Black Bourbon Society founder seeks diversity in spirits industry

Atlanta’s Samara Rivers fell in love with bourbon during a family trip to New Orleans five years ago.

After delays with their flight from San Francisco, the trip with her young children took about 10 hours. Exhausted upon arrival, she needed to find some food and something to ease her frayed nerves.

She walked to a nearby store and ordered some fried chicken for the family. While the food was being cooked, she asked the clerk to recommend an alcohol selection. “What can I get?” she asked.

The clerk gave her a bottle of Four Roses bourbon.

“I took home some ginger beer, some limes,” Rivers said. “That’s how I fell in love with bourbon. I was really a wine drinker before that.”

That experience inspired Rivers to learn as much as possible about one of Kentucky’s greatest exports. A year later, Rivers founded the Black Bourbon Society. The group seeks to bridge the gap between the spirits industry and African American bourbon enthusiasts. The BBS Facebook group has more than 16,000 members from across the country.

The group has also given birth to a nonprofit called Diversity Distilled which works to employ more African Americans within the executive ranks of the companies that produce premium spirits.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Rivers via Zoom recently to get her thoughts on the future of the Black Bourbon Society (BBS).

Her answers have been edited for space and clarity.

AJC: When was the Black Bourbon Society founded?

SR: It started May 31, 2016, we’re coming up to our four-year anniversary. It started off as a social club. I was just wanting to plan events and partner with the [bourbon] brands to really show that this African American audience was eager and interested in having this direct consumer experience with the brands. We started off planning events in Oakland (Calif.). We cultivated an audience that was very local, that was Fall 2016. By Spring 2017, we had our first event here in Atlanta. We started the Facebook group in September 2017. And from there people started adding their friends. The group just grew exponentially.

AJC: Where you surprised by the response?

SR: Yes. When I was planning my first event in Oakland, I was so pressing forward with the Black Bourbon Society, which was about diversity and inclusion and challenging the marketing standards of these brands, that I just really wanted to prove to the brands that black people do exist, and that we do like premium spirits. But the thing I didn’t realize, and what I didn’t expect, was that when I got everybody in a room, a packed house at our first event in Oakland, I had about 75 African American professionals from the Bay area. And from the Bay area you’re talking about entrepreneurs, people who work in Silicon Valley, bankers, finance – all different types of industries. And they’re all in this room, having a cocktail, laughing and talking. And two things I noticed: The air [of titles and positions] went out the door. Everybody’s ego immediately left. People started to genuinely connect and engage, not only with the brands but with each other. And then when I took a step back and really looked at the bigger picture and started calculating the net worth and the net knowledge in the room, it was overwhelming for me.

AJC: Seems like BBS would be perfect for a city like Atlanta. How has the response been here?

SR: The response has been great because when I started planning my first events here, one of the things the members were saying was, ‘We don’t have this. We need more of this here in Atlanta.’ There’s nothing that really gets the African American professional, intellectual crowd together in a way that really allows them to engage and talk, and also learn in a very fun environment. I found [the need for this in Atlanta] shocking.

AJC: What’s next for BBS?

SR: BBS is going to continue to become this social organization that continues to have networking events for its members and around the topic of bourbon, and doing nationwide campaigns with the brands. Also, I want to leverage this to go back to our original mission of diversity and inclusion. And so we have launched a nonprofit organization called “Diversity Distilled.” That organization consults directly with the industry to find avenues for there to be more diversity and inclusion within their workforce. There is diversity in this industry. There are black people who work at certain levels. But they are at certain levels…There’s no real room for them to grow across the company. And that’s where we have a problem. You can’t just pigeon-hole your black talent. You’ve got to find avenues to include them in your executive leadership team. It’s really important to have African Americans at all levels.

AJC: And the response from the brands?

SR: I believe the brands want to get it right. They know that it is a challenge. They know that they have to do something. They trust us and our opinion and our expertise in this field to help them get it right.

AJC: Was there any resistance in the beginning from the brands?

SR: No. The only resistance we’ve had has been around budgeting around planning events. I’m an event planner so I like lavish, fantastic events with big budgets. And so we had to reset some expectations on what realistic budgets were to build partnerships. As far as working with Black Bourbon Society, they’re really embracing what we’re trying to do.

AJC: What’s your favorite bourbon cocktail?

SR: A paper plane.

AJC: What’s in a paper plane?

SR: It’s one part lemon juice, one part Amaro, one part Aperol, and one part bourbon. Just shake it up over ice, and serve it in a little cute coup glass. It’s the perfect blend of sweet and tart.

AJC: What’s your go-to bourbon?

SR: That just depends on the day. It’s hard to pick one. Right now, I’m kind of in love with Michter’s 10-year. My daily sipper is a bourbon called Old Bardstown.

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