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Untold Story

Ever since I was a young kid, alcohol has always fascinated me. Not the act of drinking, but the history, culture, and shenanigans that go along with it. I grew up on stories of Prohibition, bootlegging, and my great-great-uncle Frank, who was a rumrunner. He used to tell me about evading the law and delivering alcohol to shady characters in Alabama. And I didn’t just hear these types of stories from my great-great-uncle, but also from my father, who would regale me with anecdotes from his youth, when he would steal whiskey from a local bootlegger and moonshiner, and help him to make hooch.

Hearing these tales throughout my childhood, I was under the impression that stories about Black people’s contributions to the alcohol industry were well known. Then I became old enough to drink—and to know better. 

Start digging and you’ll see little acknowledgment of these contributions. The erasure of Black people in an industry that has made money off Black labor is harmful to be sure, but there are some positive stories. While brands such as Crown Royal and Hennessy have embraced Black culture, many have kept Black contributions a secret until only recently. Take Jack Daniels, which just a few years ago acknowledged that a Black distiller named Nearest Green taught the original Jack Daniels how to distill his whiskey. Today, other stories are finally becoming known about Black makers, and groups like the Black Bourbon Society and Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild are showing the industry that Black people love bourbon, and are teaching their members about the history of unnamed Black people who’ve long influenced the spirits industry.

And then there’s rum. It took me a long time to get over my disdain for a spirit that’s so rooted in colonialism. Born in the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean, rum was founded on slavery, and many of rum’s stories have been primarily told by white marketers and writers. But, as with whiskey, there’s been some progress in the rum world. Ten to One and Equiano, for example, are two new Black-owned rums that are reframing rum’s story and introducing the collective spirit of the Caribbean’s history, heritage, and culture, while dismantling harmful tropes that have been perpetuated for far too long. 

“I’d still like to hear and see more stories told about the many Black distillers, bartenders, and bootleggers whose names have been lost in time.”

It’s taken years, but the tales of African Americans in the spirits industry that I thought were common knowledge as a kid are finally reaching the larger public. I’d still like to hear and see more stories told about the many Black distillers, bartenders, and bootleggers whose names have been lost in time. I want people to be entertained with stories like those that brought me so much joy and pride as a child. I want our stories to be told so everyone will know that Black people were present when the world’s favorite liquor brands were being created. I want the world to know we did the damn thing—our contributions should no longer be kept a secret. We’re part of the spirits industry’s past and present, and we’re definitely part of its future.

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