Samara Rivers

For decades, the marketing profile of an American whiskey drinker was simple: a white male in his mid-30s or older. But thanks to entrepreneurs like Samara Rivers, that’s changing. An event and marketing professional based in California, Rivers founded the Black Bourbon Society three years ago. The goal of the Society is to act as a bridge between high-end American whiskey makers and well-heeled African-American consumers whom Rivers says the industry has long ignored. “I don’t think it’s something companies were conscious of,” Rivers says. “It just wasn’t on their radar.”

Now it is. And Rivers is continuing to spread the word by organizing exclusive excursions to distilleries for black bourbon fans and speaking at industry conferences and events, including here in Sarasota, where she’ll participate in the seventh annual Whiskey Obsession festival from April 10 to 13.

A former wine connoisseur, Rivers got into whiskey because her ex-husband was a fan. “I fell in love with whiskey and I fell out of love with him,” she laughs. As she developed her palate, she wanted to begin sharing her passion with others like her. “I’ve carved a lane in this industry,” she says, “but I’m a consumer first.”

Rivers’ message isn’t just that distilleries should be more aware of black consumers. They should also be more conscious in their hiring and promotion practices. There are just a handful of African-Americans in leadership roles in the industry, she says, and whiskey events too often feature a small number of non-white speakers. Her goal isn’t to guilt-trip companies about past practices, but to raise the issue of whether they are doing enough to identify African-American talent. Black whiskey experts don’t want to take someone else’s seat at the table, Rivers says: “We’re just asking for a longer table.”

Whiskey Obsession tickets are available at whiskeyobsessionfestival.com.

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