Kayla Bush is one of the most tenacious individuals you’ll ever meet, according to Rob Beatty, the founder of the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. And she’s the perfect example of why his organization exists.
Bush is a full-time student at Kentucky State University majoring in journalism and mass communications with a certificate in distillation and fermentation. She’s also an intern at Buffalo Trace Distillery, where she scours the archives for stories of African American contributions to Kentucky’s signature industry.
Bush joined the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild at the suggestion of one of her professors. She said the group opened her eyes to the contributions African Americans have made to the development of bourbon through the centuries, and the Guild has helped her make professional connections. “It’s been a really cool experience and learning path,” Bush said. “I learn something new every time we link up.”
This was the kind of outcome Beatty hoped for when he founded the Guild in 2018. The Guild’s goal is to educate minority consumers about bourbon and the essential role people of color have played in the industry’s development. Since its founding, Guild membership has grown, and so has the organization’s impact and reach. Funded by major partnerships across multiple sectors, the Guild funds scholarships for minority students who are entering the fermenting and distilling professions. Members enjoy quarterly tours with master distillers and founders, monthly tastings with brands, and much more.
Beatty said the organization welcomes all comers to honor the past, learn more about bourbon, and prepare the next generation of minority leaders in the industry. “We’ve got neurosurgeons; we have students and everything in between,” he said of the Guild membership. “We have all education levels; we have all colors. We’re just a very welcoming group—it’s about the community.”
Honoring the Past
A primary impetus for founding the group, Beatty said, was educating the public about the essential role African Americans have played in the development of the bourbon industry from its beginning. Members say it’s working. “I’ve really enjoyed learning a lot about the African American contribution to the bourbon industry,” said Guild member Latrice Anderson, a nurse and principal partner of Oasis Mobile Hydration.
One story Anderson mentioned is that of Nathan “Nearest” Green, the enslaved master distiller who taught Jack Daniels the whiskey-making craft. While Green’s contribution is well-documented, the bourbon industry only recently has begun to recognize him as a trailblazer in American whiskey.
In 2017, entrepreneur Fawn Weaver honored Green’s legacy by founding Uncle Nearest, a distillery based in Shelbyville, Tennessee. According to Forbes magazine, the distillery’s Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey is “the best-selling African American-founded spirit brand of all time.” The distillery is also a partner of the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. When the Guild launched on Dec. 19, 2018, its first tasting for members and potential members featured Uncle Nearest whiskey. (See page 13 for a recipe that features Uncle Nearest whiskey as a key ingredient.)
“Being a member … has really opened my eyes to even more African American contributions to the bourbon industry,” Anderson said.
The Guild recently partnered with Castle & Key Distillery near Frankfort to create a five-year special whiskey release called The Untold Story of Kentucky Whiskey. Chapter 1, which was released last year, featured historical content on the label developed in partnership with the Guild. Bottle sales benefited a diversity in distilling scholarship created by Castle & Key, and the distillery donated bottles to the Guild to use in fundraising for its own Freddie Johnson Minority Scholarship. This year’s release, Chapter 2, continues the historical narrative with a wheated bourbon. Net proceeds from Chapter 2 will fund the Freddie Johnson Minority Scholarship.
The Guild isn’t focused only on history; it also has a mission to educate members about bourbon as a beverage. Each month, members enjoy a workshop called the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild Institute of Bourbon Training. Sessions are led by bourbon expert Tim Knittel, the founder of Distilled Living—a company that educates hospitality industry professionals and anyone interested in learning about bourbon—and adjunct professor in Midway University’s bourbon studies program.
“It has definitely exceeded my expectations in terms of being introduced to the different brands and learning how to know the bourbon and figure out a flavor profile,” said Glenda Humphrey George, a Guild member who recently retired from her role as managing attorney for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government. “I always appreciate, when brands come to do tastings, that they make sure that they make us aware of any contributions that African Americans have had to their particular brand and then the bourbon industry in general.”
Bush said that she’s learned more about flavor profiles as well as spices and herbs that pair well with bourbon. “That was all brand new to me and a really cool experience,” she acknowledged.
Anderson said the emphasis on learning sets the Guild apart from other bourbon clubs. “We have the educational piece once a month, the distillery tours that we do, the tastings that we do for different brands,” she said. “It’s way more than just the socialization of it—you’re getting a lot more knowledge behind that, too.”
Preparing the Next Generation
Through its Freddie Johnson Minority Scholarship as well as professional connections and industry partnerships, the Guild connects young people to careers in the bourbon industry. Bush said it helped her make connections to land her internship at Buffalo Trace, and she encourages other students to take advantage of what the Guild has to offer. “I just want everybody to know the opportunities that come with it—the fact that you can gain paid internships, the fact that you can build relationships with other professionals that are in the industry and can learn so much about this $8.6 billion industry in Kentucky,” she said.
The Guild’s scholarship honors Freddie Johnson, a third-generation Buffalo Trace employee and Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee.
Johnson, who started working at Buffalo Trace in 2002, traces his lineage much further back. His father, Jimmy Johnson Jr., worked at the distillery alongside famed master distiller Elmer T. Lee. His grandfather, Jimmy Johnson Sr., worked for Col. Albert Blanton at what was then the George T. Stagg distillery. Even as a child, Johnson said, the distillery was his “playground,” and he’s honored to be part of an effort that will help a rising generation.
“We walk this earth, and you never have any idea of the impact that you’re going to have on others,” Johnson said, reflecting on having a scholarship named in his honor. “That’s probably the most humbling piece of this whole thing.”
Beatty has big dreams for the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild. He wants to create regional chapters, launch a bourbon certificate program, hire a full-time executive director, build and maintain archives, and open a museum.
Hearkening back to Nearest Green, Beatty said the Guild’s focus on Black history is deeply connected to its mission of preparing a new generation to lead. “[Nearest Green] is not only an African American hero; he’s an American hero, based on his contribution and the lineage that he left behind,” Beatty said. “Our pipeline that we build through Kentucky State University, through Buffalo Trace, Pinhook, Fresh Bourbon—that’s continuing to honor that lineage that Uncle Nearest started so long ago.”