Bourbon Industry

New bourbon festival focuses on African-American contributions to whiskey

Bourbon Hall of Famer Freddie Johnson (left) gave Michael Adams (middle) and Rob Beatty (right) a tour of Buffalo Trace Distillery last summer. The tour inspired Beatty to form the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. The guild seeks to raise awareness of African American involvement in early distilling processes and educate about bourbon as a whole.
Bourbon Hall of Famer Freddie Johnson (left) gave Michael Adams (middle) and Rob Beatty (right) a tour of Buffalo Trace Distillery last summer. The tour inspired Beatty to form the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. The guild seeks to raise awareness of African American involvement in early distilling processes and educate about bourbon as a whole. Photo provided.

Another bourbon festival is on the rise, focused on African-Americans who worked behind the scenes in distilleries. People like Freddie Johnson, a third-generation Buffalo Trace employee.

Rob Beatty, founder and president of the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild in Lexington, was inspired by an eye-opening tour at Buffalo Trace Distillery led by Johnson, inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2018 for the work he has done with the bourbon industry since 2002.

“We had a special tour with Freddie Johnson. In that tour, we saw this wall with figures of color. ... We realized there’s an untold story of African-American’s contribution to the bourbon industry,” Beatty said.

Prior to being a tour guide at Buffalo Trace, Johnson was working as a network/operations engineer in Atlanta, Georgia. Twenty years earlier, he had promised his father, Jimmy Johnson, Jr., that he would work in the distillery so that three generations of the Johnson family would have worked there.

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Freddie Johnson gives a tour through Buffalo Trace Distillery, educating on African American involvement in early bourbon distilling processes. Johnson is a third generation Buffalo Trace employee, and was added to the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2018. Photo provided.

After meeting Johnson, Beatty established the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild, which led to the Bourbon on the Banks festival.

Now more whiskey enthusiasts will have a chance to learn about early contributions in a fun, interesting way.

The Bourbon on the Banks festival in Frankfort, Aug. 23-24, wants to bring together different bourbon distilleries from around the nation to give credit to African-Americans in early bourbon processes.

Wendy Kobler, founder and executive director of Bourbon on the Banks is hoping to create an annual showcase celebrating African-Americans involvement in distilling.

“The goal is to share the history and what African-Americans have contributed to the bourbon industry since they were enslaved,” Kobler said. “We feel it is important that African-Americans who helped build the industry have their story be told.”

People like Nearest Green, now acknowledged by Brown-Forman as the person who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, are among those who will have their stories showcased.

According to author Fawn Weaver, Green may have been the first black master distiller in America. Weaver read Clay Risen’s 2016 story in The New York Times about Green and became so enthusiastic she bought a farm in Tennessee and started the “Uncle Nearest” whiskey label.

But Kobler and others know there are still people who haven’t received proper recognition. Yet.

She and other historians have begun to dig deep into historical records of bourbon in order to find out the true impact that African-Americans had on bourbon, and in turn, created a festival to help spread this information.

“I believe there is a bigger story that a broader audience needs to hear,” said Kobler, who is on the board of the guild.

The guild was founded last November to help conduct research on early participation in the distilling process, all while hosting bourbon tastings and events with members.

On Aug. 23, prior to the official festival, the guild will present the “Black Bourbon Cultural Experience.” This event is included in the festival ticket price of $65, but there are only 50 spots available.

“(The Black Bourbon Experience) is designed for African-American bourbon and history enthusiasts,” Beatty said.

At the Black Bourbon Cultural Experience, speakers from Kentucky State University intend to talk about what the school is doing for the bourbon industry. The KBBG will be providing chances for bourbon tastings and education, such as how to taste bourbon and nose it.

To claim a spot, ticket holders for the Bourbon on the Banks Festival can email kyblackbourbonguild@gmail.com.

If you go: Bourbon on the Banks festival

When: Aug. 23-24

Friday Aug. 23, 4:30 p.m., Bourbon Street on Broadway

Saturday Aug. 24, 8 a.m., Black Bourbon Experience (limited to 50)

Saturday Aug. 24, 5 p.m., Bourbon on the Banks festival

Where: Bourbon Street on Broadway, Old Capital Lawn, Frankfort, Kentucky.

Admission: $65 for Saturday, Friday is free.

Online: bourbononthebanks.org/

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