Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild


IN GOOD SPIRITS

September 16, 2023 by kentuckyblackbourbonguild
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BY RENA BAERSMILEY PETE PUBLISHING
WHEN LEXINGTON BUSINESS OWNER ROBERT BEATTY WAS THINKING OF ALSO BECOMING A PRIVATE TOUR GUIDE FOR THE STATE OF KENTUCKY, HE GAVE IT A TRIAL RUN BY TAKING A GROUP TO BARDSTOWN FOR THE DAY TO VISIT DISTILLERIES AND ENJOY SOME BOURBON TASTING.
THE GROUP ALSO STOPPED BY THE OSCAR GETZ MUSEUM OF WHISKEY TO TAKE IN SOME HISTORY.
“WHEN WE WALKED IN THE MUSEUM I WAS OVERWHELMED WITH ALL OF THE PHOTOS OF AFRICAN AMERICANS ON THE WALL,” BEATTY SAID. “BUT THERE WERE NO NAMES; THERE WAS NO IDENTIFICATION; THERE WERE NO STORIES. IT INTRIGUED ME BECAUSE I ALSO SAW MANY IMMIGRANTS. IT WAS A COLORFUL WALL.”
HE STARTED TO DO SOME RESEARCH, WHICH EVENTUALLY LED HIM TO FREDDIE JOHNSON, ONE OF BUFFALO TRACE’S MOST POPULAR TOUR GUIDES. JOHNSON’S GRANDFATHER, JAMES B. JOHNSON SR., HAD BEEN THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WAREHOUSE FOREMAN THERE, RACKING BARRELS, CHECKING THEM FOR LEAKS AND “DUMPING” THE BOURBON INTO THOSE BARRELS TO AGE. HIS SON, JAMES JR., JOINED HIM AT AGE 20, LEARNING TO REPAIR BARRELS WITHOUT DISTURBING THE CONTENTS AND GOING ON TO BECOME A WAREHOUSE SUPERVISOR.
FREDDIE JOHNSON, WHO HAD A KNACK FOR ELECTRICITY, TOOK A MORE CIRCUITOUS PATH, WORKING FOR  AT&T IN NEW YORK CITY FOR YEARS BEFORE COMING BACK TO KENTUCKY AND BUFFALO TRACE TO BE WITH HIS AGING FATHER AND BECOME A TOUR GUIDE AT THE DISTILLERY.
BY THE TIME BEATTY WAS ABLE TO CONNECT WITH JOHNSON, THE ENTREPRENEUR HAD COME UP WITH AN IDEA: HE WANTED TO START A BOURBON GROUP FOCUSED ON (BUT NOT LIMITED TO) AFRICAN AMERICANS, THAT DELVED INTO NOT ONLY LEARNING ABOUT AND TASTING BOURBON BUT ALSO DISCOVERING ITS AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORICAL INFLUENCES AND PULLING OUT THE UNTOLD STORIES. IN ADDITION, HE WANTED THE GROUP TO HAVE A COMMUNITY ELEMENT THAT PROVIDED YOUNG AFRICAN AMERICANS A PATH INTO THE DISTILLING INDUSTRY AND ITS WELL-PAYING JOBS BY OFFERING COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS. BEATTY SAID SEVERAL LOCAL BOURBON GROUPS AND JOHNSON PROVIDED REINFORCEMENT FOR THE IDEA.
BEATTY, WHO RUNS A FACILITIES MAINTENANCE COMPANY, SAID HE CAME UP WITH THE NAME BLACK BOURBON GUILD AND PUT TOGETHER A BOARD OF DIRECTORS TO CREATE A NONPROFIT. AT THEIR INAUGURAL EVENT IN NOVEMBER 2018, BEATTY SAID 170 PEOPLE SHOWED UP, AND 20 IMMEDIATELY SIGNED ON AS DUES-PAYING MEMBERS.
“WE HAD AN OVERWHELMING RESPONSE,” SAID BEATTY.
THE SAME NUMBER SHOWED UP FOR THE OFFICIAL LAUNCH A MONTH LATER, DURING WHICH JOHNSON LED THEIR TOUR OF BUFFALO TRACE, DID THEIR TASTING AND PROVIDED SOME HISTORY. SINCE THEN MEMBERSHIP HAS GROWN TO MORE THAN 120.
THROUGH HIS INTEREST IN BOURBON’S HISTORY AND READING, BEATTY SAID HE HAS LEARNED THAT ENSLAVED MEN PLAYED SIGNIFICANT ROLES IN THE HISTORY OF BOURBON DISTILLING. IN FACT, HISTORIANS FOUND THAT IT WAS AN AFRICAN AMERICAN MAN NAMED NATHAN “NEAREST” GREEN, MOST LIKELY ENSLAVED BY OR RENTED TO A FARM OWNER, WHO TAUGHT A CURIOUS YOUNG BOY NAMED JASPER NEWTON (WHO EVENTUALLY BECAME KNOWN AS JACK DANIEL) TO MAKE WHISKEY. WHEN THE RATIFICATION OF THE 13TH AMENDMENT ENDED SLAVERY IN 1865, DANIEL EMPLOYED GREEN’S THREE SONS, AND LATER TWO GRANDSONS, IN MAKING JACK DANIEL’S. GREEN’S NAME AND MEMORY IS NOW COMMEMORATED AT THE NEAREST GREEN DISTILLERY IN LYNCHBURG, TENNESSEE, WHICH PRODUCES THE NEAREST GREEN WHISKEY BRAND.
“WE NOW KNOW THAT AFRICAN AMERICANS WERE MASTER DISTILLERS,” SAID BEATTY. “IF A SLAVE HAD MASTER DISTILLERY SKILLS, HE SOLD FOR MORE. HIS PRICE TAG WENT UP.”
WHAT NAGS AT BEATTY IS THAT THERE ARE MANY OTHER AFRICAN AMERICANS WHO HELPED BUILD THE INDUSTRY WHOSE NAMES ARE UNKNOWN AND STORIES ARE UNTOLD. HE SAID HIS GROUP IS WORKING WITH A HISTORIAN AT KENTUCKY STATE UNIVERSITY, ERIN GILLIAM, WHO HE SAID IS COMBING THROUGH DISTILLERY ARCHIVES AND OLD PHOTOS TO PUT TOGETHER A TIMELINE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND DISCOVER LOST STORIES.
BEATTY SAID HIS GROUP ALSO HAS ALIGNED WITH KSU TO PROMOTE ITS NEW DISTILLATION AND FERMENTATION CERTIFICATION PROGRAM, STEERING STUDENTS IN THAT DIRECTION. THEY ARE ALSO TALKING TO THE UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY ABOUT DIVERSITY IN ITS NEW SIMILAR CERTIFICATION PROGRAM.
“ONE OF OUR GOALS IS TO MOVE THAT NEEDLE,” HE SAID. “BOURBON IS AN $8.6 BILLION INDUSTRY IN KENTUCKY, AND AFRICAN AMERICANS ONLY REPRESENT LESS THAN 1 PERCENT OF THE WORKFORCE. IT STARTS WITH EDUCATION.”
IN ADDITION TO TRYING TO BRING HISTORY TO LIGHT AND SUPPORTING EDUCATION, BEATTY SAID THERE ARE MONTHLY SOCIAL EVENTS OR MEETINGS WHERE THE GROUP TOURS DISTILLERIES AND LEARNS ABOUT BOURBON, SUCH AS TASTING, NOSING, AND PAIRINGS.
“I GREW UP IN KENTUCKY, HERE IN LEXINGTON, AND I DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT BOURBON UNTIL ABOUT FOUR YEARS AGO,” HE SAID. “BUT I DIDN’T HAVE ANYONE TO TEACH ME. THIS IS WHAT THIS GROUP DOES.”
BEATTY IS HOPING TO OPEN CHAPTERS IN OTHER CITIES IN OTHER STATES AND INCREASE AWARENESS OF THE BOURBON MARKET, ITS AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND THE DISTILLING INDUSTRY AS A CAREER OPTION. HIS OWN MOTIVATION COMES FROM SEEING AFRICAN AMERICANS OFTEN OVERLOOKED AS CONSUMERS AND ALSO IN MANAGEMENT. WHEN HE WORKED FOR CINGULAR EARLIER IN HIS CAREER, BEATTY WAS ALWAYS STRUCK BY THE DIVERSITY OF ITS EMPLOYEES AND ITS MARKETING.
“THAT WAS SPECIAL TO ME BECAUSE WHEN I WAS STANDING IN THOSE STORIES, I COULD SEE WHO WAS COMING IN,” HE SAID. “IT WASN’T JUST ONE COLOR OF PEOPLE.”
AND WITH THE DISTILLING INDUSTRY, THE OPPORTUNITIES GO FAR BEYOND WHAT COMES OUT OF THE BARREL. THEY ARE ALSO WHAT GOES INTO THE BARREL AND THE CHEMISTRY AND AGRICULTURE BEHIND IT, BEATTY SAID.
“I WANT OUR CHILDREN TO SEE THIS INDUSTRY AS AN OPTION AND TO UNDERSTAND AND BE PROUD OF OUR HISTORY IN IT.”