Former NBA player Alan Henderson spotlights African American history makers in the spirits industry.
When former NBA player Alan Henderson decided to dip into the spirits world with the company he founded in 2013, Henderson Spirits Group (HSG), representation of the African American community and other communities of color was a big focal point.
Researching the industry as he planned his company’s launch, he quickly realized that the Black community had been left out of the narrative, with only a handful of Black-owned brands gaining a reputation over the last few years. Thus began the journey to spotlight the work of African American distillers and other personalities in the history of the spirits industry to give them their fair share of global recognition.
Transitioning to the Spirits World
“I've always had an entrepreneurial bug. When I was in school, I thought I was going to be a doctor and got into medical school, but once I started playing and played longer than I thought I was going to play, I put that dream aside,” says Henderson, who is based in Indiana.
He dabbled in a few different entrepreneurial pursuits while playing basketball—five Smoothie King restaurants and even a music recording studio in Atlanta, as well as other investments in various businesses. But he knew once he stopped playing professionally, he wanted to do something where he could dictate his own schedule and be his own boss.
“That transition was tough because you go from having a team your whole life and practice and games and a group of people around every day to not having that. It was a bit of adjustment, but I knew I wanted to do something where I wasn't going to be traveling,” he shares.
Coaching or anything with the game that would take him away from his family wasn’t an option, so he considered different opportunities. One such was to invest in a liqueur brand, and while Henderson chose not to proceed with that product, he learned a lot just by doing his due diligence about the spirits industry.
His visits to liquor stores during his research included looking at packages, brands, flavors, and he started noticing a lot of somewhat similar stories—usually of white-haired Caucasian men on bottles.
“I said, ‘We've been here a long time. There must be some African American ties in the spirits industry and stories that just aren't being told.’ I'd like to see some of those stories on the bottle, highlighting an African American true story in spirits history. I set out to make that my mission.”
Bringing New Brands to Life
So began the journey of buying barrels of bourbon in 2015 and researching African Americans in the history of the spirits industry, which led Henderson to zero in on the stories of Birdie Brown and Tom Bullock to be the basis of his first two brands from about five or six he considered and a third in development now.
“There are different stories on all sides, whether it's from the distilling or the bartender or the moonshiners or tavern owners, but I was really pleased when I learned about Birdie Brown, and her story jumped out at me. When I came across Tom Bullock and his book, ‘The Ideal Bartender,’ he really went for it at a time when to get your book published in the mainstream, you had to have an introduction by a white person. It was a whole different environment.”
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It's been quite the journey since understanding the various trademarks, developing all the drinks and labels and bottles, and figuring out the bottling and distribution. There weren’t many people that could provide guidance, so it was a lot of searching on Google and asking around about how to do things.
“That was also a part of what led me to my company's mission was just to diversify the bar because along the way I really wasn't talking to many folks who look like me, if any,” says Henderson. “I was like, ‘I know we can do this; I know we’re consumers. I don’t understand why it feels like we’re shut out of this.’”
Birdie Brown launched in spring 2020—a tough time for everybody and a tough time to launch a new product. Despite not being able to host tastings and other in-person events, Henderson fought through it, got help from a great distributor, and partnered with ReserveBar.com to be able to ship to upwards of 30 states, all during the pandemic.
The first product is the Birdie Brown plain hooch, an unaged whiskey made from a base of wheat, oat and barley, bottled at 100 proof for a super smooth finish. Next in that line to launch will be the Birdie Brown straight wheat whiskey later this year.
Tom Bullock’s launched in fall 2021 with the Old Tom Gin and Sweet Lime, made in London through a sixth-generation distiller specializing in different types of gin. “One of the unique things about it is we use a fruit called sweet lime, so it's not just lime and sugar but also sweet lime distilled, and it’s a nice fragrant, zesty gin, great on its own and in cocktails,” says Henderson. The brand also offers a Burnt Orange Bourbon starring a slightly caramelized, smoky orange flavor hint.
Broadening Industry Representation with Bollygood
Additionally, Henderson is involved with Bollygood, a company that his wife Maxine Henderson started last fall, offering an Indian-inspired sparkling beverage. Raised in Canada, she took inspiration from her summers in India, where her parents had moved from, and put her spin on a drink that's centuries old called nimbu pani (lemon water).
Just as Henderson saw a gap in the sprits industry and decided to address it, his wife saw a gap in the Indian foods space where there were many options in frozen and prepared sections, naan bread in restaurants, but no beverages. The brand has seen success selling online, in stores, and at the time of this interview, an appearance on the shopping network QVC was planned.
Not all of that journey has been smooth sailing for Henderson, who has had much to learn along the way and shares his travails. “Some of the peculiarities with the labels were new to me,” he says. “Just the back and forth was time-consuming, getting it approved or denied, that was a challenge. Getting distribution in different places isn't as easy as it seems either.”
Other areas that presented a steep learning curve included the pricing, trademarks, brand names, and what could and couldn’t be protected, even an eye-opening experience where another company tried stealing one of his brand names.
That only added to Henderson’s motivation as he works toward helping diversify the bar aside from the brands under the HSG umbrella. He is intentional in seeking diverse talent and suppliers and hoping he can provide the professional ambience where people can come and get experience, learn, and grow, help HSG grow, but then also position themselves to be able maybe one day to go elsewhere and flourish. As part of those efforts, he collaborates with local venues like Indianapolis Urban League and the Madam CJ Walker Center to spotlight their initiatives.
“There are lots of minority companies trying to get into the space now with different brands, and I talk to them, I've been in different cohorts with them, and I always say there's room for all of us,” says Henderson. “We don't have to cut each other down to succeed. We can all grow and help each other get better. That's my philosophy.”