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Whiskey and wisdom from Rob Beatty of the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild

Black people’s contributions to the industry have long been hidden in plain sight

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Whiskey has been an integral part of the history of the United States since the country’s founding. But that relationship can be complicated. Wars like the Whiskey Rebellion were fought over it, and Prohibition was enacted to curb it. African Americans’ relationship with whiskey could be described in much the same way — complicated.

Until the brand Uncle Nearest showed the world that the first master distiller of the famous Jack Daniels distillery was Black, African Americans were seen only as consumers. We didn’t own major brands or run them. While that has been changing, Rob Beatty knew that African Americans had worked in the shadows of the industry from the beginning and has sought to pull back the curtain on that history. As the founder of the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild, the group he established in 2018, Beatty hoped to show that we were always there and played an integral role. He has taken it upon himself to ensure that these accomplishments receive the respect they are due.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Bourbon Hall of Fame Freddie Johnson (second left) leads Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild members on a tour and tasting at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Femi Oyeniran

How and why did you found the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild?

In 2018, I visited the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History [near Louisville]. It’s a fantastic museum with fascinating history and artifacts, but something was missing. I saw many depictions of Black people, but there was no meaningful representation of the part African Americans played in the history of bourbon. There were no placards noting the names of the faces I saw in pictures and no explanation about who these people were or what their roles were in the industry. Our contribution was both invisible but yet in plain sight.

I went to one of the museum’s curators and asked for any insight she could provide. She essentially told me to do my homework.

I’ll admit that I left there heated. But I slept on it, and the next day, I called a friend at the Lexington tourism department. He recommended creating an organization focusing on these untold stories and educating people about these important figures. That was how the KBBG came to be.

Tell us about your programs and charitable work.

My focus is on making people into real bourbon aficionados. Certain boundaries limit accessibility, and my role is to help people overcome those. Part of that is not to overdo it. Initially, I would take 12 people on tours of five distilleries in a day. I learned that it was too much.

‘Good taste’ is often associated with affluence, but doesn’t need to be. We have a paid membership, but it’s affordable and offers a lot of value. Memberships start at $150 a year, and we also have student and household membership discounts. It’s all about developing an appreciation for the sensory experience. Our members get exclusive tastings hosted by an expert distiller every third Wednesday of the month, and then every second Saturday, there’s an instructor-led palate training course. We get into the history of distilleries and finish with a cocktail-making class. It’s about taking what is considered exclusive and bringing it down from its pedestal, making it something we can see, understand and appreciate. An indulgence that’s part of the human experience. I call that ‘sensology,’ and it’s for everyone.

As for charity work, I have to say I’m most proud of the Freddie Johnson Minority Scholarship program, which we grant annually to a student who has an interest in the bourbon industry so they may succeed in higher education. Since fall 2022, we have awarded over $10,000 in scholarships.

Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild members participate in the group’s quarterly tour at James Pepper Distillery in Lexington, Kentucky.

Femi Oyeniran

How did you get into whiskey? What were your early favorites? 

Years ago, before I began my bourbon journey, I entertained a friend at a bar. I asked the bartender to give me the best bourbon they had. He asked for a credit card, which struck me as unusual, but I took the ride. He returned with a receipt for $212 and a single-ounce pour of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. The price threw me, and my expectations were … well, I don’t know what they were! My palate was not yet acclimated. It tasted woody and oaky that first time.

Down the road, I found that I liked that complexity in taste. It might defy conventional wisdom, but I also discovered that I don’t find that older is necessarily better. I’ve been impressed with 15- to 12-year-old releases, but I’ve also enjoyed 4-year-old bourbons. People drink for different reasons. Sometimes, it’s nostalgia. Sometimes, it’s a status thing. For me, it’s about a sense of discovery.

Who have been your mentors on your whiskey journey? 

The man I mentioned with Lexington tourism is Gathan Borden. All of this happened because of him. Another important person for me is Sean [Josephs] at Pinhook Bourbon. And Freddie Johnson is so important that we named our charity after him. Freddie is a third-generation African American tour guide at Buffalo Trace Distillery [in Frankfort, Kentucky] and is in the Bourbon Hall of Fame. Freddie says always to push forward and focus on sharing information. And so, we do.

Can you tell us more about how you and the guild educate people on bourbon history and the African American contribution to it?

We believe in creating and fostering that sense of accessibility. That goes along with teaching how, as Black people, we are here and always have been a part of bourbon’s vanguard.

In the club, we show how we can appreciate bourbon in real time and discuss pairing food with bourbon. All our tastings are exclusive — I ensure we get time with master distillers. I always want to understand and learn more, like why bourbon tastings are what they are. I want us to get the hows and whys direct from the experts. The tours are experiential, but there’s still so much to learn.

For example, James E. Pepper, who founded the sites of the current Woodford Reserve Distillery and the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, as well as popularizing the classic old-fashioned cocktail, owned a horse that Isaac Murphy, the Black jockey who was the first three-time Derby winner, rode upon. The average group wouldn’t know that, but we put that on the front end to show you some connections.

Left to right: Guild members Glenda George, Priscilla Sales, Ponice Raglin Cruse, and Dionne Griffin Hall at the group’s Bourbon and Cigar Social Sip event at Jack’s Sandbar and Grill in Lexington, Kentucky.

Femi Oyeniran

What are your thoughts on the recent explosion of Black spirits producers? 

I’m inspired and elated by the growth. I’m unsurprised and am very glad to see more African Americans getting into it. There’s a bond for all of us and so much sweat equity from our ancestors. I’m glad to see it come full circle like this.

Through your running the guild, what are the things that surprised you?

African Americans are some of the top consumers of these products, but we know nothing about them, about our connection to them. For generations, African Americans have put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this industry, and brands would do well to market more directly to us. While running the KBBG, we’ve uncovered a few African American names in this shared history. With those names, they become real. Bourbon is an irrefutable part of the Black experience and vice versa … from where I sit, I see that connection getting stronger with every name we pull into the light.

Kurt Maitland started his whiskey journey with drams of Jameson Irish Whiskey in college. He has been exploring the wider world of spirits ever since. He is currently the Deputy Editor of the popular Whiskey Reviewer website and the curator of the Manhattan Whiskey Club. Kurt is also a celebrated author, having written three popular cocktail handbooks; Drink The Ultimate Cocktail Book, The Infused Cocktail Handbook and Measure Shake Pour.