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The Spirits of Diversity

By Kali Kelnero

As consumers, we get to choose how we spend our dollars. In the world of spirits, this means we can put our money where our literal mouth is to back the most delicious liquid brands, and to consider the people and companies behind those spirits we choose to support. As bar owners, we get to make the same choices, albeit with amplified effect. I own a cocktail bar, so I spend a lot of money on booze. And every day my partner and I face the decision of how to invest our dollars. We absolutely care (a lot) about how the liquids in these bottles taste, but we also care about how our dollars flow into our community here north of Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest, and throughout the world.

Though this may sound melodramatic, the truth is that the world of spirits is dominated by a relatively small number of very big players. Over the past decade or so, the Pacific Northwest has been lucky enough to witness a boom of craft distilleries. These distillery owners are our neighbors, they use Washington-grown ingredients, eat at local restaurants, and support local youth sports teams and service organizations. They operate with ultimate freedom of expression, untethered from generations-old brands that must present a consistent flavor across batches and despite variation of ingredients. So it’s a no-brainer for us to pad our spirit list with craft distilleries not just from Washington, but from all over the world. These folks are personally and professionally invested in their communities, so we invest in them.

Beyond supporting the little guys, we started to pay attention to a lot of other factors with our spirits purchasing, and have learned a lot of interesting lessons about being good stewards of our planet and its people. We have become familiar with particular spirit categories that are causing widespread harm to the environment or suffer from an egregious lack of gender and racial diversity. For each of these categories, we are looking for the makers that are taking extra care to address these issues. We frequently offer spirit tastings (in person or virtually as the times demand) and love to feature brands that put in the work to make their industry better.

Examples of environmental harm resulting from spirits production include the overharvesting of agave in Mexico to produce tequila, mezcal, and other spirits, or the overharvesting of oak to make barrels for aging bourbon in the American South. For our most recent mezcal tasting, we called out Yuu Baal, Banhez, and Tosba, all of whom take great care to harvest agave plants sustainably while supporting local growers and their employees, creating stronger, healthier, more economically sustainable communities in Oaxaca. At a bourbon tasting we shared Angel’s Envy, in part because of their Toast the Trees campaign.'

 This campaign brings awareness to the critical importance of oak trees, a limited resource, without which we would not have aged bourbon. Last year Toast the Trees successfully planted 50,000 oak trees in reclaimed national forests to help ensure oak barrel production for future generations of bourbon makers.

You might be surprised to hear that women have more tastebuds than men², but you will probably not be surprised to hear that there is a relative shortage of female master distillers in virtually every spirits category around the world. We are always looking for brands that promote their women into leadership roles and for companies owned and operated by women. (And we have a lot of work to do to find companies run by non-binary folks.) Some of our favorite woman-made spirits include Edmonds’ very own Scratch Distillery, operated by Kim Karrick. We also recently featured Nicole Austin of George Dickel distillery, and the legendary Joy Spence of Appleton Estate - the world’s first female master blender.

Kim Karrick, Scratch Distillery

This past February we decided to host a special whiskey tasting in honor of Black History Month. We didn’t really need the studies to prove to us what we already knew to be true: there is an extreme lack of racial and gender diversity among leadership of American whiskey distilleries.

We have hosted several American whiskey tastings and at every one we point out the stories and partial-truths espoused by American whiskey brands, which create both partially-true and fully-fabricated ties to Irish, Scottish, or German men that brought distillation knowledge and business prowess to the American West. Time and time again the positions of power within these companies pass from father to son. There is nothing inherently wrong with a father passing knowledge and wealth to his son, but there were blacks, women, and other major players who have been completely erased from these histories. We all know they were there and that they put in the work, so where are their stories?

It’s easy to justify their erasure by saying, “that’s just how it worked then.” We’re talking about companies and an entire industry founded on slave labor. But what about today? Whisky Advocate compiled a list of black-owned American distilleries and brands and came up with 15 out of 2,100, less than 1%. Now we have the choice to highlight companies that impress us with their genuine effort to change the narrative of American whiskey for the sake of truth and historical accuracy, and for a stronger, healthier industry in the years to come.

Nathan Green

In terms of our Black History Month whiskey tasting, we featured an amazing black-owned company called Uncle Nearest. Fawn Weaver drove the creation of this brand in collaboration with the descendants of Nathan Green, the man who taught Jack Daniel how to distill. We also highlighted Jack Daniel’s in part for their recognition of Green’s story and his role in their brand, and for their $5 million commitment to the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative which works to increase diversity in American whiskey

While the wonderful world of spirits has a long way to go when it comes to diversity and environmental stewardship, we are happy to be able to support so many companies that are working hard to make our world a better place.


References

  1. “Toast the Trees.” Louisville Distilling Co. 2021. https://www.angelsenvy.com/toast-the-trees.
  2. “Accounting for Taste.” Carissa R Violante. July 31, 2017. Yale School of Medicine. https://medicine.yale.edu/news-article/accounting-for-taste.
  3. “Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative.” Uncle Nearest Distillery. 2020. https://unclenearest.com/nearest-and-jack-advancement-initiative.

 


Kali and her husband Kris own and run Kelnero, a craft cocktail bar in Edmonds.

Kelnero

kelnero.bar
545 Main Street
Edmonds, WA 98020
425.967.5687

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