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Delving into the History of Bourbon

The Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild is working to improve multicultural bourbon tourism in the commonwealth

By Kevin O. Stinnett

Long before Kentucky became known as the bourbon capital of the world, the colonial mid-Atlantic states produced most of the alcohol consumed in America.  It wasn’t until Congress passed the Excise Whiskey Tax in 1791—which subsequently started the “Whiskey Rebellion”—that distillers began moving South, where regulations were less strict. With the move, Northern distillers began using slaves to farm, tend, cut and shuck the corn for the bourbon mash. There isn’t much documentation to support that slaves were the ones distilling the spirit, but one can assume that they completed or helped in the process of making bourbon. Recently, Jack Daniel’s acknowledged a slave named Nathan “Nearest” Green as the first African American master distiller. Why is that name important to whiskey drinkers?  Nearest taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

Currently, there are 2,000 distilleries in the United States, only 19 of which are owned by African Americans—a number that seems low compared to the contributions the African American community made in the infant years of the spirit. 

The Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild (KBBG) is leading the charge here in Kentucky to increase that statistic by offering classes and tastings to teach other African Americans the history and characteristics of bourbon in Kentucky. The KBBG was founded by Robert Beatty, who was inspired by a visit to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown. He noticed the early black-and-white pictures that lined the halls of the distillery, each of them full of African American slaves, but with no names or background information. He wanted to know more, so he reached out to his friends. One friend gave him the name of Freddie Johnson, a renowned tour guide at Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace Distillery and member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. Once they connected, the idea to create the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild was initiated. Its purpose is to improve multicultural bourbon tourism in Kentucky, promote community development and professional networking, provide industry-related educational resources to its members, and build working relationships with distilleries of all sizes.

Jake Kratzenberg: Can you tell me about yourself?
Robert Beatty: I was born and raised in Lexington. My introduction to bourbon was when I was entertaining a client at the Big Blue Martini. I walked up to the bar and asked for the best bourbon on the shelf, and the bartender asked for my credit card upfront. I thought it was weird, but handed it over. He brought back the receipt, and it said $212. I was shocked that two 1-ounce pours of bourbon were so much and asked him why. He said I had asked for the best and he gave me Pappy Van Winkle 15. That bourbon is $100 an ounce. After that, I started to do my research on bourbon.

JK: Did you see a need for African American representation in the bourbon sector?
RB: Absolutely. The need is because of the absence of marketing to African Americans, and we are one of the top consumers of premium liquor. When I flip through magazines and watch TV, I do not see an accurate representation of my race. Research shows that African Americans spend their disposable dollars on premium spirits. Most advertising promotes bourbon to old, rich, white men only, which is just not true.

JK: I know that your guild is associated with local universities. How is the distillation program at Kentucky State University coming along?
RB: Fantastic. It is growing. They met their first-year enrollment goals and the program continues to grow. Our goal is to lead students into the distillation program.  We have created partnerships within the industry, like Buffalo Trace, which has a direct pipeline to KSU’s program. Currently, we have three students on scholarship, with one graduating this year.

JK: I see on your website that you do tastings and classes. Can you tell me a little bit about what is involved?
RB: What makes our guild unique is that we are honoring the African American contribution to the bourbon industry while still developing the everyday consumers. We educate our members not just on the spirit but also on the historical component of bourbon. We have monthly tastings that our members participate in and we bring in a brand and supply all of the bourbons. The distilleries come in with their story and educate our group on their spirit. Each explains their ideology and thought process on creating the mash.

Once a month, on a Saturday, we have a workshop led by one of our members, who is a professor of bourbon. The professor leads a two-hour seminar, which is included in the membership, plus we get exclusive tours of the distilleries.The pandemic affected the way we meet. We do not want to put anyone at risk, so we have pivoted to virtual meetings.

JK: What are your favorite bourbons right now?
RB: My favorite bourbon that I am enjoying currently is a Four Roses barrel select from Justin’s House of Bourbon. I am also enjoying a barrel selection of Wilderness Trail. The last one is one that is blowing my mind: a four-year Pinhook Vertical Series product.

JK: How do you see your organization shaping the bourbon industry in the future?
RB: Our superpower is education. We are educating our members. We are taking them from bourbon newbies to bourbon enthusiasts. We are a diverse organization. Our members are 65% women. We have all walks of life, all shades and colors. The African American historical component is essential to our organization, but it is also American history; therefore, we are introducing people to untold history.

Jake Kratzenberg is chief operating officer of The Lane Report, Inc.
He can be reached at [email protected].