A Life of Commitment Leads to an Acknowledgement Well-Deserved

photo credit: Maggie Kimberl

photo credit: Maggie Kimberl

Much has been made recently about the diversity, or lack thereof, in the spirits industry. Minorities are underrepresented at all levels of the industry, from brand ambassadors, to C-suites, to distillery workers. Although it is not well known outside the industry, minorities have played a major role at distilleries for well over 100 years. Much has been made recently of the story of Nearest Green, a slave who was rented to Jack Daniel, and taught him the process of distilling whiskey. Fawn Weaver and her team at Uncle Nearest have done a great job of spreading the word about Nearest Green and his contributions to the industry. There are still more stories of minority contribution that need to be told.
One of those stories that will be told is that of Freddie Johnson. Yesterday, Mr. Johnson was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame by the Kentucky Distillers Association, making him the first African-American to be inducted in the history of the Hall. This isn’t about the destination, though, it’s about the journey, one that has taken over 100 years for Mr. Johnson and his family.  Mr. Johnson is currently a tour guide for the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. No one has published precise numbers, but suffice it to say that there aren’t many African-American tour guides working at distilleries these days, but Mr. Johnson’s story is even more incredible. Both his father and grandfather also worked for the distillery, so you could say that bourbon is in his blood. Mr. Johnson’s grandfather, Jimmy Johnson, Sr, was the first African-American warehouse foreman in Kentucky. His father, Jimmy Johnson, Jr, also worked for Buffalo Trace and took the progress a step further, rising to the position of warehouse supervisor, also as the first African-American to do so. Freddie Johnson came to work for the distillery through a more indirect path. He had left Frankfort and was working in corporate America when his father called and told him that he was ill. Years earlier Freddie had promised his father that he would take care of him if he ever got sick. It was this commitment to family that led Freddie back to Frankfort, and to continuing his family’s legacy at Buffalo Trace.
Decades after he started working at the distillery, Freddie is now synonymous with Buffalo Trace. He is the most requested tour guide, and his knowledge of the distillation process is second to none, but his knowledge is not the only thing that sets him apart. It’s his generosity, and his commitment to making sure that everyone who visits the distillery has the experience of a lifetime. His significance in the industry is undeniable, and is evidenced by his role as a go-to source for industry history and information.
I certainly want to acknowledge the Kentucky Distiller’s Association for bestowing the honor upon Freddie. It is a well deserved one. However, Freddie is but one of many minorities who have made indelible contributions to the industry. I challenge the industry not just to continue to acknowledge the contributions of the minorities who have been in the industry for years, but to also make a concerted effort to bring more minorities into the industry. These efforts should not just be on the distillery and brand representation side, but perhaps even more importantly, on the corporate side. We need more minority representation on the boards and in the C-suites, and it has been proven that if those steps are taken, a more diverse employee pool will follow. 

Let’s hope that in the next few years, an African-American being inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame isn’t a rare and unusual occurrence. Until then, Cheers to you, Freddie Johnson.

Originally Published for the Bourbon Zeppelin on September 15, 2018.

Armond DavisComment