Society features

The Black Bourbon Society wants to make bourbon accessible

Samara Davis at a Black Bourbon Society event in Oakland last month. 1 credit

Founded in Oakland in 2016, the Black Bourbon Society (BBS) is now a national event series with renowned corporate partners like Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. According to founder Samara Davis (née Rivers), the membership organization owes its origins to the region, as the BBS was born out of the juxtaposition of Oakland’s diversity and neighboring Napa Valley’s reputation for exclusion.

“Six years ago … I realized there were so many opportunities to engage audiences – diverse audiences – especially with us in the Bay Area. We’re right in the backdoor of Napa,” Davis said. A resident of Oakland for 12 years, she has always been a wine drinker. Then she got into bourbon and the first seeds of BBS were planted.

“When I fell in love with bourbon, I fell in love with its flavor. The science behind it all,” Davis said. “I just became a big whiskey geek and really appreciate the technicalities of making it. “

She became so fascinated with bourbon that she successfully pursued certification as a Bourbon Executive Intendant, which is roughly equivalent to what the title “sommelier” means in the wine world. As she pursued this certification, Davis realized that the spirits industry had a disconnect with many consumer markets, especially when it came to black drinkers. This realization was underscored when a book club made up of Black women made headlines when they were kicked off a Napa wine train. It made her wonder, she said, if black people are truly included in the spaces we’re told are there for everyone to enjoy.

Davis speaks at the BBS launch party at Era Art Bar in Oakland on October 13, 2016. Black Bourbon Society

Data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States Index of luxury brands indicates that overall interest in American whiskey has increased by 46% over the past year, Scotch whiskey has seen a rebound of 34% and Irish whiskey has increased by 15% from 2021 to 2022. Bourbon is a $8.6 billion industry and in 2019 was the fastest growing spirits market, reaching $1.78 billion in sales. That same year, the purchasing power of the black community in the United States reached $910 billion.

But according to Davis, when it comes to spirits like bourbon, the Black folx aren’t flexing that buying power the way they could be. Instead, she said, many developed brand loyalty to certain spirits based on what was available or trendy, or what a closely related person might have consumed. “There’s a segment of our community that drinks whatever his grandfather drinks, whatever his uncles drank, whatever he saw his favorite artists or rappers drink in a commercial,” she said. declared.

Davis said she realized that black consumers “need to get out of this habit of blindly following” and start “really paying attention to the quality and craftsmanship of this product.” And when black drinkers demand more from companies, these big brands will take notice, Davis said. . “We have to elevate ourselves as consumers, educate ourselves. Then from there, as a consumer, demand respect and demand the best.

So Davis created BBS, hoping to raise awareness of who black consumers are at bourbon distilleries, while helping black drinkers feel comfortable in a space from which they have often felt excluded. Membership is open to anyone who wants to learn more about bourbon and network with other spirit fans. There are benefits to membership including access to private barrels, discounts on events and merchandise and even a membership pin. The BBS now has over 30,000 members who pay $125 per year.

The other side of the BBS is the work Davis does to help brands understand how to truly engage with black consumers. Many of the best-known whiskey and bourbon distilleries have been around for generations with a long history that has excluded black drinkers, and these attitudes may persist. “It’s like all these different minds have these really distorted ideas of what their black consumer looks like, how to engage and interact with their black consumers,” Davis said.

The results of his outreach were clear at a recent BBS party in Oakland, a launch event for a five-city tour highlighting black-owned bars and restaurants. Top-selling bourbon brand Jim Beam sponsored the tour, which included Orlando, Charlotte, Houston and Los Angeles. Sponsors of past events have included other high-end brands like Makers’ Mark and Jack Daniels.

“We create experiences,” Davis said of the BBS. “I want to stay the course of trying to connect real engagement, creating experiences both for our members and for brands to meet our members.”

In fact, Davis said, the Black Bourbon Society’s work with brand partnerships has become so prominent that it has taken on a life of its own. She is already planning to expand the consulting part of BBS and help brands with their culture, marketing and sales strategies.

That said, the heart of BBS is and always will be its members, whose market and consumer needs are changing as more and more black drinkers expect quality bourbon from companies that consider black drinkers as customers. “I recognize the progress we’ve made,” Davis said, “but I still have work to do.”