Tastemaker Highlight: Shelly Saunders

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I am very excited to showcase Shelly Saunders during Women’s History Month. She is a dynamo Bourbonite who has an extremely impressive resume. As a former VP of Finance at Campari America, Shelly has a unique perspective of the spirits industry that most people don’t ever get to see. And with that access, she does everything she can to ‘speak up’ for what’s right and what needs to be fixed within it.

Name: Shelly Saunders

Occupation: Day Job: Project Mgmt Consultant at Google.
Industry Gig: Board of Directors for Eastside Distilling (NASDAQ: EAST)

Location:  Folsom, CA

Favorite cocktail: toss up between Boulevardier and Manhattan

Favorite Bourbon: Too many to pick one. Some that start with "B" (Blanton's, Bookers, Bakers, Basil Hayden) yet I do not like Jim Beam who distills many of these so go figure.

What's your bourbon story? What was your first dram? How did you fall in love with whiskey?
In college I always enjoyed drinking bourbon with the boys since most women did not drink "brown" back then. My male friends were true bourbon connoisseurs who introduced me to many brands that I liked, especially during our trips on the road to the final four in basketball season or to whatever bowl game Stanford got into in football season. I liked bourbon, but still drank mostly vodka in those days. I fell completely in love with bourbon in 2009 when I was VP Finance at Campari America during their acquisition of Wild Turkey from Pernod. That acquisition provided me the opportunity to go to Lawrenceberg, meet and spend time with Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell, taste Rare Breed and Russell's Reserve for the first time and learn all about the making of bourbon from the Masters.

Why did you join BBS?
I joined BBS to be part of a community of mostly Black folks who also loved bourbon and whisk(e)y, to support Samara's vision and to be part of the movement for more diversity and inclusion in the bourbon segment. In the "small world" department, the person who invited me to join BBS (Donna Ziegler) knew of my love for bourbon and Samara was her soror.

Why is diversity and inclusion important in the spirit industry?
Many of the premium spirits brands are owned by mostly family, private or thinly traded public companies that are not from the United States (Diageo - UK, Pernod Ricard - France, Bacardi - Bermuda, Beam Suntory - Japan) let alone aware of the hidden biases that often exist. I worked for Campari, a company that trades on the Italian stock exchange, where there were cultural differences between Italy and the US, Canada and Jamaica and then further within the racial and ethnic groups within those countries. I remember the knowing smiles and after meeting comments of relief from the Jamaicans when they saw me during Campari's acquisition of Appleton Rum since almost everyone else involved was Italian or other European and each thought the other "talked funny." I was a key decision maker in a meeting for a so-called "urban" brand where the Brand manager tried to justify the 375ml size by saying that "we" (Black folks) probably couldn't afford the 750ml and preferred a size that fit into our purses! I have also attended a more recent Board meeting where I had to explain why some communities might find "Redneck Riviera" an offensive brand name. I noticed that even Uncle Nearest's first major TV ad after the Super Bowl did not clearly and simply state that he was a Black man. And don't get me started on the comments and actions that I have seen and experienced in our industry regarding women. So, we still have a lot of work to do to help the spirits industry along on their journey to the realization and valuation of diversity and inclusion. BBS is a big help in moving the agenda forward on these topics.