The Black Bourbon Society Offers Community and Camaraderie to Whiskey Lovers

The community has roughly tripled in size since quarantine began, with virtual tastings, happy hours, and recipes geared towards home drinkers.

Portrait of Samara Rivers
Photo: Marc Pagani Photography

There's a chill in the air, the night begins earlier, and autumn approaches. This is the time of year for bourbon.

Brown spirits are delightful throughout the year, but there's something about the yellowing leaves of fall that brings that urge more immediately to mind. If you miss the gaiety of sipping bourbon at your favorite neighborhood bar, you can still find community and companionship online as a member of the Black Bourbon Society.

The BBS is a tiered membership club created to bridge the gap between the industry and amateur bourbon lovers. Chief Bourbon Enthusiast Samara B. Davis founded the group in 2016 to help spread knowledge in her own circle of brown spirit devotees. With a background in event planning and experiential marketing, she realized that there was a lack of direct consumer marketing geared towards Black people in the upscale spirits industry.

She noticed that the industry was plagued with racial stereotypes and biases in their marketing outreach, as well as a lack of diversity in the board rooms where decisions were made. She noticed the erasure of the significant historical contributions of Black people to the bourbon industry. She saw a void that needed to be filled. So, she created a group where Black bourbon enthusiasts could gather to celebrate, taste, and learn.

Black Bourbon Society
Aaron Borton

From the onset, the Black Bourbon Society gained visibility from their events, creating the kind of annual celebrations that members were willing to travel for. Their signature affair, the Bourbon Boule, brings together bourbon brands, mixologists, and enthusiasts. In 2018, the event hosted 50 people in New Orleans, and in 2019, the number jumped to 128. This year's Bourbon Boule was planned to be bigger and better and was already in the works when the world stopped. Now, it will take place online from September 25th to 27th. Like everyone else, the Black Bourbon Society has had to pivot.

"We created a society where folks connect and become friends, we have members who travel to meet up. And now we are digital creators, at this point," said Davis, who is a certified Executive Bourbon Steward and co-hosts a weekly podcast with her life partner, Armond Davis, called Bonded in Bourbon. "When we saw it happening in March, with shelter-in-place and quarantine, our intention became keeping spirits tied with spirits. We need human interaction. We need camaraderie and hugs, and to go out and see people."

People seeking the camaraderie that bars provide can find a close approximation online. The initiative and community-based sensibility of the Black Bourbon Society has managed to translate well during the era of COVID-19; they have successfully pivoted from in-person to virtual events, keeping their members happy with bar-side chats and virtual happy hours.

"We really want to keep our members engaged, so we're creating an online space that feels comfortable and natural, where we can relax amongst ourselves and not talk about politics or job losses," said Davis. "We have actually tripled in size since the quarantine began."

Right now, the Society has around 19,000 members. They're seeking ambassadors in major cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans, Louisville, and Los Angeles. Membership has its privileges for the gamut of participants, from dyed in the wool connoisseurs to newbies looking to learn more about brown spirits in general.

Black Bourbon Society
Aaron Borton

"There is constant education and learning in our group," said Davis. "We've got four years of content online to help you begin your bourbon journey."

The Black Bourbon Society uses its website to highlight tastemakers, share cocktail recipes, and facilitate Bring Your Own Bourbon happy hours. Members can find everything from recipes to whiskey writing and open letters to the liquor executive powers that be, urging transformation throughout the industry and outspoken support for inclusivity and diversity beyond black squares on social media.

In sum, the society is striving to provide a sense of community that might be the next best thing to going to a bar right now.

Davis realizes this will have to be a long-term strategy to survive, with no viable vaccine in sight. She also recognizes that her work with BBS is just the beginning. Coming fresh off a summer with widespread protests against racism and police brutality, and not enough change in bourbon-producing cities like Louisville, she recognizes the power and need for a group like the one she's created.

"As far as most brands are concerned, they may not be able to change the entire landscape, but they know what's right," said Davis. "What we really want now is to see diverse leaders."

Now she's created Diversity Distilled, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the glaring inequities within the spirits business. "The work we're going to do with Diversity Distilled is very important," she said. "In terms of pushing for diversity and inclusion, we have to take the baton and run with it."

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