Samara Rivers loves drinking bourbon. She’s a whiskey enthusiast who can be seen around town at various bars and whiskey events, trying new spirits and documenting her booze-infused adventures on Instagram. But it takes more than just a passion for drinking to qualify as the East Bay’s most influential bourbon drinker.
As a bourbon aficionado, Rivers realized that big name bourbon brands and high-end whiskey bars were overlooking an important demographic, the demographic to which she and her peers belonged: the professional African-American. When it came to marketing bourbon to that demographic, brands were coming up short. Brands lumped professional African-Americans into a younger, urban demographic, assuming that putting a bottle in a rapper’s hand was a good enough, catch-all strategy.
But that approach isn’t working for professional African-Americans, because what they drink, where they drink, and the way they drink differs vastly from heavy-drinking club goers. Their tastes are highly sophisticated — they opt for sipping fine wine in a moodily lit cocktail lounge setting rather than downing shots or sugary cocktails in dark, thumping venues. Professional African-Americans are a little bit older and are interested in savoring a couple drinks rather than drinking to get drunk. They go to bars to partake in happy hours after work and are usually home by 10 o’clock.
Rivers recognized that this demographic was looking to drink premium spirits such as high end bourbons — and that’s the inspiration behind her recently launched Black Bourbon Society. Bourbon is an inherently American product, and Rivers wanted the Black community to be included among American drinkers who take pride in their national spirit.
Unfortunately, high-end whiskies were being marketed to successful professionals who went to renowned whiskey bars, but the advertising often overlooked or excluded people of color. The local bar scene is booming, but bars often cater to newcomers while overlooking the Black demographic.
With that in mind, Rivers hosted the first Black Bourbon Society event at Era Art Bar in Oakland last October. It sold out and brought together well dressed and affluent African American Oaklanders who partook in cocktails, gourmet food, and a sampling of Old Forester’s 2016 birthday bourbon. A representative from Brown Forman — the parent company of Old Forester — was there to discuss tasting notes and brand history with members.
The launch party was an overwhelming success. “We can’t meet the demand fast enough,” explained Rivers of the club’s reception. After the launch party, she put together a Black Bourbon Society Christmas party and a Kentucky Derby party.
Now, the club has already expanded into Atlanta, where reception of the club has been greeted with much enthusiasm. Rivers is looking to expand even farther. Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are next on her radar. She’s also looking to grow the tasting events beyond bourbon; club members are interested in trying Scotch and Japanese whiskies, too.
The Black Bourbon Society has caught the attention of various bourbon producers, and Rivers has already worked with other brands, such as Woodford Reserve and Four Roses. When approaching bourbon producers about doing events and addressing the lack of marketing toward the professional African-American demographic, Rivers notes that liquor companies are excited about putting an event together. “We drink premium spirits. We want you to market to us. We want you to teach us,” said Rivers of liquor producers. “The industry was not aware that we existed.”
Rivers has positioned herself as a tastemaker and a market influencer in Oakland and beyond. Members look to her and ask what they should be drinking next and where they should be drinking. She recently traveled to New Orleans to attend Tales of the Cocktail, an industry event that draws bartenders and liquor brand professionals from across the country. While there, she participated in the diversity panel to discuss the lack thereof in the spirits industry. The panel addressed the need for inclusion of minorities on both the professional and social sides of the bar, especially Black women and the LGBTQ community.
When she’s not traveling, Rivers can be found enjoying a glass of whiskey here in Oakland, and she currently favors District for their wide whiskey collection. Rivers can also be seen at local whiskey events, tasting newly released products from big name bourbon companies and chopping it up with nationally renowned distillers, such as Chris Fletcher from Jack Daniels. As the face of Oakland continues to change rapidly, Rivers has secured a seat at the proverbial bar for professional African-Americans who call this place home and just want to get a good drink.
Learn more at BlackBourbonSociety.com.