Jamar Mack has bourbon in his bones. He recalls “smelling mash being fermented before I even knew what bourbon was,” while growing up three blocks from Brown-Forman’s Louisville headquarters. He’s since developed a passion for Kentucky’s famed spirit, continuing the tradition of his grandfather who “drank Early Times ‘til the day he died.”
In 2017, Mack and a couple of fellow bourbon lovers banded together to form Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts (KOBBE), looking to fulfill a need: In Kentucky at the time, “there was no group that was truly welcoming people of color,” Mack explains. KOBBE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing African American participation in the bourbon community. Their philanthropic endeavors include giving back to low-income Louisville communities and raising funds by auctioning prized bottles. The group’s stated mission—“Drink good bourbon, keep good company, do good deeds”—sums it up pithily.
Education also is at the core of KOBBE’s raison d’être: Making bourbon “more accessible for everyone” is among the group’s primary goals. “We recognize nobody starts off as a bourbon expert,” KOBBE’s website says. “So from the start, we’ve always had the mindset of, ‘come learn with us.’”
KOBBE members are encouraged to attend at least five events a year and to volunteer at least four hours of their time to community service. Alternatively, some members donate cash or a bottle to auction off at KOBBE’s annual Bourbon & Benevolence charity bash. The group is open to just about anyone who wants to learn about whiskey while furthering KOBBE’s core goals, Mack says. Its 40 or so paying members hail from Kentucky as well as Maryland, Ohio, Kansas, and Texas. In exchange for annual dues of $120, they receive two Wee Glencairn glasses, a KOBBE hat, access to members-only events, and a ticket to the annual Bourbon & Benevolence event ($80 face value).
For all KOBBE events, Mack aims to “set a vibe that’s more like a lounge and not stuffy,” more “night out” than formal sit-down tasting. Members might taste to the tunes of Prince, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and hip-hop. “You don’t traditionally have that kind of music being played at a bourbon event,” he says. At the 2019 Bourbon & Benevolence KOBBE auctioned off a bottle of Michter’s 20 year old bourbon donated by the distillery for charity, while attendees enjoyed straight-from-the-barrel pours of Russell’s Reserve, as well as arcade games and an outside cigar bar.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has impacted KOBBE’s events. Bourbon & Benevolence was canceled in 2020, and the monthly bottle-shares have been suspended. The pandemic also struck at a time when KOBBE’s goal of creating a more diverse and inclusive whiskey community is very much in the spotlight. As demonstrations against racism and police brutality have swept across the globe, distillers large and small are confronting racial injustice. “Not only have I felt ignored as a Black consumer, but my neighborhoods that I’ve lived in have felt ignored,” Mack says.
The group responded by uniting virtually. “We actually host more meetings,” Mack notes. “We have a Zoom call every Friday now, whereas before we were only meeting once a month. [Our members] were hungry for that. That’s why most of them joined KOBBE—to have those bourbon conversations, those whiskey conversations. So the role of the spirit has not changed—it’s still what brings us together.”
Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts At a Glance
Location: Louisville, KY
Year Founded: 2007
Number of Members: Around 40 paying
Membership: Open to the public