch a distilling education course, leadership program, and business incubation program that will offer African American entrepreneurs mentorship in all areas of the distilling business. Additionally, Jack Daniel’s parent company Brown-Forman, which also owns Woodford Reserve and Old Forester, released a statement from its executive leadership team acknowledging “disturbing and systemic racism that persists in the United States” and outlining steps to address it, pointing to the company’s diversity and inclusion “strategic ambitions” for 2030.

Beam Suntory said on social media on June 4 that it “condemns racial injustice and racism in all forms,” and that “as a tangible next step, we’re committed to financially supporting the important work of leading social justice organizations.” Days later, Jim Beam announced that it’s donating $150,000 to support Black-owned restaurants and bars, and Maker’s Mark said it’s working “to identify partnerships that will provide…resources for the Black restaurant industry to create jobs, training, and sustainable enterprises.” Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, and Legent also released statements, citing “support that our parent company, Beam Suntory, has committed to in partnership with the National Urban League and NAACP.” And Wild Turkey denounced “systemic racism, violence, and injustice,” noting parent company Campari America’s $300,000 donation to the Equal Justice Initiative, and adding that it will launch unconscious bias training for its employees and create a task force to “review our approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Smooth Ambler head distiller and CEO John Little stands with his arms crossed, wearing a gray Smooth Ambler hoodie, in front of Smooth Ambler whiskey barrels.

John Little is CEO and head distiller at West Virginia-based Smooth Ambler, which on June 11 posted a statement detailing its commitment to initiatives to develop opportunities in the distilling industry for people of color.

A number of smaller whiskey companies have also spoken out on social media, including New Riff Distilling Co., and Smooth Ambler. The West Virginia-based craft distillery wrote on June 11 that it “condemns racism and racial injustice,” and detailed a list of initiatives it plans to take, including partnering with Black-owned businesses for future purchases, and making a financial commitment to develop opportunities in the distilling industry for people of color. While Smooth Ambler was developing its plans, BBS’ letter came out, and “their message informed our planning,” Smooth Ambler CEO and head distiller John Little tells Whisky Advocate. “It was a very helpful check to ensure that the items we intended to address, and felt like we could successfully influence, were meaningful and relevant.” Smooth Ambler’s sister distillery, Rabbit Hole, also announced a number of steps it’s taking to support “creative voices in the Black community,” including donating to the Breonna Taylor Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of Louisville and, in collaboration with the Louisville Orchestra, commissioning an original composition from a young Black composer. In Portland, Oregon, Westward Whiskey announced a partnership with Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon that includes a mentorship program for Black and minority-owned businesses, allowing them to tap into the distillery’s expertise in sales, marketing, and other areas.

In addition to BBS’ open letter, Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts (KOBBE) reached out directly to a number of whiskey companies, urging them to “address the systemic and institutional racism in America, and more immediately, in your industry,” according to an email obtained by Whisky Advocate. But well before sending its missive—and before widespread protests erupted—KOBBE had already built strong relationships with a number of companies, including Smooth Ambler, and recently spoke with the KDA about making the whiskey industry more diverse, KOBBE founder Jamar Mack says.

Jamar Mack, founder of Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts, stands next to a whiskey barrel at Smooth Ambler’s rickhouse in West Virginia in September 2019.

Jamar Mack, founder of Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts, picked out a barrel at Smooth Ambler’s rickhouse in West Virginia in September 2019. Mack is collaborating with a number of whiskey companies, including Smooth Ambler, to address a persistent lack of diversity within the American whiskey industry. (Photo courtesy of Jamar Mack)

Much of the dialogue has been productive, but there’s a long road ahead, he adds, not only for the industry itself, but also when it comes to making people of color feel totally welcome at distillery visitor centers. “You have to look at what the impact of your distillery is within your community, and how visitors are treated and welcomed within that community,” he explains. “A lot of it is atmosphere. People of color don’t feel comfortable going places they think they’re going to be harassed or discriminated against.” Smooth Ambler recently joined KOBBE in a virtual discussion about racism in the bourbon industry. “Mostly, we just listened,” Little says. “It was certainly one of the most enlightening conversations I’ve ever had, and I think everyone from Smooth Ambler felt the same way. That conversation, and the issues KOBBE members mentioned, helped guide our action plan and our statement. And, frankly, we will be a better business, and better people, because of that conversation.”

Fighting Injustice Internationally

But American whiskey companies aren’t the only ones responding; in fact, the issue transcends geographical boundaries and affects the broader whisky industry, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). “Our success comes from the diversity of our consumers and their loyalty to our Scottish spirit,” the SWA said in a statement. “In that spirit, we stand with Black Lives Matter and all those who oppose racism—and for the steps that every country, society, and organization needs to continue to take to ensure that everyone is properly valued, protected, and able to make the most of equal opportunities.”

Leading international drinks companies also are taking action. “William Grant & Sons rejects all forms of racism, discrimination, abuse, and hatred,” said Jonathan Yusen, president and managing director for the Americas at William Grant & Sons—which owns Glenfiddich and Balvenie, among other brands—in a statement to Whisky Advocate. The company has enlisted outside experts to help with diversity and inclusion efforts, and plans to conduct unconscious bias training for its U.S. employees over the summer. Meanwhile, Pernod Ricard USA—parent company to Smooth Ambler and Rabbit Hole—is donating $1 million to the Equal Justice Initiative, National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the National Urban League; and spirits giant Diageo recently announced a $20 million effort to support Black communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Both Diageo and Pernod Ricard released anti-racism statements, as did Glenmorangie, Ardbeg, Jameson, and Constellation Brands.

Smaller whisky companies outside the U.S. are responding as well. “We are, and always have been, against racism,” said Compass Box founder John Glaser in a statement. The company’s immediate course of action includes setting up “a strong HR policy focused on anti-discrimination”—one of five new principles that will guide Compass Box moving forward. “I believe we all have a responsibility to make sure this is a catalyst for lasting change,” Glaser tells Whisky Advocate. “Recent events have made very clear that it’s not enough to be ideologically against racism—we need to act on those beliefs too. Not just as a one-off gesture, but through everything we do.” Along with implementing a firm anti-discrimination policy, Compass Box will encourage people “to use the power of their vote to demand a fairer society,” Glaser adds.

Still, the conversation—in the American whiskey industry, and the whisky industry at large—has only just begun. “It’s a baby step, but at least it’s a step in the right direction,” Rivers says. “It’s going to [take] a ton of work to uncover [certain] biases. I’m hopeful that we’ll work on this as a collective, as an industry as a whole—that we’ll really put our heads and resources together to make sure that [whiskey companies] are inclusive and diverse internally. African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans—we have all played a role in the whiskey industry since the very beginning. We’ve always been a part of the whiskey story. Now is the time to acknowledge that—and the role that we play now.”

As Little sees it, progress depends on more companies taking a clear stance against racism, and working to eradicate it. “At Smooth Ambler, we decided to try and identify ways we could make a meaningful impact at the local level, starting in our town, surrounding towns, our county, and state,” he says. “We’re going to make this part of our weekly discussions—it’s as important as safety, production, sales, marketing, and financing. And I think that’s the goal—if everyone is doing their part to help, then the world becomes a better place.”

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