By Mychal Denzel Smith
When, before the pandemic, I started getting into bourbon, I wanted to learn everything about it — what it was made of, how it was created, how to find the best bottles. I watched whiskey-review channels on YouTube and read bourbon blogs and history books, which is to say I spent a lot of time listening to and reading about white people.
It’s not that Black people have had no hand in shaping the bourbon industry — nothing has happened in this country without Black people’s contributions, be it through forced labor and exploitation or appropriation. Some historians, like Kansas State University’s Dr. Erin Wiggins Gilliam, have found evidence that enslaved Africans even worked as distillers, rented out by slave owners to Kentucky distilleries. But Black people make up only 9 percent of bourbon drinkers, which likely has something to do with the way bourbon has been marketed. At the turn of the 20th century, some distilleries used minstrel imagery in their advertisements, and since then, bourbon has retained its associations with a particular brand of white southern masculinity.
I like bourbon because of the flavors — caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla — and it excites me to tease out differences between styles that have more fruit-forward tastes or notes of baking spices. But I dislike the culture surrounding it, and not solely because it is so white — rather, because there is so little acknowledgment of its whiteness. I have spent hours watching YouTube bourbon personalities sound off on mash bills and barrels without ever wondering aloud why the communities they have created look so much like themselves. I’ve only seen one video from one white creator attempt to address this; it is one of his least popular.
So when, last summer, the issuance of an anti-racist statement became a perfunctory obligation of major U.S. companies, I wasn’t expecting any response from the bourbon industry. I figured its consumers so heavily skewed toward the type of people who brandish BLUE LIVES MATTER flags that bourbon-makers would view it as unnecessary or even unwise to comment on the nation’s racial unrest.
I was wrong. Nearly every major distillery, and even some smaller distilleries, made statements condemning racism and claiming solidarity with Black communities. Wild Turkey’s parent company pledged $300,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative, while Jim Beam said it would donate $150,000 to “support Black-owned restaurants and bars.” I’m not surprised by much when it comes to American racism, but this managed a “Huh, interesting” out of me.
I say nearly every major distillery because there was one holdout: Buffalo Trace. It is home to some of the most-sought-after bourbons on the market, including the famed Pappy Van Winkle, but the reason the company’s silence stood out — not even a solid black square on Instagram or hashtag Black Lives Matter on an innocuous landscape image — is because it is the only bourbon brand with a Black person serving as a public face. Freddie Johnson is a third-generation employee at Buffalo Trace and a distillery tour guide of some renown. His name and face are on Buffalo Trace’s soda brand. But the company wouldn’t even say publicly that it thinks racism is bad.
I got curious. I emailed its public-relations manager to ask why Buffalo Trace hadn’t commented on the protests. “Thank you for your email and your inquiry about The Sazerac Company’s stance on Black Lives Matter,” she replied. “At Sazerac [Buffalo Trace’s parent company], we have a long-standing policy of embracing differences and promoting an inclusive organization that values the diversity of team members, customers, suppliers and community partners because it is the right thing to do.” She included a link to the company’s code of conduct, which features the typical corporate language about diversity and equal opportunity, none of which was an answer to my question. I told her as much, and also that all of its competitors had made such statements. Her response:
“Thank you for your follow up. As a privately held company, we are not given to making public statements. We believe our position was, and is, adequately stated on our website.” I told her that didn’t seem to hold up, given Heaven Hill, another major distillery, is also a privately held company, and it saw fit to release a statement. She didn’t write back. I should have asked her what Freddie thought.
I was disappointed, first because Buffalo Trace makes some of my favorite bourbons, and second because I cared at all. I shrugged at publications deciding to capitalize the b in Black, at the rebranding of Aunt Jemima, and at real-estate agents no longer using the term master bedroom. Each of these things felt like long-overdue cosmetic changes that would have zero impact on structural racism. And I felt the same way about all these performative corporate anti-racist statements that can provide cover for entrenched inequity.
Yet here I was asking Buffalo Trace why it hadn’t been a part of the performance, hoping that my asking about it might shame the company into joining in. Some part of me cared about being seen in a place where I’d found comfort. I buy more Wild Turkey and Jim Beam products now, as if my singular consumer action will make Buffalo Trace change its mind. I am foolishly asking a profit-driven business to exhibit moral courage, tiny as it may be.