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How Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts are shaping the industry a sip at a time

·5 min read

Has it felt the last few years like we’ve gotten away from enjoying bourbon as a wonderful drink to share with friends and it's not become a "race" to try the latest, greatest thing?

Lines to buy limited releases, impossible allocation, secondary prices spiraling, secret budget favorites getting press and flying off the shelves — there’s a definite downside to bourbon’s boom, which by the way, had an $8.9 billion economic impact on the state in 2020.

So, what about the community around bourbon? The glass of amber liquid you sip just for the sake of sipping, not for the bragging rights?

Those ideas and more are behind Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts, also known as KOBBE.

Formed in 2017 by Louisvillian Jamar Mack, the philanthropic organization actually started with the intent of being a social club, not something centered around bourbon.

But “when we had our very first meeting, everyone showed up with a bottle of bourbon,” he says. So KOBBE aimed to increase the participation of Black enthusiasts — a demographic that isn’t always catered to — in the bourbon community.

And while they’re at it, they want bourbon to be more inclusive and approachable to everyone.

“Every demographic is essentially represented,” in KOBBE's membership and events, Mack says, including women and a variety of members from the LGBTQ community.

Jamar Mack, founder of Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts.
Jamar Mack, founder of Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts.

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One thing that a lot of folks who enjoy bourbon have in common is some disposable income, Mack says. And that extra income can often be put to good use in the community.

Really, that’s the true idea behind the KOBBE organization.

The Enthusiasts host events and fundraisers throughout the year to benefit causes around Louisville including support for the unhoused; gifts, books, supplies, and clothes for folks in need; and more.

Of course, bourbon is the throughline in all those events, so raffles, tastings, and distillery visits are among the experiences that members share. But these events, and membership, are open to everyone who’s interested in giving back and in being part of the community, he added.

So while bourbon is in its name, it’s far from being just about the spirit.

“You will never just see people sitting around drinking,” Mack told the Courier Journal. And members should understand that while yes, there will be cool things like private barrel picks, he can’t give you tips on where to get those holy grail bottles of bourbon. This isn’t the place to go if you’re just trying to get a lead on a special bottle, he says.

And while he certainly knows and enjoys his bourbon, don’t label him anything beyond an enthusiast, he points out.

“I'm not a bourbon expert. I am not trying to be the guy who knows all the stats and all the mash bills,” he said. He brings experts in for tasting events, and he plays the role of bourbon taste guide, encouraging people to ask themselves ”what are you really getting out of obtaining that bottle? If you do get it, are you going to open it? Are you going to have it with friends?”

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Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts logo
Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts logo

And those industry experts are happy to be involved in a variety of KOBBE-hosted events that give back to the community. Could it be that bourbon, and the larger industry, could play a role in healing some of the divides in our community?

In Mack's experience, signs are positive. “I want to hope that it does,” he said.

“Some of these brands have been extremely supportive of our mission from day one [with everything] from barrel donations to [them saying,] ‘hey, I know a west Louisville program that needs [something], here's a check to KOBBE, you go to take care of it,'" Mack said.

I admit my slightly cynical mind wondered if some of that was for the good PR, but Mack headed off the question before I could ask it.

Often these distilleries want no publicity, he says. “These are brands who never want a press release.”

They’ve donated bottles and barrels, ad space in Whiskey Magazine, and more. “And these are things that they have proactively done for us,” he added. “This isn't us going out and being like ‘who will pay for this?’”

Bourbon also provides the kind of cross-connection that he doesn’t see in other situations, Mack said, recounting a recent instance when a white man at North of Bourbon saw him enjoying his drink and offered to share a vintage pour.

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Samantha Brown, host of PBS' 'Samantha Brown's Places to Love' travel show, samples from the barrel at Bardstown Bourbon Company with Jamar Mack and Dan Callaway for an upcoming episode highlighting Louisville and Kentucky.
Samantha Brown, host of PBS' 'Samantha Brown's Places to Love' travel show, samples from the barrel at Bardstown Bourbon Company with Jamar Mack and Dan Callaway for an upcoming episode highlighting Louisville and Kentucky.

“I had never met him in my entire life,” he says, but the idea that bourbon is meant to be shared is so strong that maybe it can help bridge divides.

And it definitely can help where there’s a need. The Enthusiasts are continuing on its focus on giving back, planning a number of events to raise money for the community. KOBBE is also in the midst of a branding and structure change to ensure it focused its efforts on philanthropy moving forward.

Membership is open to all. For more information or to keep up with upcoming events, visit 502kobbe.com.

Tell Dana! Send your restaurant “Dish” to Dana McMahan at thecjdish@gmail.com and follow @bourbonbarbarella on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts are shaping the industry