A few weeks ago, I was watching “Moonshiners,” a docudrama series about illegal liquor makers (most of whom are white and male) and their lives in Appalachia. I was intrigued when the show suddenly introduced a Black moonshiner from Louisiana, who talked about the history of moonshining in the Louisiana bayou and how their regional recipes came to be.
In his part of America, moonshining history has roots in Blackness. After that episode, I was all in. I wanted to learn everything I could about the history of Black liquor making in America. And with Juneteenth approaching, I want us to celebrate this history as fully as possible, drinks and all! So grab a glass and let’s uncork it.
I started my research with Kenneth Christmon’s “Historical Overview of Alcohol in the African American Community.” I’ve learned so much from his work, which starts at pretty much the beginning.
Black wine and beer making traces back to precolonial Africa, with palm wine and beer that was typically made from millet, guinea corn, or barley. These drinks were integral to many religious and secular ceremonies, including ancestral devotions, sacrifices for a good harvest, and more. And of course, there was plenty of turn-up time too.
The history of alcohol in the United States is deeply connected to the Transatlantic slave trade, specifically through rum. The selling and trading of enslaved Africans, molasses (which most rum is made from), and rum itself was a lifeline in keeping the slave trade alive and well.
As this was happening, laws were also being passed to prevent Black Americans (enslaved or free) from being able to drink alcohol. For example, in New Jersey in 1692, a statute prevented white people from selling rum to Black people — if they did, they would receive a 5-pound penalty. Laws and restrictions like these only got more intense after the Civil War and after Black people were freed from their oppressors.
But even through all this oppression, the Black wine and spirits community carved its way into history. And that’s what I want to celebrate this Juneteenth.
While much of known Black wine and liquor history is predominantly male, times are changing fast. I spoke to the owners of three Black-owned wine and spirits businesses that you can support this Juneteenth. They even shared some of their exclusive recipes to get the party started.
Increasing the awareness of Black liquor history is one of the reasons Andrew Albert created New Orleans-based Exclave Spirits, a family-run whiskey brand, in October 2020.
“I wish people knew how integral Black people have been to the spirits craft throughout history,” says Nicholas Albert, Andrew’s brother and business partner. “Exclave was created with a simple goal: uncovering and paying homage to these contributions.”
You’ll come for the reverently made booze but stay for the community-enriching extras. Exclave donates a portion of all proceeds to The Michael James Jackson Foundation to fund the education of Black brewers and distillers.
When you’re ready to try a bottle, I recommend this recently released 3-year-aged bourbon that has some serious caramel, cinnamon, and vanilla notes.
Black liquor history is still being made on a regular basis, as is evident in the origin story of Anteel Tequila, which was founded in 2018.
“I truly did not know that I was the first Black woman [in the world] to own or co-own a tequila brand,” says Nayana Ferguson. “It was not until about a year later that my husband, after some research, discovered this. I think my presence in the liquor industry shows my consumers that if you truly want something in life, you should go after it and not let anything stop you.”
Nayana wants people to feel inspired when they think about (and drink) Anteel Tequila. As a cancer survivor and mom, she’s all about uplifting and empowering her community (and hopefully changing the narrative on tequila for those who have horror stories).
Aamira Garba is a sommelier-in-training (who just completed her WSET 3 Exam), a mama of two, and the owner of LoveLee Wine. According to a 2020 estimate by Phil Long, president of the Association of African American Vintners, just 0.01 percent of American wineries are Black-owned.
But when asked about Black representation in the wine industry, Aamira was quick to say, “We are here! I keep meeting new people, discovering new wines, all by Black folks. The percentage is still quite small in reference to the entire industry, but the growth is inspiring and I can’t wait to see how much we infiltrate over the next few years.”
Shayna Conde is an NYC-based freelance writer of West Indian descent with a passion for bringing communities together and highlighting Black-owned businesses.