LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Growing up in the predominantly Black West End of Louisville, Victor Yarbrough knew bourbon was a dominant force in Kentucky and that he was living near some of the most famous bourbon makers in the world. In college, he sampled cheaper bourbons, but he does not remember picking up a bottle of his own at the liquor store or ever really appreciating the spirit.
As a young Black man, Yarbrough was outside the drink’s gravitational pull.
What he remembers being marketed in his part of town was Colt 45 malt liquor and bottles of the Canadian whiskey Crown Royal that came in soft purple fabric bags.
“Bourbon was considered a premium product — and I’m not sure that a premium product was necessarily marketed toward African Americans,” Yarbrough said.
Two decades later, in a tiled room in a small commercial building a five-minute drive from the distilleries of bourbon giants Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill, Yarbrough and his two brothers are claiming their own place in the spirit’s 200-year history in Kentucky. They are producing bourbon in a distillery owned and operated by African Americans.
Brough Brothers — and another Black-owned bourbon brand, Fresh Bourbon, that is planning a distillery in Lexington — are challenging a history of enslavement and exclusion surrounding the most quintessentially American spirit in its Kentucky birthplace.
Their entry comes at a time when the American distilling world is under increasing pressure to diversify and to acknowledge the role of enslaved people in developing the industry.
While the number of craft distillers in the country jumped from fewer than 200 in 2010 to more than 2,200 in 2020, there are still “only a handful” owned by African Americans, said Margie Lehrman, chief executive officer of the American Craft Spirits Association.
In Kentucky bourbon is a big deal: an $8.6 billion industry that employs 20,000 and has attracted investment from multinational corporations like the British alcohol company Diageo and the Japanese Suntory.
Contrary to a popular misconception, bourbon does not have to be produced in Kentucky (although the state is where the spirit was born and is where 95% of all bourbon is made). To be bourbon, a spirit must be produced in the United States, come from a grain mixture that is at least half corn and be aged in charred oak barrels.
The drink occupies a central role in the Bluegrass state’s identity and tourism economy. It appears on local restaurant menus both as a drink and incorporated into dishes. The charred oak barrels it is aged in are turned into furniture and portrayed on banners hanging from streetlights in downtown Louisville.
But the story of bourbon is also fraught with racism. The labor of enslaved people was used in whiskey production in the late 18th and 19th centuries, from the cultivation of corn to the making of barrels and at times distilling the spirit.
And, as is the case with many American industries, African Americans were excluded from ownership and high-ranking positions.
It was not until Yarbrough was in his late twenties working in finance in London when he finally started drinking and appreciating Kentucky bourbon.Yarbrough saw the spirit’s growing popularity and sensed a potential business opportunity, setting up an import-export company to bring English ciders to the U.S. and bourbon and moonshine the other way.
In 2018, Yarbrough and his brothers Christian and Bryson acquired a property in the West End, away from Louisville’s touristy Whiskey Row. They began distilling last December and plan to open to the public in April.
The sharp racial inequities facing the West End — which has high rates of poverty and unemployment — have been highlighted by the social justice protests that followed the police killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician who was shot dead in her South Louisville apartment in March 2020.
In establishing the distillery in the West End, Yarbrough said he hopes to help stimulate economic opportunity.
For now, the 2,200 square foot Brough Brothers distillery — which is located on a road still called Dixie Highway — is a modest endeavor. Plastic drums holding bubbling yellow fermenting mash are tucked behind a tarp, with a space heater on the floor helping keep their temperature high.
They are producing about 15 gallons a week, though they anticipate ramping up to 50 gallons in the future, which is likely the maximum volume the facility can handle.
In Kentucky’s second-largest city, Lexington, Sean and Tia Edwards are planning a distillery on a different scale: A multimillion dollar, 34,000 square foot distillery that would create 25 jobs and eventually produce upward of half a million gallons of bourbon annually.
Sean, an entrepreneur who owns a construction company and dry cleaner, was introduced to the liquor business at a young age; His grandfather and uncle worked as bootleggers, selling booze on Sundays to skirt a Blue Law.
“I helped, you know, fill up the bottles and small stuff like that,” he said. “Part of my growing up and my history was what if my granddad, you know, had a distillery instead of bootlegging? What if he had the opportunity to do something like that as opposed to having to go the other route.”
“The opportunity wasn’t there back in those days like it is now,” said Tia. “I feel like what we’re doing is paving the way for other entrepreneurs coming up. We come from humble beginnings, our families didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars, we had to work hard for what we have.”
Traveling abroad with his wife for annual trips to mark their anniversary, Sean said when he told people they were from Kentucky, they would know three things: Horses, Kentucky Fried Chicken and bourbon.
“The order depends on the country you’re in,” he said.
But the recognition got them thinking that bourbon was a viable business opportunity. Soon they were thinking of how they could get into the industry.
The result was Fresh Bourbon. They said they are producing bourbon under the direction of a Black master distiller at Hartfield & Co. distillery. They plan to have bottles on retail shelves later this year.
(There is currently a dispute between Fresh and Brough Brothers, with both claiming to have the first Black-owned distillery in Kentucky.)
Fresh leans on a 2020 Kentucky senate resolution that recognized them as the first Black-owned distillery in the state, despite Fresh not having built a distillery yet.
Brough Brothers is registered with the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — which is required to operate as a distillery — while Fresh has not. In early March, Brough Brothers sued Fresh over what they say is false advertising and unfair competition.
Fresh announced their plans for a $5.4 million distillery in February last year only to watch the country shut down a little more than a month later. Investors started to drop off as Americans braced for an economic crisis.
Some investors have trickled back.”But some of them, they haven’t recovered,” said Sean Edwards. “They were in the restaurant business and some of them were entertainers and they still haven’t recovered. So they’re off the table.”
Fresh is now targeting a distillery opening in late 2022 and hope to break ground this summer.