Bourbon draws people together: to drink it, share it, talk about it, hunt for it, show it off on social media and sometimes to give it away for a good cause.
It’s a tie that binds groups of people with wide-ranging and high-minded aims. Whether a group calls itself a Bourbon society, a Bourbon club or something that describes its specific reason for being, assemblies as small as a few dozen and as large as 25,000 are at work using Bourbon to solve problems and benefit worthy causes.
Of course the common thread between all of these groups is the shared passion for Bourbon. Many who gathered initially just to drink and share bottles say their groups discovered their altruistic missions over time. Others say their groups launched with fundraising in mind and found Bourbon as a convenient and popular tool for attracting contributions.
Others recognized Bourbon’s role in celebrating and increasing diversity within its global fan base. They view it as a unifier that makes inclusivity automatic when it’s 5 o’clock somewhere. And at least one group is carrying inclusivity even further by consulting with distilleries on how to engage the often unrecognized fans of the product.
No matter its specific application, Bourbon, when used in these groups, becomes elevated far above its role as a delicious drink.
THE CURIOUS HABITS OF BOURBON DRINKERS
Were a sociology student searching for a master’s thesis topic, a study of Bourbon charity groups would be a good one. Among these groups are fanatics who line up outside liquor stores—weather-be-damned—for a chance to buy a limited-release bottle. Price is rarely an issue for this breed because the thrill of the catch nearly always exceeds the pain of the cost.
Even more peculiar is that purchasers don’t always consume those liquid rarities. Instead, many bottles are donated to auctions and raffles to raise money for good causes. Giving away those unicorns, some members say, is as exciting as finding and drinking them.
“For me, Bourbon has three purposes,” says R.J. Sargent, a founding member of the Bourbon Crusaders, whose 25 members are scattered across the U.S. “To enjoy, to share and to help others. Once you’ve got that bottle of Bourbon, it’s just this thing on a shelf that has no value until you get it into someone’s hands.”
Drinking and sharing has always been fun, Sargent says, but when he and the other Crusaders recognized whiskey as an asset to be leveraged for greater good, it got promoted to a bigger role.
“Now we’ve got a resource we can use to help a lot of people,” says Sargent, whose group was founded in 2015. “That’s more valuable to me than cracking open a bottle and tasting it.”
Andrew Eagan, co-founder of KOI (Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana) Bourbon, says his group grew out of casual friendships that led to bottle shares and “Zoom calls after our families were in bed.” Amid COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, those friendships morphed into charitable collaborations and led to the group’s official formation in 2020. Its roll now includes about 2,000 members.
“We take a little time every week to run an event and do something decent in our community,” Eagan explains. “Sometimes there are local businesses we support. Other times it’s families battling hospital bills for cancer treatments. Sometimes it’s a bottle raffle. Other times it’s a golf scramble.”
KOI (Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana)
One fundraiser, dubbed Big Tips, was designed to help three Northern Kentucky-area restaurants struggling during the pandemic. KOI initially sought to raise $1,000 for each business. But when incentivized by Bourbon, donors gave $6,000, which allowed KOI to add two restaurants to the tip pool. When a police officer died trying to save two girls who fell through thin ice on a frozen lake, KOI launched a bottle-centric fundraiser for his family. The initial tally raised by the deadline was $13,251. But as people kept giving more, KOI kept working to up the ante. By November 2021, the total was at $77,822, which encouraged KOI to set a new goal of $100,000.
“We didn’t expect it to be as big and crazy as it was,” Eagan says. With such a large membership, he adds, funds often are easier to come by. Another fundraiser for the family of a teen with cancer began with just three bottles of Bourbon that “became 52 bottles in a week. We just kept the ball rolling with the raffle. We raised a little more than $15,000.”
The Medicinal Whiskey Charity (MWC) began in 2012 when a group of doctors—who liked sharing inexpensive Bourbon with their medical school debt-laden peers—began gathering informally. But as usually happens with Bourbon fans, budgets change as the hobby expands. By 2014, the group was picking its first barrels and distributing bottles to a few dozen group members.
“Back then, Bourbon wasn’t as popular as it is now, and so we’d always end up with 15 or 20 extra bottles from those barrels,” says Dr. Ryan Gossage, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina. “By 2015, we decided to auction off those extra bottles for charity.”
Medicinal Whiskey Charity
As more barrel selections followed, MWC auctioned off seats for those events. Some barrels attracted $1,300 per seat, and pickers were rewarded with six bottles of those whiskeys. When a set of four bottles from all four barrels was offered at auction, $13,045 was raised. Combined with proceeds from selling seats to those barrel picks, a check for $22,000 was written to University of Virginia Children’s Hospital.
In the years since, MWC’s 120 members have donated much more to other hospitals throughout the Eastern U.S. As recently as November 2021, the group raised $100,000 to fight pediatric cancer
“Seeing and hearing about kids who have had their lives changed because of the work we’re supporting has been cool,” says Gossage, an interventional radiologist. “The head of pediatric oncology at a hospital was able to walk me around an area of the hospital where I could see those kids and see what he’s accomplishing.”
FUNDRAISING WITH DISTILLERIES
For the team here at Heaven Hill, giving back is part of what we do. Our company is built around a belief in cultivating thriving communities, and supporting our employees, our partners and our neighbors. And this belief comes to life in more ways than one. Since 2013, Heaven Hill has raised more than $1 million dollars for ALS research and patient care through the Parker’s Heritage Collection (PHC). We also make regular contributions to veterans and community causes around the nation, contributing $1.2 million in donations in the past two years. This included community work, COVID relief, and brand programs like the PHC and the Evan Williams American-Made Hero Foundation Fund.
And as Bourbon group leaders will tell you, their fundraising events that yield the biggest totals would not be possible without the support of U.S. distilleries. As recently as December 2021, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), along with Fred Minnick and the Bourbon Crusaders, proved this rule and brought the Bourbon community together in a big way.
On Dec. 10, 2021, Western Kentucky and the surrounding states were affected by one of the region’s worst tornado events in history. Within days of the storms, the KDA, Minnick and the “Crusaders” had quickly established a fundraising event to support recovery and rebuilding efforts.
The Kentucky Bourbon Benefit featured an online and live auction of exclusive private barrel selection experiences, rare and vintage spirits, and unique tasting and tourism offerings. Heaven Hill Distillery donated a barrel of Elijah Craig (which sold for $77,000 in the auction) to the cause and also donated an additional $5,000 toward relief efforts. According to a press release from the KDA, the benefit event raised more than $3 million for relief efforts, with all proceeds from the benefit going directly to the state’s official Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund.
“The response was tremendous, far beyond our wildest hopes,” says Sargent. “Our members pulled out treasures from their collections, and the community responded enthusiastically. You can see it in the auction results. These rarities attracted lots of bids, and every dollar raised is going to be used to help Kentucky.”
Long hours invested by volunteers in creating events and soliciting donations also are essential. Eagan and Gossage discovered quickly that duties needed delegating and committees needed forming to pull off even simple fundraisers. Yet despite the workload, the labor of love is worth it when results climb into six-figure territory.
That happened for the Bourbon Crusaders at its Willett to be Cured event in 2018, Sargent says. When multiple barrels (donated prior to the event by a handful of distilleries) sold quickly and expensively, the Kulsveen family, owner of Willett Distillery, offered five more barrels at $45,000 each. All were purchased quickly. Other distilleries then stepped up to offer barrels, driving the event’s total haul to $340,000. The Crusaders’ Barrel Through Hunger fundraiser held the following year grossed $430,000.
“Since the pandemic put everything on pause, it’s been frustrating to not be able to do these kinds of fundraisers,” Sargent says. “But we’ve also had time to do a lot of work behind the scenes to come back next year.”
When Linda Ruffenach launched Whisky Chicks in 2014, the energy she gave to charitable activities equaled that spent on building a women-centric whiskey group.
“We didn’t want [our fundraising] to be about us, we just wanted to give back to some good causes,” says Ruffenach, who, at the time, was on the board of the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville, Kentucky. Needing a space to gather the “chicks,” she reached out to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which provided the group a home for a year. “At our first Bourbon Mixer, over 100 people came and we raised more than $10,000.”
Whisky Chicks, Photo: Erin Trimble
Soon after, Whisky Chicks began a longstanding collaboration with Bourbon Brotherhood, also based in Louisville. The two groups’ annual Bourbon Mixer events began small, “with maybe six to eight distilleries and 150 attendees,” Ruffenach says. Just a few years later, 18 distilleries stepped up to support by providing about 75 whiskey brands. That event netted almost $40,000. At an outdoor event in 2021, their eighth-annual Bourbon Mixer netted $135,000. Since its inception, the Mixer has raised approximately $350,000 for local causes.
““These events are a great way to give back to our community and have a fun element to them,” Ruffenach says. “We also wanted to create a win-win for the brands supporting us. Those distilleries have been amazing partners.”
BOURBON WELCOMES EVERYONE
Bourbon fans insist that whiskey is made to be shared with everyone who wants it, and Ruffenach agrees, saying often, “Dudes are always welcome to hang with the Whisky Chicks.” Similarly, her collaborative partner, Bruce Corwin, founder of Bourbon Brotherhood, says at his group’s meetings, “Brotherhood is in our name, but we always encourage ladies to join us.”
“These events are a great way to give back to our community and have a fun element to them,” Ruffenach says. “We also wanted to create a win-win for the brands supporting us. Those distilleries have been amazing partners.”
Samara Davis took the idea of inclusion to another level when she founded the Black Bourbon Society (BBS) in Atlanta in 2016. According to its website, BBS is “a national organization of African-Americans who love whiskey,” and in just five years, its ranks include 25,000 members. Like many Bourbon groups, BBS hosts whiskey tastings, cocktail classes, food pairings and dinners, but its overarching goal, Davis says, is promoting diversity and inclusion for brown spirits lovers.
“BBS is not just for African-Americans only,” says Davis. “It’s open to anyone who believes in the mission of diversity and inclusion. We need everyone advocating for that.”
Davis founded BBS to give Black Bourbon fans a place to celebrate whiskey together while simultaneously seeking conversations with spirits makers on multiple issues. Some spirits companies, she says, have given Black consumers little attention in marketing efforts, and instead rely on messages that don’t apply to an audience that was already drinking its products.
“When we started consulting with them, we found that those brands weren’t excluding African-American consumers in their marketing,” Davis says. “What we all realized was they didn’t know how to do it.”
Nor did they understand Black Bourbon fans’ knowledge of whiskey and their significant buying power.
“It goes back to broadening each brand’s perspective about what this audience looks like, what it knows about Bourbon and the discretionary income it has,” Davis says. And those brands quickly recognized an opportunity to “get in front of this audience.”
But Davis still wanted to learn more, such as why so few people of color were in leadership positions at spirits companies. She also needed to address why the backstories of some of the industry’s most legendary firms fail to mention significant contributions made by Black workers. Pointing out those shortcomings, Davis says, started a dialog between her, BBS and America’s leading distilleries.
Black Bourbon Society
Davis eventually launched Diversity Distilled (DD), a non-profit consultancy to help distillers rethink diversity and inclusion in their operations and brand messaging. By working with distilleries’ HR departments, DD’s impact on the industry is leading to “recruitment, retention and promotion of diverse talent in the industry,” she says. So far that’s taken the shape of career fairs at distilleries. Next year, Davis wants to create mentorship and internship opportunities for minority college students.
“Distilleries need to get more face-to-face opportunities with African-Americans—most of whom don’t know that these opportunities exist,” Davis says. “There is a diverse audience of LGBTQIA+, Black and brown people that don’t know of the opportunities to work within those brands.”
Davis knows her work with BBS has evolved from her fun title of “chief Bourbon enthusiast” to a role with more gravitas. But she insists that BBS will continue its mission of making American Whiskey exciting for anyone who wants to join its ranks.
“It started off as a society that proved we really existed as a consumer base,” she says. “But as we continue to do these events, we’re seeing it also as a multicultural marketing agency that has its own audience. We’re looking to make more nationwide partnerships to feed our audience and constantly think bigger and grander, with the hope that the [BBS] brand will reach a global audience as Bourbon continues to boom.”