By: Nan McCreary
In an age when multiculturism is redefining America, it has become clear to many in the alcohol industry that, while African Americans are one of the leading consumers of premium liquors, distillers are late to the party when it comes to marketing to this demographic. And it costs them a sizable chunk of what researchers, such as the Nielson Company, say is the $1.2 trillion buying power of Black American consumers.
One person who has observed this is entrepreneur Samara Davis, who, in 2016, founded the Black Bourbon Society to bridge the gap between the spirits industry and African American bourbon enthusiasts.
“At the time, I was producing some events with an agency in San Francisco and realized that a lot of marketing for events, especially in the spirits industry, were not necessarily catering to consumers of color,” Davis told Beverage Master Magazine.
“I decided to create a group that represented a diverse audience and shows the brands what a diverse audience looked like. My idea was to produce events for this audience in partnership with the brands so both would benefit.”
Today, after five short years, BBS has over 22,000 members worldwide who share their love of bourbon through social media platforms, brand-partnered events and exclusive excursions to distilleries.
For Davis, bourbon was the natural choice for a connection with the spirits trade. “That’s what I was drinking at the time,” she said. “I love the bourbon industry. It’s so unique. It’s ‘America’s native spirit.’ It’s what we’re known for.”
To Davis, the logical way to make that connection was social media. “I was producing bourbon-related events in Oakland and building a following through email, and then I had a chance to move to Atlanta. I developed a new following here, so instead of doing double duty in the two cities, I set up a Facebook page to connect everyone.”
According to Davis, the page exploded. Friends invited friends, and their friends invited their friends. Today, the page boasts a dynamic membership that shares weekly online tastings, happy hours, educational seminars and a growing community of friendships.
One key to the success of BBS is the partnership with bourbon distillers that Davis has created to bring the two groups together. “By working with brands, we provide genuine connections for them to engage with Black consumers and, at the same time, cultivate and educate our community,” she said.
In the past, BBS has partnered with brands including Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam, to name a few. Brands actively participate with BBS to plan events, send brand reps or multicultural experts to cities for local programs and, in the case of national events, provide people from national leadership to help create exclusive programs. “We work hand in hand to cultivate audiences so they can experience the brand’s portfolio and expression of their products in a unique way,” Davis said.
Recently, the BBS held a Valentine’s Day pairing dinner at the Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel in cooperation with Woodford Reserve to feature the distillery’s Double Oaked Bourbon. The evening, the BBS’s first in-person event since the pandemic, was fashioned as a “date night” featuring a five-course pairing dinner, with each couple having their own table and even a cocktail kit where attendees could create their own concoction. “This was just one of the many examples of events we’ve had,” Davis said. “It was really well-received.”
BBS offers a premium membership that includes access to enriched content on the Facebook page, discounts on events and trips and an invitation to the BBS signature event, the annual Bourbon Boule Labor Day weekend gathering in New Orleans. Membership is not limited to African Americans: It is open to all bourbon lovers who actively and enthusiastically support the cause of improving diversity within the spirits industry. BBS recruits volunteer brand ambassadors in select cities to help with networking events in the local market and engage members on social media. With Covid-19 restrictions easing, Davis anticipates that BBS will be hosting more live events, always following recommended safety protocols.
“We have to be smart about it,” Davis told Beverage Master Magazine. “We can’t do everything we used to do five years ago. We have to keep it safe, which makes it more challenging, but I’m so happy to see some degree of normalcy returning.”
Besides connecting Black bourbon consumers with spirits producers, BBS has created a nonprofit, Diversity Distilled, to help promote diversity and inclusion policies within corporations across the spirits industry. “Companies are very eager to work toward diversity,” Davis said. “They just don’t know how to go about it.”
Diversity Distilled assists brands in recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce and creating inroads for employees to advance to leadership levels within the company. “This is where real change happens,” Davis said. “You have to change the corporate culture and mission.”
With her marketing skills as well as her contacts and knowledge of the spirits industry, Davis is a crucial player in fulfilling Diversity Distilled’s objectives, offering consulting, job placement assistance, training workshops, public speaking, and industry research.
This year, to support Diversity Distilled, BBS created #TheBlackManhattan Project, a month-long hashtag campaign to raise awareness of Diversity Distilled and its objectives. The campaign, spotlighting the Black Manhattan, was launched during February for Black History Month in partnership with Mitcher’s Distillery and Branca USA, who committed $20,000 to the Diversity Distilled job placement program.
The Black Manhattan Project challenged members to make Manhattans or variations with Mitcher’s rye or bourbon and Branca amaro products, which, as Davis said, “was a marriage of two brands to make the perfect cocktail.” The event featured a professional bartending competition highlighting African American bartenders, a series of virtual masterclasses and a virtual tour of the Michter’s Distillery. Winners of the bartender competition received cash prizes. BBS members also had an opportunity to make their own renditions of a Manhattan and show off their DIY cocktail skills during the BBS-tenders Showcase. The rounds of the competition are available on YouTube via the BBS Facebook page.
To Davis, BBS is a win-win for everyone involved. “Brands have the opportunity to reach out to an untapped audience and are learning how to appropriately connect with consumers of color in a genuine manner without pandering,” she said. “At the same time, consumers are receiving one-on-one attention and one-on-one experiences that enable them to learn, love and develop loyalty in a way that resonates more deeply.”
As Davis looks to the future, she hopes to expand her community of African American bourbon consumers and reach them through more online conversations with master distillers, distillery owners and brand ambassadors who will tell their stories and offer tastings. Regular features like Friday Happy Hours, Teachable Tidbits and Whisky Weekly have been big draws on the BBS Facebook page during the pandemic. These events continually attract hundreds of consumers who want to further develop their appreciation of bourbon and share fellowship with others. The biggest challenge, Davis said, is keeping up with the demand for new events and finding new and creative ways to push brand messaging so that one doesn’t sound just like the other. Davis, along with her husband and business partner, Armond Davis, and a small cadre of human relations personnel, is also going into “full action” with Diversity Distilled.
“We had a serious racial reckoning last year,” Davis told Beverage Master Magazine, “and the brands are feeling very pressed to get this right. They are incredibly open to what I’m saying to help them become more inclusive.”
While Davis pursues her goals, she is focusing her work at a grassroots level. “Grassroots — it’s the story of my life,” she said. “Grassroots growth is organic; it happens slowly. But it’s more genuine, and people are more invested.”
And spirits — be it whiskey or wine or beer — will always have an invested audience. “Every industry has diversity issues,” Davis said, “but the spirits industry cares. It’s in your face. It’s colorful as a product; it’s engaging. With bourbon, it’s not who makes the best, but who you had it with. That’s what makes that bottle your favorite.”
For Samara Davis and the Black Bourbon Society, “America’s Native Spirit” is, indeed, a universal language that is championing diversity and inclusivity in the spirits’ world.
For more information on Black Bourbon Society, visit www.blackbourbonsociety.com