FRANKFORT, Ky. — In archives across Kentucky, Erin Wiggins Gilliam is on a search for the faces and names of slaves who worked in America’s first whiskey distilleries.
She and others know for a fact that slaves helped create what is now one of the country’s most iconic industries.
They’ve seen tax records that list slaves as property alongside distillery owners’ horses and homes. Auction rolls that note slaves’ whiskey-making capabilities. And photos of Black faces behind some of the bourbon world’s most celebrated pioneers.
What Wiggins Gilliam and others don’t yet know is who the slaves were — and whether they might actually deserve credit for some distilling processes that are still used today.
Wiggins Gilliam is now part of a small but growing group of Kentuckians who are dedicated to learning the true history of an industry that’s long taken pride in telling stories of its past.
Their work coincides with a national movement that seeks to better recognize slave and African-American contributions, not only to distilling, but to any food systems that came to prominence in the 19th century.
Many involved in the movement hope that by highlighting those forgotten and ignored contributions, they can encourage more people of color to take interest in industries that remain mostly white more than 100 years later.
“African-American consumers are underrepresented as bourbon consumers,” said Tim Knittel, an adjunct professor of bourbon studies at Midway University. “... I believe bringing African Americans into the bourbon category as consumers needs to coincide with restoring African-American history.”
In recent months, Wiggins Gilliam — an associate professor of history at Kentucky State University — has begun combing through century-old photos and letters kept by Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, hoping to learn more about the slaves who likely worked there.
Soon, she’ll move on to documents maintained by the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, which has promised to incorporate the stories of slaves into its “Spirit of Kentucky” exhibit.
The exhibit features a digitized “dining room table” that lets visitors work their way through more than 650 stories of people, places and events in the bourbon industry’s expansive history.
Frazier president and CEO Penelope Peavler said stories of slaves, freed Blacks and African Americans will be added to the table’s library as they’re confirmed.
“We’re committed to telling all sides of the story,” Peavler said. “The stories of African Americans who have influenced the bourbon industry and their forebearers, enslaved Africans, had a big part in that.
“Our exhibition is an attempt to uncover those hidden figures and their stories, have them take their rightful place among the rest of the history that’s being told.”
Wiggins Gilliam will also present information and photos she’s uncovered at the inaugural Bourbon on the Banks festival in Frankfort.
More than 50 community members have come together to organize the festival, which plans to highlight Black contributions to bourbon at several events from Aug. 22-24, executive director Wendy Kobler said.
Proceeds from the festival will also go toward scholarships for Kentucky State University students who plan to enter the school’s fermentation and distillation program, which launches this fall.
Kentucky State University serves a large population of minority students, and administrators hope the new program will help more people of color land high-paying jobs in the rapidly growing fermentation and distillation industries, said Kirk Pomper, dean of the college of agriculture.
In 2018, Kentucky’s distilling industry boasted an average salary of $95,000, up 23% from 2009, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
The industry is now worth an estimated $8.6 billion in Kentucky and generates more than 20,000 jobs with an annual payroll of $1 billion, according to the association.
“This is a field in which minorities are not properly represented,” said Michael Adams, vice president of the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. “These are high-paying jobs and good opportunities that we’re just not considering.
“We’ve got to break that mold and create more people like Freddie Johnson,” he said, referring to an African-American tour guide at Buffalo Trace who was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. “Not just work at the gift shops and on the bottling line. We’ve got to become the chemists, we’ve got to become the key marketers, the distillers. There are key opportunities we’re missing just because we don’t know.”
Adams is a banker by trade, but said he fell in love with bourbon after visiting Glenns Creek Distillery in Frankfort. In January, he and a few friends launched the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild in Lexington, quickly growing to 90 members from across Kentucky and nearby states.
The guild offers monthly educational seminars led by Knittel of Midway University. It also has monthly tastings at Lexington bars and organizes group tours of nearby distilleries.
Adams said the guild’s goals are to raise scholarship funds for Kentucky State University students and to show bourbon brands that people of color drink whiskey, too.
“The thing with America, it’s becoming more and more diverse,” Adams said. “It’s in the distilleries’ best interest to diversify their workforce and consumer base.
“The stuff they’re aging might take 15 years to market. That customer won’t be the same as who they are today. It helps them to diversify the organization, which helps to diversify the consumer base.”
Adams said the guild is looking to expand into Louisville, where another group — Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts — was started in 2017.
Jamar Mack, the founder of KOBBE, said he loves that social groups are rising up to create avenues for people of color to enter the bourbon industry, whether it’s as an employee or a consumer.
But to truly create change, Mack said he thinks more historic brands need to embrace conversations about race in bourbon.
“I think there’s a lot of uncomfortable conversations that have to be had before there’s real movement in this,” Mack said. “It’s 2019 and this conversation is just now coming. These brands have existed for hundreds of years. This is kind of like you guys are the last ones to the ball.”
Bourbon author Fred Minnick said Woodford Reserve is a brand that’s done a good job of discussing its past by disclosing its use of slaves on an application to become a national landmark and by bringing up the topic on distillery tours.
“We need distilleries to talk about slaves if they had an impact,” Minnick said. “I don’t think that’s asking too much. I really don’t.”
For the past two years, Minnick has organized bourbon programming at Bourbon & Beyond, a food and music festival in Louisville. This year, he plans to include a panel on slavery in American whiskey.
“We can’t forget these people,” Minnick said. “We can’t just kind of say, ‘Oh, it happened, let’s move on.’ We owe it to our society, to these people who were shackled and chained, to give them a face.
“You have an old iconic industry that was built by great men, and we love honoring those great men. But it is time to realize who brought us here. And we must recognize and consider them all.”
One slave who’s received national recognition in recent years is Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught Jack Daniel how to distill.
Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel’s, first publicly acknowledged Green’s role in the brand in 2016. And in 2017, industry outsider Fawn Weaver took it upon herself to launch a bourbon in Green’s honor.
This fall, Weaver and her team will open the doors to the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
Weaver has participated in discussions of race in bourbon at Bourbon & Beyond and will be the keynote speaker at Bourbon on the Banks in August.
Through her in-person and media appearances, Weaver challenges other distilleries to consider why they haven’t recognized slaves in their companies’ histories and how they can better honor them today.
“It isn’t just a matter of we went back into history and found one person,” Weaver said. “All [distilleries] began the same way. They all had slaves that were putting the barrels together, rolling the barrels. Not one wasn’t utilizing slaves for this. Go back in your books and find out who they were and give them credit.”
Weaver said her goal for Uncle Nearest wasn’t to create a “Black bourbon” or to divide customers by race.
In fact, she believes her brand has resonated with people of all backgrounds because it tells a story that widely differs from the rest.
“I think what they’re figuring out is that every back bar, all they’re talking about is dead old white men,” Weaver said. “Every single bar. Now when we go in, bartenders are so excited to talk about the story of Nearest because he’s not a dead old white man.”
— (Louisville Courier-Journal