Education & Opportunity: How the Bar World can Join the Fight for Equality

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The CEO of Uncle Nearest, Fawn Weaver has a fantastic idea to cultivate diversity in our industry.

Weaver has reached out to state legislators to help build the Uncle Nearest School of Distillery.

Those talks are in progress, and it’s a promising development for both the spirits and hospitality industries.

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Anyone who has had the opportunity to hear Weaver speak knows she’s passionate about spirits, passionate about the hospitality industry, and passionate about change and equality. Those passions drove her to create Uncle Nearest, the first bottle of spirits that commemorates a person of color.

Nathan “Nearest” Green, as Weaver phrases it, is the one and only African-American master distiller. Weaver believes that Green reached master distiller status in 1856 after perfecting his whiskey production process. She also believes the last time he put his own whiskey in a bottle was in 1884.

It has been well over 100 years and only one person of color has been recognized as a master distiller. Recognition in the form of a brand and bottle dedicated to that master distiller’s legacy launched just over two years ago.

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Most mainstream whiskey brands that bear someone’s name—along with several smaller brands—are named for dead white men. That’s how Weaver puts it, and some may have a problem with that phrasing. That doesn’t make it any less true.

Weaver wants to implement solutions to many issues she sees in the spirits world, issues that carry over into the bar world. In her eyes, we don’t see much in the bar world that commemorates anything but white influences and accomplishments in distilling.

Putting that issue just in business terms, it’s a major blind spot considering the buying power possessed by many minority groups. The more brands that speak to more minority groups—authentically, not cynically or in a pandering way—the more engaged and satisfied operators will find their guests. On a societal scale, it’s a huge step toward equality, respect, and unity.

Another issue is failure by many brands to put minorities in crucial roles. This became glaringly obvious to Weaver when she was building her team—a team she’s still attempting to put together. Weaver will settle for nothing less than the best of the best, yet she’s finding that many minority candidates lack the level of qualifications she’s seeking.

In the American spirits word, this deficiency can be traced to opportunity and education. It’s difficult for a minority to move beyond the role of sales rep or brand ambassador if they aren’t given the opportunity, and that opportunity likely isn’t granted due to a lack of spirits-specific formal education.

Weaver’s plan for a distillery school is ambitious and would change the spirits and bar worlds for the better, providing opportunity and education. The hospitality industry celebrates diversity and inclusivity, but is that pride reflected in the spirits we sell? Our diverse American workforce would be that much happier, healthier and engaged if everyone could feel connected to spirits brands produced and sold here.

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Tennessee State University has met with Weaver about the Uncle Nearest School of Distillery. The whiskey brand’s CEO feels that it will likely be simpler to work with TSU’s College of Agriculture than their Chemistry Department.

Should the distillation school come to fruition, there would be a focus on recruiting and educating people of color while not excluding others. Weaver has zero interest in engaging in reverse discrimination while attempting to fix the issue of discrimination and underserved communities.

We—all of us in the hospitality industry—can unite and be part of Weaver’s discussion with universities and state legislators. We have the numbers and power to back this cause and help make the Uncle Nearest School of Distillation a reality. We can help Uncle Nearest and other spirits brands create a non-profit, as Weaver suggested during Tales of the Cocktail, with the sole charge of recruiting and educating new hires.

Weaver believes the solution lies in the thousands of bars across this country. While the issues of discrimination, lack of education and opportunity, and inequality aren’t unique to the hospitality industry, our community can help fix them.

We are powerful united, and we can bring about change and do good in this world. We all need that now.

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