Samara Davis at a Black Bourbon Society event in Oakland last month. Credit: Brandy Collins

Founded in Oakland in 2016, the Black Bourbon Society (BBS) is now a national event series with big-name corporate partners like Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. According to founder Samara Davis (née Rivers), the membership organization owes its origins to the region, as the BBS sprang from the juxtaposition of Oakland’s diversity and the exclusionary reputation of the nearby Napa Valley.

“Six years ago … I realized that there was so much opportunity to engage audiences — diverse audiences —especially with us in the Bay Area. We’re right in Napa’s backdoor,” Davis said. An Oakland resident for 12 years, she was always a wine drinker. Then she got into bourbon, and the first seeds for the BBS were planted.

“When I fell in love with bourbon, I fell in love with the flavor of it. The science behind it,” Davis said. “I just became this big whiskey geek and really enjoying the technicalities of how it’s actually made.”

She grew so fascinated by bourbon that she successfully pursued certification as an Executive Bourbon Steward, which is roughly equivalent to what the title “sommelier” means in wine circles. As she pursued that certification, Davis realized that the spirits industry had a disconnect with many consumer markets, especially when it came to Black drinkers. That realization was underscored when a book club made up of Black women made headlines when they were kicked off a Napa wine train. It made her wonder, she said, whether Black people are truly included in the spaces that we’re told are here for everyone to enjoy.

Davis speaks at the BBS’s launch party at Oakland’s Era Art Bar on Oct. 13 2016. Credit: Black Bourbon Society

Data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. Luxury Brand Index indicates that overall interest in American whiskey increased 46% in the past year, Scotch Whisky saw a rebound of 34% and Irish Whiskey increased by 15% from 2021 to 2022. Bourbon is an $8.6 billion industry, and as of 2019, was the fastest growing spirits market, reaching $1.78 billion in sales. That same year, the buying power of the Black community in the U.S. reached $910 billion.

But according to Davis, when it comes to spirits like bourbon, Black folx aren’t flexing that buying power they way they could be. Instead, she said, many have developed brand loyalty to certain spirits based on what was available or trendy, or what someone closely related may have consumed.  “There’s a segment of our community that just drinks whatever their granddaddy drinks, whatever their uncles drank, what they saw their favorite artists or rappers drinking in a commercial,” she said.

Davis said that she realized that Black consumers “need to get out of that habit of just blindly following,” and to start “really paying attention to what is quality and how this product is made.”  And when Black drinkers demand more from companies, those big brands will take notice, Davis said. . “We have to elevate ourselves as a consumer, educate ourselves. Then from there, as a consumer, demand the respect and demand the best.” 

So, Davis created BBS, in hopes that she could bring more awareness of who Black consumers are to bourbon distilleries, while helping Black drinkers feel comfortable in a space they’ve often felt shut out of. Membership is open to anyone who wants to learn more about bourbon, and to network with other fans of the spirit. There are perks to membership including access to private barrels, discounts on events and merchandise and even a membership lapel pin. The BBS now has over 30,000 members who pay $125 per year.

The other side of the BBS is the work Davis does to help brands understand how to genuinely engage with Black consumers. Many of the best-known whiskey and bourbon distilleries have been around for a number of generations with a long history that excluded Black drinkers, and those attitudes can linger. “It’s like all these different spirits have these really warped ideas of what their Black consumer looks like, how to engage and interact with their Black consumers,” Davis said.

The results of her outreach were clear at a recent BBS evening in Oakland, a kick-off event for a five-city tour highlighting Black owned bars and restaurants. Best-selling bourbon brand Jim Beam sponsored the tour, which encompassed Orlando, Charlotte, Houston and Los Angeles. Sponsors for past events have included other premium brands like Makers’ Mark and Jack Daniels.

“We create experiences,” Davis said of the BBS. ”I want to stay in the lane of trying to connect genuine engagement, creating experiences both for our members and for the brands to meet our members.”

In fact, Davis said, the Black Bourbon Society’s work with brand partnerships has gotten so large that it has taken on a life on its own. She is already planning how to expand the consulting portion of BBS, and to assist brands with culture, marketing and sales strategies.

That said, the core of BBS is and always will be its members, whose market and consumer needs are evolving as more Black drinkers grow to expect quality bourbon from companies that embrace Black drinkers as customers. “I recognize the strides that we’ve made,” Davis said, “but I got more work to do.”

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger, and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and a self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @MsBrandyCollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.