A Potential Solution to Whiskey’s Diversity Problem

Tracie Franklin broke barriers at Glenfiddich. Now, she hopes to open a path for aspiring Black distillers.

February 2, 2021 8:20 am
Tracie Franklin
Whisky guru and NJAI apprentice Tracie Franklin
Courtesy of The Brand Guild

Diversifying the spirits industry is a noble goal. But creating the actual pathway to achieving that goal is the more difficult task. 

It goes beyond just better hiring practices. It requires mentorships, education, outreach to overlooked communities and then putting systems (and resources) in place to maintain that progress.

Last summer saw a promising start on creating this path. In June, Tennessee whiskey brands Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel’s pledged $5 million to create and fund the Nearest and Jack Advancement Initiative, which would “support rising and aspiring Black distillers as well as Black entrepreneurs entering the whiskey spirits industry.” The co-branded initiative promised to include programs devoted to employable skills, business incubation and leadership acceleration. 

A little over six months later, we wanted to check on the NJAI’s progress, especially when it was announced that Tracie Franklin would be the first apprentice selected for the leadership program. A former theater actress, Franklin was already well known in the spirits world, having worked as a National Ambassador for Glenfiddich.

(We were already very familiar with Franklin, who had helped us put together a feature on “improving your whisky tasting.”)

Even with the pandemic preventing in-person tutelage or distillery visits, Franklin is deep into the new studies that’ll help her one day become a Master Distiller. “It’s quite a weight being the first person to do this program,” she tells InsideHook. “I think in the future this’ll get more streamlined and we’ll see more and different courses that people we can access at different levels. And not just for distilling! I really enjoy the science, but for other people it could be about learning to be a brand ambassador or distillery manager.”

Interestingly enough, Franklin wasn’t initially much of a drinker. As an actress, she thought it affected her singing voice. “But I could sip on an expensive whisky all night and enjoy it,” she says. “And I found peated whisky to be so flavorful, and I had such a visceral reaction to the liquid.”

Franklin, who was also bartending while auditioning, became more intrigued with the spirit. “I dove in head first — I’d talk to any distiller, blender or ambassador I could. I was always taking classes and just sucking up education.” And soon she was the one giving educational classes and leading tasting events. 

Her passion eventually led her to a role at Glenfiddich. “There weren’t women of color, at least not in Scotch,” she admits. “I was often alone. I was taking up this mantle. But I thought I’d be a good person to spread the message and education. And the brand was 100% behind me about creating events and social media posts and spreading the word. I wanted to open up the category.”

She certainly made an impression; Franklin was named Scotch Whisky Ambassador of the Year at the 2020 World Whiskies Awards. “As a Black woman, I was breaking stereotypes,” she says. “And now everyone in the industry in Scotland knows my name! I belong. (Laughs) And I don’t even have a kilt.”

But brand ambassador wasn’t her final goal — Franklin had a real interest in the art of distilling. And this is where the lack of a path became evident. “It’s a disservice to the industry to be so homogenous,” Franklin admits. “It’s always been who you know — a friend or family. There hasn’t been set goals, or ‘here’s what you need to get here.’ It’s intimidating!” 

But last year, at a virtual event to raise money for Du Nord Craft Spirits (a Black-owned Minneapolis distillery that was fire-damaged during protests last summer over the killing of George Floyd, and has gone on to become quite a community leader), Franklin was able to talk to Fawn Weaver, the founder/CEO of Uncle Nearest. Says Franklin: “She talked about the school of distillation and I was immediately interested,’” says Franklin. “On my own I’d be studying distilling textbooks, and I found I really loved it.”

With the initiative now in place, the industry itself has responded with some welcome enthusiasm and assistance: Franklin either has or will be working with distillers and staff at Sagamore, Westland and George Dickel, among others. 

“This initiative isn’t just to create talent for Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel’s, but to create talent for the whole industry,” Franklin says. “We want to bring more people up.”


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