On an early morning shortly before Christmas 2019, I opened my phone and read the news that I was nominated for an Icon of Whiskey Award along with my whiskey brother, Richie Michaels. I thought I was being pranked. “What the f$%&k” I thought, this isn’t real. It turns out it was real, and come February I would be traveling to New York City, the place where I grew up, to attend the award ceremony.
I was super excited, I now had the list of nominees in all categories and had great plans to try and interview as many people as I could for my podcast. And, fingers crossed really tight, my whiskey brother Richie would take home the prize.
You see, I didn’t think I would win because I was new-ish to my brand, I didn’t have a ‘name’ in whiskey nationally and it seemed that it was the ambassadors that worked for big brands with huge marketing budgets that usually brought home these titles. This year’s list of nominees was impressive though, filled with a mix of large and small brands.
Fast forward to the ceremony this February: I won. I was shocked, I was bowled over and I was, and continue to be, deeply honored. I walked away with a plaque, had an incredible dinner with my whiskey family, and a few days later got on a plane to return home to the Pacific Northwest. But I didn’t just return home with a sense of accomplishment; I went home believing that I had to now uphold this honor and live up to what the award stands for.
The month of February is Black History Month, one of the most important months for history and education. In the brand I represent, we are Black History Month 365 days a year. So when arriving back from the award ceremony, I hit the ground running with events and travel and began receiving requests to make visits to other cities and states to talk about Uncle Nearest and my journey because, as it turns out, my journey in this industry and in whiskey has been rather long. I’m now what they call a veteran. I laugh while typing this! It’s funny, it’s true, it feels good, and I also look back and think, wow, look at how things have changed. But we will get to that.
So right around the corner as you now know was a pandemic. Within weeks of this ceremony I watched bars and restaurants begin emptying out, major employers in the Seattle area telling their employees to work from home. My industry was suffering and it was all around me. I had to do something, didn’t I? And then we had a tornado in Nashville, the city closest to our whiskey home (our distillery is in Tennessee). How could we help our colleagues there? As an industry what could we do? We began to raise money and collaborate with other brands to raise even more money and help however we could.
And then what seemed like, boom, we were ordered to stay home by the governor of Washington state. This was really happening, people were dying in horrific numbers and the closings began to pile up. Bars and restaurants shuttered for good in handfuls, social media was full of industry professionals asking for advice on unemployment, grants, and relief funds. I cried a lot reading these posts. I tried my best to help where I could. I stayed in touch, I began zoom meetings with bartenders and managers I knew. I took a once a month Women & Whiskey meetup to a virtual space and met up weekly. I was asked to head up a social media committee for my brand and so I studied and ideated with our Social Media manager, we pivoted and then pivoted some more. I found myself in a role as a producer of online broadcasts, a social media content creator, and desk sitter. Note: I do not like jobs where I must sit at a desk, hence my lifelong career choices. However, this is okay, as sitting down allowed me to connect with so many new people and many of my far away whiskey family. It turns out, sitting down was a blessing. There were times when I felt like, of course this would all happen the year I get recognized for my work. Of course!
And then something happened on May 26th. I read a social media post from a friend in Minneapolis detailing protests that had begun against the police department. I knew what was coming next, in my gut I knew, because for me enough was enough and I knew I wasn’t the only one that felt that way of course.
I’m done sitting down for a moment, that’s what I said to myself. I can’t sit down anymore. I found myself blessed once again. Not only do I work for a Black owned company, but I work for a woman who knows how to make change and doesn’t waste a second of time. I work for a brand full of people who understand what it is we are doing. We have a hashtag #morethanwhiskey. It’s always been profound for us and now, now we saw yet another clear path laid out in front of us.
Imagine your boss telling you how proud she is of you being out marching and protesting? Not having to be fearful if you’re seen on the news, not having to argue your right to assemble and your individual representation with your employer? Not only was there support, there was effect, cause and effect was happening before my eyes. My industry woefully lacks diversity, especially in the business of whiskey. We celebrate many firsts in our company involving women and people of color in leadership positions. But this is all long overdue. As conversations on the police killings and protests began, an ugly thing reared its head in my beloved whiskey community: I knew already that it was rampant with sexism, that’s something I fight every day in my job, but the racism and ignorance just stood up and smacked me in the face and to that, I will continue to break its wrist and banish it as a scourge. I will not allow it here.
And for me, in a period of a few weeks there was a culmination of the things in life that I believe in deeply, it was then I realized this is exactly what I am doing here. I am meant to be here, now, on this path and honoring the spirit I adore, the community I love, the brand that is my family and one of the most important stories in the history of American whiskey. So thank you, thank you to American Whiskey Magazine and Whisky Magazine, thank you for this gift. Thank you, whiskey, for showing me my purpose once again. Thank you to those in my community that are standing up beside me and inviting me to stand up beside them. Thank you to my beautiful brand and our amazing leadership. Thank you, to all of the Uncle Nearest fans that continue to reach out and remind me that I have to keep going and uphold the honor of being named American Whiskey Brand Ambassador of the Year. I hope I continue to make you proud.