“The bourbon world is dominated by middle-aged white dudes with moustaches,” Ramos said. “Bourbon is not something we really associate with black people.” Ramos jokes that he sometimes witnesses shock in a bartender’s face when he orders bourbon instead of cognac.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey made in the US that must comprise 51% corn (or more) and must be aged in new charred oak barrels. One of the reasons cognac is associated with African Americans is because cognac producers in the 1950s made a concerted effort to target their advertising dollars to black publications like Ebony and Jet. “They let the market know that they wanted their business,” said Shannon Healy, owner of Alley Twenty Six, a James Beard-nominated bar in Durham.
Each Wednesday, Healy hosts Whiskey Wednesday at his bar. They pour expensive, lesser-known whiskeys at break-even prices, aiming to educate their customers in a city where the black and white populations are both near 50%. Ramos has a residence at Alley Twenty Six one Wednesday each month where he educates customers on the whiskeys being poured that night. “If we see someone doing something in the community whom we can support, we do it,” said Healy of Ramos. “What Che brings in is a more obvious opening line as how to communicate [the story of black contributions to American whiskey]. And it helps us to show to our market that bourbon is for black folks, too… even though many companies are not focusing on selling it to them.”