Who is the typical bourbon drinker? Judging by the marketing for most whiskeys, a safe guess would be a white man, middle age and Southern by birth or at least aspiration. It could be a blonde woman in full Kentucky Derby pastels, holding a mint julep.
Many people would probably not picture someone like Samara Rivers, because African Americans like her are almost completely absent from bourbon marketing.
That’s why Rivers founded the Black Bourbon Society, a national organization for African-American whiskey fans that has grown to more than 4,700 members since its creation two years ago. In late April, Rivers led 35 of them on a weekend tour through Kentucky, beginning with private tastings at distilleries like Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace and ending with a Sunday brunch in Louisville, where they honored the history of Black horse jockeys.
“There’s this big hole in the market,” said Rivers, 38. “What do Black consumers look like? We’re teaching brands how to engage with fans like us.”
While white people make up about three-quarters of all bourbon consumers in the United States, according to a survey by the media company Gravity, the details are more complicated. African-Americans are the most likely demographic group to prefer spirits like whiskey or cognac over beer or wine, according to Nielsen research. But while they constitute 13% of the total population, they are just 9% of bourbon drinkers.
That is a significant gap in the market, one that may grow more pronounced as the number of nonwhite consumers — what marketers call the multicultural demographic — continues to expand with America’s rapidly diversifying population.
These realities hold for other types of spirits, like Scotch and vodka. But bourbon sales are on a decade-long tear, growing at 6% or more a year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That has American whiskey companies scrambling to create or expand their marketing efforts to people of color, and rethinking how they approach Black consumers in particular.
“The growth is all coming from multicultural,” said Ryan Robertson, the head of multicultural marketing for Diageo, the British spirits company that produces bourbon brands like Bulleit and I.W. Harper. “For our brands to be sustained in the future, we have to absolutely start with a multicultural lens.”
For many Black bourbon drinkers, the change isn’t coming fast enough. They say that most brands, when they do reach out, still pigeonhole African-American consumers with outdated plans aimed at the “urban demographic”— industry jargon for lower-income, younger Black consumers who supposedly gravitate toward sweeter spirits like cognac and flavored whiskey.
“Don’t promote to me with honey flavors or some hip-hop star,” said Jamar Mack, 36, an African-American bourbon fan in Louisville. “My race is not my palate.”
Like Rivers, a few years ago Mack found himself falling in love with premium bourbons like Woodford Reserve, but he was frustrated by the lack of attention paid to minorities at the events sponsored by his favorite brands.
In 2017, he founded Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts, a Louisville-based club that has since added several thousand members, some as far away as West Virginia.
“We did a survey of our members, and 98% of them are college graduates, and 70% make over $150,000 a year,” Mack said. His events regularly attract 100 members or more, he added, but until recently, he had trouble getting distillers to send ambassadors to lead tastings, a common practice in the industry.
Such differential treatment is something Kurt Maitland, the founder of the Manhattan Whisky Club and the author of “Drink: The Ultimate Cocktail Book,” knows all too well. Maitland, who is Black, said he had no problem getting distillers to send a representative to his monthly events in Midtown Manhattan. But in the Bronx, where he lives near Yankee Stadium, premium bourbon is almost nowhere to be found, in bars, stores or advertising.
“There are groups of people in my neighborhood who I know are interested in high-end whiskey,” said Maitland, 47. “But they aren’t exposed to it in their regular life.” He isn’t going to wait for the brands to catch up: Maitland plans to open a spinoff of his whiskey club in the Bronx this year.
Bourbon makers aren’t the only ones in the alcohol industry trying to attract nonwhite consumers. Some craft brewers and winemakers have made concerted efforts to diversify their workforces and their marketing appeal beyond their middle-class white base.
But when it comes to race, the bourbon industry has a particularly fraught history. Up to the 1950s, brands were often marketed with explicitly racist imagery, depicting Black men as minstrels, fools and servants. Some popular bourbons, like Rebel Yell — named for a Southern battle cry from the Civil War — even played on Confederate imagery to win over Southern whites.
But as the civil rights movement raised the industry’s awareness of Black middle-class consumers, whiskey makers began to reach out to African-American drinkers. They filled the pages of Ebony magazine with advertisements tailored to the magazine’s readers: One, from 1966, showed a stylish Black couple touring the Old Taylor distillery; another, produced by Jim Beam in 1977, featured Ella Fitzgerald.
With the precipitous decline in bourbon sales between the late 1970s and the early 2000s, though, marketing of American whiskey virtually disappeared. The few advertising dollars still available were spent on the industry’s core white-male audience — a group that, critics say, remains the focus today, even as the consumer base has grown and diversified.
“These brands are not necessarily innovative in their marketing,” Maitland said.
One of the few to take a different approach is Uncle Nearest, founded in 2016 by Fawn Weaver and named for Nearest Green, the former slave who became Jack Daniel’s first master distiller.
Weaver, 42 and African American, said that when she was starting her business, the most common advice she heard was to focus on white men ages 29 to 55 — advice she quickly rejected. But she is also wary of people who assume that just because she is Black, and her whiskey celebrates a Black distiller, she is making a product exclusively for Black consumers.
Instead, she wants her brand, and whiskeys generally, to eschew race-based marketing in favor of a broader approach.
“As an African-American, I don’t want to be targeted, but I do want to be included,” she said. “For many brands, in their marketing you’ll see all white folks, and then a separate campaign that only appears in places like Atlanta or Washington, D.C.”
Some of the established companies are starting to get the picture. In 2018, Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, restructured its multicultural team; in the past, it was siloed away from the brand-specific marketing efforts, but now it acts as an in-house consulting operation, helping the groups working on Jack Daniel’s and other products to improve their outreach to consumers of color.
“Multicultural used to be thought of as a niche,” said Tracey Johnson, the company’s multicultural marketing manager. “Now we say it’s everyone’s responsibility. Our goal is to have our message be relevant across cultures.”
Diageo has likewise expanded its multicultural initiatives. It has hired more minorities for its marketing teams — including Robertson, the company’s head of multicultural marketing. Its I.W. Harper brand, which bills itself as a drink for refined hipsters (Diageo calls them “fashionable gents”), is one of the few bourbons to include mostly African-Americans in its ads and social-media postings.
“They may skew African-American, but the brand is meant to be inclusive,” said Robertson (though the women left out of the “fashionable gents” might disagree).
Rivers of the Black Bourbon Society said that for all the industry’s missteps, she saw a genuine desire to get it right, if only because in a diversifying society, “it’s bad business not to be diverse in your marketing.” And she hopes that the success of grassroots groups like hers will persuade bourbon brands to move beyond ill-fitting stereotypes about the urban demographic.
“We’re here,” Rivers said, “and we bought products without any marketing. Now, imagine what you could do with some awareness.”