If you enjoy the company of a nice glass of whisky, or perhaps a dram of bourbon, then this post should pique your interest.
BOSSIP was recently privileged to speak to Black Bourbon Society founder Samara Rivers about her love of spirits, respecting the Black dollar, the motivation to organize devoted connoisseurs, her partnership with Maker’s Mark and the creation of a BBS Private Select.
The first thing we wanted to know was how Samara fell in love with whisky and little did we know that the question was incredibly apropos…
“I started in 2015-2016. I was originally a wine drinker and the person I was married to at the time was starting to drink a lot of whisky. As a way to try to connect with him, I started drinking whisky as well. The story I tell is that I fell in love with whisky and fell out of love with my husband at the time. I first found my love when we went to New Orleans with his family, it was a hellacious trip. We ended up getting food really late one night from a corner store and at the recommendation of the store clerk, I picked up a bottle of Four Roses. By the end of the trip, I was hooked! I loved it. I started to dive down this rabbit hole and wanted to make cocktails with it and really wanted to learn more about what it was. That’s how I initially fell in love with spirits.”
That love quickly turned into a professional passion for Samara but as she entered the industry she discovered that Black folks weren’t exactly who big brands considered to be a target audience. This negligence made way for the opportunity to create change in the market…
“A year later when I was planning some events when met a woman who worked within the industry. She was new to the area and she collaborated with me to help her plan some amazing direct marketing events for consumers. It was in those moments working with her that I realized that none of the marketing directives were dedicated to the African-American consumer. This wasn’t something that was particular to her company. In most standard marketing decks the only time African-Americans are mentioned is when they are speaking to the “urban demographic” which is considered much younger, 21-25-years-old, a hip-hop crowd, a very introduction stage that focused on the millennial culture. The other thing about that is that the quality of the spirits would be base-level brand and the premium spirits were saved for…communities who didn’t look like me. So that’s when I challenged her and the industry asking: “Why do you think that we wear Louis Vuitton but drink cheap liquor? We want premium everything!” There was a gaping hole in the market that needed to be filled and that’s why I created Black Bourbon Society to fill that hole. I needed to be recognized. I needed the buying power that the African-American community has to be recognized. We are trendsetters across the globe.”
Amen to that.
Once Black Bourbon Society was fully conceptualized, Samara realized just how powerful the growing community had become…
“BBS is two-fold. BBS has worked with brands to create direct-to-consumer events for the African-American community. We act as a bridge that really shows companies what their African-American consumer looks like. There’s never been a “face” for us, there’s an ideal or stereotype of what we look like, but they’ve never seen my demographic, an older and more mature audience made up of professionals. 90% of our membership has at least a bachelor’s degree, they are in management, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re in the military, they’re professors, writers, they have major careers with income that allows them to spend on nice things and nice experiences. The moment we launched there was an immediate response from consumers and everyone wanted to know more and be a part of it. Many of them were closeted whisky drinkers, they didn’t think anyone was out there drinking like they were and now we have over 12,000 members across the country. We also have a lot of bourbon-curious members, people new to the spirit, and a lot of what we try to do is education. What is bourbon? How is it produced? How is it aged? We answer all scientific questions. Some want to know about water sources, barrels and how these things affect the environment, so it’s more than just “Oh, that’s a pretty bottle I want that”. It’s about being a really informed consumer.”
Recently, Black Bourbon Society collaborated with Maker’s Mark to not only produce direct-to-consumer events but also to produce whisky! Their very own one-of-a-kind Private Select whisky to be specific.
“Maker’s Mark was one of the brands that immediately believed in the mission of Black Bourbon Society. That goes back to the early days when I started the organization and would go to USBG (United States Bartenders Guild) events and pitching Black Bourbon Society to reps and ambassadors to work with them and get them in front of my audience. From the very beginning Beam Suntory as a whole jumped all over the idea of BBS. They were the first ones to say “Yes! We’d love to work with you. We didn’t know you drank whisky!” Likely because the general idea in the business is that African-Americans drink Hennessy and Crown. But after building relationships in the company they were adamant about introducing me to employees and executives on the Maker’s Mark side who believed in the mission. They saw the value of working with consumers of color right off the bat. Some of the other brands were hesitant, unsure, or uncomfortable working with consumers of color.”
How did the idea for Black Bourbon Society to create a Private Select happen?
“When we got the opportunity to create a Private Select it was a no-brainer. It was something that I always wanted to do. I always had this vision that I wanted my name on a bottle which is a milestone for me personally and a year later it happened. We got the invitation to go to Kentucky and we found a retailer here in Atlanta that would help us bring the product to market. Ultimately, we had two bottles make it to San Francisco World Spirits Competition and I don’t think any other Private Selects have ever been submitted there. We ended up getting a double gold award which is a very big award coming from a very reputable spirit competition.
When you go in for competition you’re judged against hundreds of whiskies and three judges taste the same tray. If two or all three of those judges give you at least a gold, you go up to the double-gold ranking. Then all of the double-gold whiskies compete for “World’s Best Bourbon”. Getting the acknowledgment that the judges really liked the stave selections that me and my partner picked was the validation that we were master tasters which we had been working toward for a very long time. So aside from being able to identify certain flavor notes and combinations, that title also solidified the organization as a legitimate entity that has value in the industry.”
If you’re a bourbon or whisky lover, we here at BOSSIP HIGHLY suggest that you look into Black Bourbon Society and consider becoming a member to elevate your spirit experience. Also, if you ever get a chance to try a Maker’s Mark Private Select then know that you are in for something special that will likely change how you feel about the way you enjoy whisky and bourbon.