This production is part of WFPL News’ year-long project The Next Louisville: Race, Ethnicity and Culture.
At 26th and Broadway there’s a small, neighborhood shop called The Liquor Store. Inside, bottles are neatly arranged in steel-barred cabinets decked with glossy posters. Owner Sandra Fant steps away from the drive-through window where, on the other side, a couple has asked for two bottles of Absolut vodka.
Fant, who has owned The Liquor Store for eight years, says that’s a pretty typical order for her patrons, who are 90 percent African-American. Meanwhile, she says while there has been an increase in customer interest in bourbon over the last few years, it hasn’t been — and still isn’t — her best-selling spirit.
“Vodka, mostly, gin.” Fant says. “Those were the two main items [I’ve sold].”
It’s an unexpected comment given the state of spirits in Kentucky. If you travel just a few minutes down the street from The Liquor Store into the middle of downtown Louisville, you’ll see indicators of the current bourbon boom. There’s the Urban Bourbon Trail, the renovation of historic Whiskey Row, and Down One Bourbon Bar with its cases and cases of the spirit — just to name a few.
You’re probably familiar with the history and the numbers behind this trend too: In 1964 Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit.” Today, there are more bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky than there are people, and production has increased by more than 170 percent since 1999.
And just so we’re all on the same page: All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. By definition, whiskey (or whisky, in Scotland) is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash — grain varieties include wheat, rye, barley, and corn — and then aged in wooden barrels. What makes that spirit bourbon is that it is at least 51 percent corn, aged in new oak barrels and entered into the barrel at 125 proof.
But, as illustrated by Fant, the bourbon boom has also been a primarily white boom. History and current marketing trends show that “America’s Native Spirit” has by and large ignored or erased the presence of African-American producers and consumers, leaving us to ask “Where are the black people in bourbon?”
Numbers Point to Opportunity
When you look at current data about African-Americans, buying power and bourbon consumption, there’s definitely room to market more directly to multicultural audiences.
Danny Brager is the senior vice president of Beverage Alcohol at Nielsen (yep, the same place that tracks television and radio numbers).
“They (African-Americans) actually account for a much higher percent of overall spirits volume, but they represent a little more that 9 percent of bourbon consumption,” Brager says. “So they’re underdeveloped relative to their importance overall to the population.”
That suggests opportunity — based on the consumer data, at least. Courtney Jones, Nielson’s vice president of Multicultural Growth and Strategy, says this is especially true in light of black America’s buying power in the U.S.
“Currently, for African-Americans for 2015 it was estimated about $1.2 trillion,” Jones says. “Projected for 2020 around $1.4 trillion.”
But before looking to attract future bourbon drinkers, spirits professionals need to address the past — almost a century and a half of Kentucky bourbon history from which African-Americans have been pretty much erased.
What We Know About Black Bourbon History
In a corner of the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum in Bardstown — a one-story walkthrough that tracks whiskey and bourbon history from the Colonial days to the 1960’s — hangs an old, racist advertisement.
It’s a tin sign for Paul Jones & Company whiskey. On one side, there’s a “mammy” figure in a headscarf holding an absurdly large slice of watermelon; on the other, there’s a black man offering up a bottle of Paul Jones whiskey. Right in the middle is a young boy who is torn between the two treats.
The whole thing is a play on “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” the Medieval saint who was tempted by demons in the desert.
While Paul Jones no longer exists, Chet Johnson, the organizer behind the local Bourbon & B Sides event, says marketing like this was not uncommon.
“When you look at old bourbon advertisements they have these caricatures of stereotypical African-Americans,” Johnson says. “The whole minstrel type of imagery that you would see — someone coal black with their eyes bugging out and lips red. Those [are the] types of damaging stereotypes you saw in bourbon marketing in the past.”
But beyond some of the racist imagery, the history presented by the museum was overwhelmingly white. There was the occasional person of color pictured in archival images, but this was presented without identification or context.
Patrick Lewis is a historian with the Kentucky Historical Society. He specializes in the topics of slavery and the Civil War.
Lewis says while historians know African-Americans were involved with the early bourbon-making process, they can’t tell for certain to what extent.
“We know that slaves grow the raw products that go into bourbon; the grains that come out of it,” Lewis says. “And we know that slaves live and work on farms, mills where bourbon is produced, right?”
But Lewis says since slaves obviously weren’t paid for their work, slave owners didn’t feel the need to record their day-to-day tasks. A lot of information about who these people were was lost through time.
“African-Americans obviously play a very large part in that post-Civil War bourbon story and that is much easier to document because we have those corporate records, quite frankly,” Lewis says. “But while slavery is ongoing, distilling is happening at a much more local level and that’s tougher for historians to get at.”
The Past Informing the Future
That being said, more spirits companies are drawing attention to how people of color impacted what we drink.
Take Jack Daniel’s, for example. This year was the 150th anniversary of the Tennessee-based whiskey distillery and, as the New York Times reported in June, they are beginning to embrace a “Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave.”
For years, the story of Jack Daniels was pretty unremarkable. When Daniels was a boy, he worked for a preacher-slash-distiller named Dan Call. Call taught Daniels to man the still — and the rest was history.
That story fits what the Times set up as the typical whiskey narrative: A lily-white affair that centered on German and Scots-Irish settlers who distilled their surplus grains into whiskey and sent it to far-off markets.
But the real story is a little more complicated than that. The company now says Daniels didn’t learn distilling from Dan Call, but from a man named Nearis Green, one of Call’s slaves.
According to representatives from Jack Daniel’s, Green’s existence wasn’t a major secret; but, like the photos from the Getz Whiskey Museum, as a black man, his presence in distilling wasn’t ever really addressed.
Currently, the distillery — which has been owned for about 60 years by the Louisville-based Brown-Forman — is slowly integrating Green into the brand. His name is starting to come up in tours and on social media.
But it’s an uncomfortable history to navigate.
A business built with slave labor may not work well as a selling point, and the company is still considering whether it will flesh out the story in new displays at its visitors center.
However, not all black bourbon history looks so bleak. Take the story of Tom Bullock. He was a Louisville born bartender who in 1917 became the first African-American to write a cocktail book. It was called, fittingly, “The Ideal Bartender.”
He was so good at what he did that one of the members at the St. Louis Country Club where he eventually bartended wrote a letter of recommendation that read: “I doubt that he has erred in even one of his concoctions.”
But perhaps most importantly in the context of Kentucky, Bullock is credited with the invention of the original old-fashioned cocktail.
Locally, Joe Heron — the owner of Copper & Kings Brandy Distillery — is reminding Louisvillians of Bullock’s legacy by serving drinks inspired by “The Ideal Bartender,” which was recently reprinted.
He also says that Bullock’s history is informing how he wants to move forward as a spirits professional. Ultimately, Heron would like to facilitate opportunities that lead to a more diverse staff behind the bar.
“Right now the presence of African-American bartenders is quite low in terms of, you know, talented mixologists — it’s quite sporadic,” Heron says.
Heron recently ran a mixtape competition during which bartenders created cocktails based on certain songs.
“We had two African-American bartenders and that was quite unusual, actually,” Heron says.
Unusually high, that is. For that reason, Heron would like to develop bartending courses for some of Louisville’s multicultural and disadvantaged communities.
“It is a very transferable skill, which is proved by Tom Bullock who left to get really famous in St. Louis,” Heron says. “That’s an idea that we’re thinking very hard about.”
Heron says that having a more diverse staff is key in reaching more diverse audiences. It’s not enough to simply plaster pictures of people of color on product labels, a concept he calls “artificial diversity.”
“I don’t think there is a way to force multiculturalism or diversity onto a company or a society,” Heron says. “It’s something that happens naturally based on something that is called respect.”
And the thing about artificial diversity — at least according to Heron — is that customers can tell.
“It’s expedient,” Heron says. “And expediency — it’s phony, it will always be found out.”
Heron says change happens when companies evolve from the inside out. And Brown Forman is one of those companies that has made real changes.
Brown Forman is one of the largest American-owned companies in the spirits and wine business. They’re based here in Louisville and represent brands like Jack Daniel’s, Early Times, Old Forester, and Woodford Reserve.
Tracey Johnson works as one of the company’s multicultural marketing managers. She says during her 12 years there, she has watched as Brown Forman executives realize the face of the country is changing, and that they either need to adapt or lose out on new audiences.
“Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey is one of the brands that over the past — actually since it launched five years ago, has really dug in and is working,” Johnson says. “Doing some really fun programming with black consumers and Hispanic consumers.”
They’ve worked with BET Network, which is the number one media property for African-American consumers, and Centric, which is their woman-focused channel. Johnson also says the brand will be increasing its multicultural “influencer collaborations,” something vodka has done well for years by partnering up with entertainers like 50 Cent, P. Diddy and Nas.
Johnson says one of the reasons this is possible is because of an increase in diverse hires who help see these ideas through. Arelis Correa works with Brown Forman’s global acquisitions team. She says the company has started to recruit and train multicultural talent from the ground up by developing a management program for entry-level talent within sales and marketing.
“It’s to increase a younger pool of diverse talent — not just for our organization, but for the industry,” Correa says.
But perhaps most importantly, marketing and recruiting have teamed up for a new project.
“We’ve also started a new program in which we work with some historically black colleges and universities in our core markets,” Johnson says. “We find graduate students who are available to work for us part-time on initiatives that we have surrounding those colleges.”
The program is currently in its second semester at two colleges — Howard University and Florida A&M — with plans to eventually expand.
Going back to Chet Johnson, he organized the first Bourbon & B sides — an evening that fuses break dancing, hip-hop, art and bourbon — earlier this year. With a sponsorship by Larceny Bourbon, it was a major success. Several hundred people attended. It was a majority African-American audience, most of those women between 25 and 40-years old.
“There were a lot of people drinking and indulging [in] bourbon, which is what we hoped for,” Johnson says.
Johnson sees more and more brands reaching out to younger drinkers as a result of the bourbon boom, but says it will take a few things for African-Americans to begin drinking more of the spirit.
“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,” he says.
But in the meantime, Johnson is exploring the world of bourbon independently, which has had some unexpected personal consequences.
“Learning more about the roots and origins of Kentucky bourbon, I’ve come to know a little bit more about myself,” Johnson says.
This package was written and produced by Ashlie Stevens and Roxanne Scott.