Like all slightly illicit fun, alcohol’s associations with Blackness are criminalized. Southern anti-liquor advocates justified early 20th-century Prohibition by stoking fears about Black men raping White women under whiskey’s influence. In the 1960s and beyond, malt liquor companies such as Colt 45 and Olde English 800 selectively marketed to Black communities, only for White supremacists to equate the beverage with stereotypes of pathological Black indolence.
These stereotypes persist while predominantly White and male craft brewers, distillers and vintners succeed by co-opting alcohol’s rebellious aura into something supposedly authentic. Craft culture erases not just the long history of Black alcohol production, but also its contemporary reality.
Many of that legacy’s inheritors will celebrate their entrepreneurship while pitching their products to potential vendors at the second annual Black Owned Wine and Spirits Festival in Washington D.C. tomorrow (September 30).
Festival founder Chanel Turner didn’t see herself as part of any tradition when she launched Fou-Dré in 2009—making her the first Black woman to head a vodka company. “I always thought this was a White man’s world, I had no idea how much of a role we played in alcohol in America,” she says.
Turner came up with Fou-Dré the way so many great ideas develop: over drinks with friends. “We ran out of chaser for the vodka we had, and nobody really wanted to drink it straight,” she explains. “Someone said, ‘I wish there was a vodka I could drink straight and actually enjoy.’ Most people will take shots, but they don’t really just sip vodka. Still, it’s my drink of choice, and you can create so many things with it. I pondered the idea for a while, did some research on what it would take to start a spirit company and looked for distilleries.”
The D.C. resident’s research took her to North Charleston, South Carolina, where a local distillery had developed technology that removed impurities from its spirits. She used savings from her career as a web developer to start distributing and marketing this vodka, and what started as tipsy conjecture between friends turned into a thriving business within the growing craft spirits market.
Fou-Dré received enough attention its first few years to land a spot in Black Wall Street’s 2015 round-up of “20 Black-Owned Wine and Spirit Brands You Should Know.” The article put the drinkable vodka on new consumers’ radars while also opening Turner’s eyes to more Black-owned craft alcohol companies than she realized existed.
“I was doing a lot of expos at that point, and I was often the only Black person there,” she says. “One of the young ladies that worked for me suggested we create a festival where we bring all these Black-owned spirits companies together.”
Turner held the inaugural Black Owned Wine and Spirits Festival in D.C. last fall. Per her vision, the festival functions as both a celebration of Black industry peers and an opportunity for them to showcase their wares for restaurants and distributors who could place them on their menus or shelves. Turner finds the networking aspect especially important for small-batch developers.
“Just having a finished product ready to go to market is difficult in and of itself,” she says. “Once you cross that hurdle, you face other challenges. The wine and spirits industry is three-tiered: You need a brand, distributor and retailer. There are Black-owned brands, a lot of Black-owned restaurants and liquor stores, and a lot of Black-owned distribution companies. There’s no reason for a Black-owned spirit to not be in someone’s Black-owned spirits shop.”
The festival serves both this pragmatic purpose and another important one: to build community in an industry that pushes Black constituents to the margins. Turner experienced that marginalization first-hand when launching Fou-Dré.
“I never wanted my face to be affiliated with the brand, because I didn’t want to get turned down because I’m a Black woman,” she says. “I’d often walk into a meeting with a distributor who would tell me, ‘You’re not what I expected!’ I knew what they meant by that."
Turner’s experiences are similar to other Black distillers and brewers participating in Saturday’s events.
Celeste Beatty started brewing in her New York apartment during the 1990s, using equipment and ingredients her mother used for soups and stews during her childhood in rural North Carolina. Beatty studied brewing traditions that trace back to the ancient Egyptians, and eventually traveled to Zimbabwe to learn from local homebrewers. She founded Harlem Brewing Company in 2000 and built its brand around references to Harlem’s cultural legacy. Last year, Beatty secured distribution in Wal-Marts in New York state.
Beatty says she’s endured her own share of racist slights when visiting retailers. “I remember one occasion at a Pathmark, I went in and spoke to the beverage manager," she recounts. The manager just told me, ‘I don’t have room for your product.’ I try not to be sensitive about these things, but they’re real. We go in, and the behavior almost suggests that it’s not appropriate for us to own a beer company.”
Jason Armstrong, whose Den of Thieves whiskey will make its trade show debut at the festival, says that retailer discrimination forced him to take extreme measures in his previous career as an international wine importer.
“I’m a big Black guy, six-foot-two, 275 pounds, played football,” he says. “When I would walk into a lot of wine stores, their first reaction was one of fear. I had to hire a nice-looking White boy to go into stores and sell my product. The stores I went to that told me ‘no,’ he went in and they said, ‘yes.’”
Armstrong’s experiences with wine retailers mirror what he describes as the difficulty many Black aspiring craft alcohol creators (like their counterparts in other start-up industries) face while seeking funding and distribution. Major distributors, he says, often use a “pay-to-play” system: “If you don’t have a lot of capital to reach out to these big distributors—which, as a Black person in alcohol, is really difficult to get—you can’t really make money in the industry. It’s a vicious cycle, and you start to feel lonely because you don’t know who else is doing similar things to you.”
Armstrong already benefits from the festival’s sense of community. “I feel a little more tapped in, and I haven’t even been there yet. I have access to people that I didn’t even know existed.”
Turner intentionally creates this camaraderie among festival participants who would otherwise be competitors. She, like Beatty and Armstrong, says she felt isolated by discrimination in the industry. “It’s hard enough walking into a room full of 50-and-up White men and you’re the only 30-year-old African-American woman in there,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be turned down by distributors, to not be placed in certain stores. It was hard to break the glass ceiling for myself. That’s why, at a minimum, if we have 100 Black-owned restaurants, they should be able to at least carry one vodka, a tequila, a couple of wines. And [we can connect them with] a Black-owned distributor who can handle that for them!”
The Black Owned Wine and Spirits Festival takes place tomorrow in Washington D.C. Learn more and buy tickets at BlackOwnedSpiritsFestival.com.