It’s always fun to talk bourbon.
I met up with Black Bourbon Society founder Samara Davis and her partner (and husband) Armond Davis in early June at a Brooklyn hotel rooftop bar to discuss their second partnership with Maker’s Mark. That joint release, Black Bourbon Society’s Maker’s Mark Private Selection: Recipe 2, is currently my favorite bourbon of 2021 (it was also named Best Bourbon and Best American Whiskey overall at the 12th annual International Whisky Competition earlier this summer). I knew little of the BBS, so I was hoping to get an introduction to the group’s origins and goals, as well as some intel on the unique collaboration with Maker’s.
I accomplished none of that during the night.
Instead, I simply enjoyed a very geeky conversation on favorite whiskeys (as well many, many libations) with the power couple. At the very least, I remembered why gathering a bunch of likeminded spirits fans in the same space can be so rewarding.
And that, at its core, is what the Black Bourbon Society is about. There are loftier goals — we’ll get there — but simply talking whiskey and enjoying a few drinks can be an accomplishment.
“My love for bourbon began on a family vacation to New Orleans — a salesman introduced me to it and I became an instant fan,” Samara told me a few weeks later. “I then spent every Friday for an entire year creating and mixing new cocktails with bourbon. And I shared that within my network in Oakland, where I lived at the time, and across social media.”
That was the start of the Black Bourbon Society five years back. There are plenty of whiskey clubs out there, but the BBS fills an audience void, which as the couple notes, focuses on “African American professionals with high disposable incomes who enjoy luxury products and premium spirits.”
And that, as the Davises discovered, wasn’t an audience any whiskey brand was targeting. “Since the beginning, it’s been important for the Black Bourbon Society to establish its place in the industry among consumers, members, influencers and bourbon brands,” says Samara. “We also want to advocate for diversity and inclusion in this space, drive awareness and revenue to Black-owned businesses, bartenders and restaurants, and increase the awareness that BBS is a part of the change necessary to shift the narrative of brands surrounding people of color and bourbon.”
And, of course, help people discover great whiskey.
The new Maker’s Mark release — and the second collaboration between the BBS and the distillery — is part of the Maker’s Mark Private Selection program, which allows retail partners and organizations to make their own bourbon by finishing fully-matured, cask-strength Maker’s Mark in a single barrel featuring a custom selection of oak staves. For this release, the Davises worked with, in part, roasted Mendiant staves, which amplified the notes of milk chocolate, coffee and dark fruit within the bottle. At 110.4 proof, there’s a lot of spice here, but a wonderful and different sweetness as well.
(We’re already fans of Maker’s Mark special releases — the 2020 Limited Release had notes of butter pecan and was one of our favorites of last year. But the distillery does amplify different flavors with different releases, so there was no guarantee I’d like the BBS collaboration as much as I did.)
The Black Bourbon Society’s work doesn’t stop with Maker’s. Through the group, the Davises have hosted in-person events around the country, as well as virtual workshops and tastings during COVID. They’ve also worked with other spirits brands, including InsideHook favorite Barrell (the couple couldn’t agree on a barrel selection, so they released separate Armond and Samara batches). And with the help of Maker’s Mark and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, they recently established Diversity Distilled, a program to innovate change and equality within the spirits industry.
“With that program, we assess corporate and organizational structures and discover opportunities for brands to be more inclusive,” says Armond. “We’re creating educational opportunities. Right now, we’re focused on job placements and job boards that emphasize professional development — and that the skills our candidates have match those within the spirits industry. We want to also focus on building out and helping candidates secure apprenticeship and internship opportunities.”
It’s great that the BBS is opening up new avenues for people to discuss, drink and even work within the whiskey industry. But it’s also nice to get knowledgable whiskey fans to offer up their sipping favorites — an opportunity I jumped at by asking Armond and Samara for some non-Maker’s picks.
“I love finished whiskies, so expressions from distilleries like Hillrock Farms and Belle Meade are always intriguing,” says Armond. As for Samara: “I’m a high-proof lover, so George T Stagg and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof are two favorites. And we both love what Blue Run is doing.”
Jot those down. You won’t regret it.
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