There is no such thing as a cursory glance into Samara Rivers’ Black Bourbon Society™ (BBS) group on Facebook. Nope. You have to drink in every post and the two minutes you allot yourself for scrolling turns into an hour (or more) of brown liquor education, leaving one to feel like an amateur among some of the brainiest aficionados ever. This is her tribe and kin.
The 4,000-plus (paid and unpaid) members of BBS are a mélange of African-Americans from around the world, representative of a bevy of professions in and outside of the spirits industry. They are people who love bourbon and love discussing it.
“We use our Facebook group as one big focus group. Brand reps and marketers are in that group contributing to that conversation. There is a constant exchange between consumers and brands,” says Samara Rivers.
The 2018 Nielsen report —Black Impact—supports Samara’s efforts:
“Through social media, Black consumers have brokered a seat at the table and are demanding that brands and marketers speak to them in ways that resonate culturally and experientially—if these brands want their business. And with African-Americans spending $1.2 trillion annually, brands have a lot to lose.”
Rivers has struck pay dirt in a multi-billion dollar industry that tends to underestimate Black consumers of whiskey and bourbon.
Connections That Inspire
The inspiration to create the Black Bourbon Society™ began in Rivers’ glass. “It was about creating the change I wanted to see,” says Rivers. The longtime bourbon enthusiast knew other Black bourbon lovers too, and planned a series of small events in the Bay Area that included the support of friends. The events shed light on a disconnect between whiskey and bourbon marketers and the people she knew imbibing it. They were people with favorite brands— connoisseurs—who know Kentucky isn’t the only state producing bourbon and the difference between a snifter and a nosing glass.
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She did her homework on the industry, and soon had the numbers and information she needed to tell makers and marketers that it was time to pay attention to this segment of bourbon buyers. She says, “Many were surprised to learn we existed,” though consumer insights suggest that African-Americans are buying more spirits (vodka, cognac, whiskey, bourbon), and buying premium brands.
As it turned out, Rivers’ timing was impeccable. BBS was launched the same week Fawn Weaver—the first Black woman on record for owning a bourbon brand—introduced Uncle Nearest 1856 named for Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green, the formerly enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to distill whiskey. Weaver’s research time-lined Green’s involvement in the founding of Jack Daniel Distillery as well as his role as America’s first Black master distiller on record. A New York Times feature on Weaver and her findings was just what Rivers needed to prove what she’d suspected all along: African Americans not only invested in bourbon and whiskey as consumers but were also vested in the history of those spirits in this country.
Sharing the Love of Bourbon
The seasoned event producer and non-profit arts fundraiser sketched a plan to corral potential BBS members, which proved to be easy. She began with friends, who brought in people they knew, and membership is now the gift that keeps on giving. Next steps included excursions such as the upcoming Brown Derby Weekend in Kentucky, which includes a tour of distilleries. “We’re bringing consumers directly to their doors. Members have a direct, genuine connection with the brand that we have facilitated for them.”
This past year BBS hosted Cocktail Conversations, a series of public affairs forums in cities across the country, and they will continue with their annual Bourbon Boulé during Bourbon Heritage Month in New Orleans this September. Rivers keeps activities intimate and exclusive, a method to maintain exclusivity and ability for brands to have one-on-one engagement.
She and partner (in life and business), Armond Davis, host the whiskey review podcast, Bonded in Bourbon. They also co-manage Monarch Global, a business development and marketing consulting agency for up-and-coming brands in the spirits industry.
As BBS enters into its third year, Rivers, a fourth-generation entrepreneur, has a clearer vision of its future. “When I first started, this was like walking in the dark. No one had ever done this before, so there wasn't a blueprint. We are finally at a place where planning for the next two years is focused and almost finished.” Some of her focus is on continuing with smaller, intimate events while hosting tasting festivals in select cities. As a face of the BBS brand, she has made formidable contacts within the spirits industry and is being invited to speak and conduct tastings for conferences.
Rivers knows there is still work to be completed. African Americans work in the distilleries, but few are key decision-makers in the C-suite and none are master distillers for major brands.
“I want to be known as an organizer and advocate for making real change in this industry; a voice for diversity and inclusion.”
Nothing is more important to Rivers than raising her two small children, a daughter and a son. In fact, she says, “My daughter watches everything I do, so I am conscious of the type of model I am setting for her. I am raising a beast, so she deserves a mom who is a beast.”
She continues, “I’m also very much a mom who drinks whiskey.”
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Rivers’ favorite bourbon to-date is Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Stagg Jr. and she has developed a fondness for the Paper Plane cocktail originated by mixologist Sam Ross. Other moms (and non-moms) can follow her activity on the Black Bourbon Society™ Instagram page and sign up for membership via the website. And if your September is clear for a trip, plan to attend the Bourbon Boulé in New Orleans.