Fresh Bourbon, an African American-owned product from Lexington, Kentucky, joins a dizzying array of over 380 bourbons offered at Jake's Cigar Bar — Photo courtesy of Jenny Peters
Kentucky bourbon distillers have long been a bastion of white men, who have been making that quintessentially American spirit since the 1700s. But these days, things are changing, as two companies run by Kentucky-based African Americans have come onto the scene in the last few years.
Black ownership of bourbon distilleries has been a long time coming, considering that when bourbon production began, Black slaves were workers in the production process, and since the Civil War, Black free men have been an integral part of the business of bourbon, but never the owners of a distillery.
And Black women have been traditionally excluded from serving in either the ownership or master distiller's positions at Kentucky distilleries to an even greater extent (as have women of any race, until very recent times).
Kentucky bourbon aging in white oak barrels — Photo courtesy of Jenny Peters
Today, two companies run by African American men and women mark a distinct change in the exclusive world of bourbon production, as the Brough Brothers Distillery and Fresh Bourbon Distilling Company both aim to bring diversity and a smooth taste to Kentucky's most famous product. Bourbon is the only alcoholic spirit that was actually invented in the United States, and Kentucky bourbon must be made in the state to get that specific designation.
The Kentucky spirit is required to have a minimum of 51% corn to be designated as bourbon; and rye, wheat and malted barley are often also included in the "mash bill" (the mix of grains that are cooked and fermented) that begins the process of making bourbon. A master distiller is responsible for choosing the mix and taking the grains on through the distilling process and into the charred white oak barrels (required for Kentucky bourbon), where the alcohol ages for at least two years – and usually more – before it can be legally bottled.
Kentucky bourbon fermenting mash — Photo courtesy of Jenny Peters
Over the centuries, many Black men have played integral roles in the rise of Kentucky bourbon. Freddie Johnson, the VIP tour guide at the venerable Buffalo Trace Distillery in Lexington (the oldest continuously operating distillery in the U.S.), is part of a family legacy there. It began with his grandfather hiring on in 1912 and continued with his father, who was an integral part of this famed distillery for more than 40 years. Freddie is also the first African American to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
Freddie Johnson at Buffalo Trace Distillery — Photo courtesy of Jenny Peters
"The reality is, the world is changing," says the 74-year-old retired technology expert who, almost 20 years ago, returned to work at the place where his African American family legacy is legendary.
Johnson adds, "The bourbon world is a diverse mix these days, even here in the South. The Asian community – the Japanese – saved this distillery back when the bourbon market went into a slump, and nowadays the Indian and Dubai folks are coming here; really, the whole world has embraced bourbon. Little by little, it has become a diverse mix of people, both those who make the product and those who drink it and come to Lexington to visit."
The international rise in bourbon lovers (and buyers) in the last 15 to 20 years (bourbon is now an $8.6 billion industry) has definitely been a catalyst for both more production by long-established distilleries in Kentucky and for the launching of new companies, like the two Black-owned distilleries.
And while there is some debate between those two companies as to who got there first (and even a lawsuit in progress, arguing as to which one was the first and can say that), one thing is certain: there is room for both in the marketplace. And room for more diversity in the centuries-old bourbon companies that dominate the Kentucky bourbon business, as well.
The Yarbrough brothers, creators of Brough Brothers Distillery — Photo courtesy of Brough Brothers
Louisville-based Brough Brothers Distillery, owned by brothers Victor, Bryson and Chris Yarbrough, has been up and running since 2018, opening a distillery building located in the predominantly African American neighborhood of West End in 2020 and launching a production line that includes vodka, gin and rum, as well as bourbon.
"About ten years ago, I was working in finance and my wife Lydia and I were living in the U.K. and we decided to start an import-export business, exporting cider to the U.S. and craft beer and bourbon to the U.K. It is called Victory Global Limited in the U.K. and Victory Global LLC in the U.S. We learned a lot about distribution because of that and then decided we really wanted to actually make our own products, especially bourbon. That's when my brothers got involved and when Brough Brothers Distillery began," CEO Victor Yarbrough explains.
Bryson Yarbrough, master distiller of Brough Brothers bourbon — Photo courtesy of Brough Brothers
Brough Brothers' initial bourbon offering is on the market now, selling in 25 states. That bottling is a bourbon sourced from another distiller, as Bryson Yarbrough, Kentucky's first African American master distiller, awaits his first proprietary bourbon to come to age in the barrels he laid down in 2020. "Our bourbon right now is a very light bourbon, with apple and pear notes," his brother Victor says. "It's a great introduction bourbon."
Brough Brothers Bourbon — Photo courtesy of Brough Brothers
Sean and Tia Edwards of Fresh Bourbon Distilling Company in Lexington started their business in 2017, with the ambitious plan to open a 34,000-square-foot distillery near the burgeoning Distillery District in the northeast section of the city. That part of the couple's business plan has been stalled by the pandemic (now projected to open by 2023), but they have already released their first Fresh Bourbon in 2021, a light bourbon with hints of vanilla and chocolate, made from their proprietary mash at Hartfield & Co. That bottling has already won a gold medal from the MicroLiquor Spirit Awards.
"Our bourbon is gently sweet and approachable," Tia Edwards describes, "and for new bourbon drinkers, it doesn't have what they call that 'Kentucky fire,' even though the alcohol content is still high and it still has that punch. I love our bourbon in cocktails."
Fresh Bourbon on the rocks — Photo courtesy of Fresh Bourbon
Sean Edwards is proud of their first bourbon release, and equally proud of the diversity their company is bringing to a traditionally white male-dominated business. "Our master distiller is Black, and our team is a very diverse group of people," he says. "We feel like what we are doing in the bourbon industry will be a part of the change that is needed, here in Kentucky and beyond. It's not just about making good bourbon, it's about giving more jobs to people who look like we do, in every aspect of the business, not just in distillation, but all the way through the product chain."
Sean and Tia Edwards, owners of Fresh Bourbon — Photo courtesy of Fresh Bourbon
The Edwards expect to employ 25 people when their distillery opens and promise that those employees will encompass all the sorts of people that enjoy drinking bourbon in the 21st century. "When you look at who is buying bourbon right now, it is blowing up because women, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians are the ones in the market now," Sean says. "We're getting so much support from the African American community, it is amazing. They start out just wanting to support what we are doing, then they stay because we are making a bourbon that tastes great. That's what we love about being in the bourbon business."