How Victoria Butler is Making History as the First Black Woman to Work as a Bourbon Master Blender

April 25, 2022 00:23:36
How Victoria Butler is Making History as the First Black Woman to Work as a Bourbon Master Blender
Afros and Knives
How Victoria Butler is Making History as the First Black Woman to Work as a Bourbon Master Blender
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Hosted By

Tiffani Rozier

Show Notes

Victoria Butler might be the first Black woman to work as a bourbon master blender, but her story begins long before she officially began her career in the industry. In fact, Butler's family tree reveals how her ancestry plays an instrumental role in the distilling industry, most notably her great, great grandfather Nearest Green, who was the genius mind behind Jack Daniels, one of the oldest American whiskeys on the market.

Photo credit: Eric Ryan Anderson

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Episode Transcript

Victoria Butler Transcription [00:00:00] Tiffani: Welcome to the Afros and knives podcast. The interview series. Featuring black women in food and beverage media, food, science, food, justice, and hospitality. My name is Tiffany Rozier and I am your host. In this episode, I speak with a brilliant master blender and tastemaker behind the award-winning premium whiskey brand uncle nearest queen Victoria Butler. Also known as Queen V. If you are unfamiliar with the Uncle Nearest brand and its story, I encourage. Then a little time visiting the uncle nearest website and then order a bottle when you're done exploring. If you're sitting on a bottle of this beautiful whiskey right now, and it's in your house, I encourage you to pause this episode for yourself. And then come back and listen to this conversation. I guarantee it will motivate you. It will inspire you. It will challenge you. This is the last episode of season. I want to take a moment to thank every listener and every supporter I want to say 10 [00:01:00] speed press for being this season sponsor and for this brilliant and beautiful community that continues to hold space for me and for this pocket. It is my honor to serve you and produce the show. I am humbled at your trust in me to hold these stories sacred. I look forward to many more seasons as the guardian of this audio space. If you enjoy listening to the podcast, as much as I enjoy making it, you can download, subscribe, leave a comment, or rate the show. Be sure to catch up on all seasons. So, thank you again, everybody, please take care of yourselves this season and going forward. We want to see everybody back here next season. So yeah, so much love and we will see y'all back here next season. And now let's get into this interview. I am an avid bourbon drinker, so I'm excited. One of the questions that I've been sitting with for a minute, your interview with liquor.com you were talking about, you had retired from. [00:02:00] Your work at the department of justice. So I won't even call this a second career cause I don't, I don't like the energy behind that kind of phrasing. I think human beings live a pretty long life span if we take care of ourselves so we can pursue other interests, black women wear so many hats and do so many things. Sometimes it's hobby. Sometimes it's side hustle. Sometimes it's the main hustle, but we are. Talented and proficient at so many things. And if it's just a matter of deciding how we apply all of that magic, you did the work you wanted to do at the department of justice, then this shows up. And so I would love to hear more about what that looked like for you, how you met Fawn and what those first conversations were like when she proposed this idea to you. [00:02:42] Victoria: Fawn rode into Lynchburg, Tennessee in 2016 after reading the story about Nearest screen and his relationship with Jack Daniels. I was one of the last of the family to meet her just because of time. And she grew close with my siblings very fast. I was still [00:03:00] working and traveling a lot. I did not live in Lynchburg. I do not live in Lynchburg now. So I was getting most of my information about Fawn through my siblings. And so once we had the opportunity to finally catch up and talk, Fawn, knew that I was getting close to retirement and we just had a conversation about me joining the team and what my role might look like. Naturally I said, yes, you know, I kept wavering about, am I really ready to pull the trigger on this career that I'm already familiar with? And that I have enjoyed and felt like I had done good work. But I wasn't sure, but after having a couple of conversations with Fawn, it was very clear to me that it was time. It was time for a change. I could not pass up the opportunity to help see me. My great, great grandfather's history. Um, his [00:04:00] legacy. I joined the team on paper I think it was February, but I had already started getting acclimated maybe a couple of weeks or so before that my first task I was named Director of Administration to oversee the Nearest Green Foundation. Before our brand launched in 2017, Fawn had several things already in the works and the Nearest Green Foundation is one of those initiatives that she was already working on. That foundation was put into place to support Nearest's college age descendants that they would not have the financial worries going forward. The foundation would pay for tuition, all things related to two classes for lab fees, all of that stuff. I was coming along as the Director of Administration over that, that lasted about 60 days [00:05:00] before she asked me to blend the first batch of 1884. And I was like, oh my goodness. You know, I'm just getting settled in here, you know? But I'm so glad that I said yes, once again. And I went in and blended that first batch nerves and all, and I shared earlier. I think it was yesterday that Fawn's confidence in me, along with her husband, Keith and my teammates who accompanied me that first day set me up for success. I was surrounded by complete confidence and I could not have asked for a better tune squad. There was no room for failure that day and no day since then, you know? And so I am eternally grateful that my shift from what I was doing to what I'm doing now was almost seamless because of [00:06:00] those who surrounded me. And so I'm grateful for the family of Uncle Nearest team. We are family, we support one another and we love on one another. We hate being apart from one another, all that good stuff. Just like blood families that first day, I didn't realize less than 60 days in. I didn't realize this awesome, beautiful team that I had joined would bring me so much joy. Three years later, I cannot imagine my life any other way. So it's just been the most beautiful ride I could have ever hoped for and had no idea. [00:06:43] Tiffani: Oh, I love those. I love those moments. The divine always shows up and it's like, I got a little something for you. If you want to say yes. When you taste anything from uncle nearest, when you taste anything in the brand at this point, you do taste all of that. I go into any place in someone's cooking. The [00:07:00] things you can taste outside of the food are things like joy. [00:07:03] Victoria: And thank you for saying. Yeah, that means a lot because we are a premium brand, but the whiskey is all about mirror screen. And we govern ourselves every day in the vein of love, honor and respect. So when you drink the whiskey, I am so proud that you know what goes in it, it's not just the liquid, but it's all of the other things that encompass our premium brand. [00:07:40] Tiffani: All of the storytelling around the brand. Right now, the images, the interviews have capture a joy, pride, history, and heritage. [00:07:48] Victoria: I have the best time together. You know, when we're, when we're doing those photo shoots, it is so much fun. [00:07:56] Tiffani: You can tell. Black women, wherever we are leading. Where are we? [00:08:00] Centering our joy and our pleasure. How are we enjoying ourselves? Black women are not given that narrative specifically in the public. The perception of black women is that we struggle. Everything's an uphill climb. So it's rare to see black women engaged in activities that they really just enjoy themselves simply because these are enjoyable activities. Not because there's anything else back there to find meaning in, but that joy can be one of those core beliefs that you can live by. That actually have a tremendous amount of meaning. That's why I love you guys. It's just a breath of fresh air because I'm like seeing, this is what it looks like when black women are enjoying their work, when they're enjoying what they do when they enjoy each other, like this is the potential that it holds. And then you see the results of that, how fast the brand has grown, how endeared people are to the brand, how much people are rooting for the brand. And I'm like, I think a lot of that is because people are connecting this space of joy with that, and it's just like, oh my God, I'm driving so much pleasure watching. Flourished. I don't want to be a part of the journey and watch them grow [00:09:00] and see how much fun they can actually have. I did want to piggyback on that confidence point that you had made because I interviewed with fond. She is absolutely the one, the person, if you, if you have her in your corner, you probably do feel pretty invincible having support and having people speak things into your life is fantastic, but it's like, there's a light that you have to turn on yourself around certain things in order for you to. So I'm interested to know, like what that shift for you was you had all of those outside voices going, can do this. We believe in you, we trust you. And we know this is something that you can do and that it's going to be excellent. So what was your internal dialogue and what was that moment for you where you were like, you know what I believe what they have to say and I agree with that. [00:09:41] Victoria: We started winning awards with it and I'm like, I know what's good. I think it's good. Our team thinks it's good Nam. The whiskey family has confirmed. It's good. So I blended the second batch and that time fondling show up, she didn't come. [00:10:00] She said that she knew that I had something special the first day. And I carried that in my spirit. I really did. And, and then once the award started coming in and knowing the story, but just tasting the whiskey blind taste test, I knew it was good. So my. Really rose to the top, then just watching how the people in the market took to it and how the sales were going. How many we had something really, really good. And I knew that I was responsible for it. So if it felt good, you know, it felt real good. That's when, when I fully accepted my skillset and that with give just in my blood. There's just no other way to explain it. The skills my great-great-grandfather had. I have to, it's just my lineage. [00:10:58] Tiffani: Would you consider yourself self-taught? [00:11:00] Did you, were you looking, were you blending whiskey? [00:11:03] Victoria: It's always been a fun part of my life. I've never done anything officially or professionally and never, ever blended. I played in cocktails, my girlfriends and my family have been my Guinea pigs for years, but far as blending whiskey, never. I had never done anything like that until may of 2019. When I joined the team, I started reading and researching just so I could at least learn the language that the spirits industry use just to familiarize myself so that I could have a intelligent conversation with those in the spirits field. As far as blending itself, I didn't really research. I just did. I talked to other people and tried to glean what I could far as wisdom from [00:12:00] them, but not really any studies. I certainly been taking classes. [00:12:03] Tiffani: I asked that question because that's how I live my life. I follow my curiosity. If you can ask really good questions, you can pretty much. Accomplished just about anything you set your mind to, um, especially if you know where to find the answers and how to like, make sense of those answers. So it's always nice to hear from someone with your level of education and with your career background, looking at all of the things you've been able to accomplish, and the people here pay, I use what I could, what was available to me, but so much of it was internal guidance that produces a certain level of confidence. But I think the big thing is to learn how to not entertain foolish questions around. Lack of experience and not let that deter you from the thing you want to do, especially if you want to achieve a certain level of excellence. [00:12:48] Victoria: It's true. I am a student of my craft. I, by no means no wall far as trying to learn more. I still do [00:13:00] taking centuries test keeping my palate and my nose keen. You know, so while I have been. Very fortunate to win countless awards, which I am grateful for. I am a student of my craft. I think we can never just rest on our laurels. We have to continue to learn and grow. And I am no exception. I say that whiskey is in my blood. I embraced that and believe that, but I still want to learn all I can, while I can. [00:13:34] Tiffani: I appreciate that clarity women are in that space of either starting their first career in the middle of it, or possibly looking at something new. And, um, there's always an apprehension around, well, how do I, how do I move over? How do I bridge the gap? I don't want to go back to school and I don't necessarily want to do all these things, but there are resources to teach yourself just about anything asking really good questions is really the guide for that. And like [00:14:00] finding your curiosity and letting that lead you. The uncle nearest brand is so deeply rooted in history and legacy, the storytelling component of drew me in. So I would love to hear what that story looked like in the future for you. And because you are a part of his legacy because you are a part of his family, how do you see yourself adding to that legacy? So when another hundred years, when they look at the history of the brand, Starts with him and that his family continues his legacy with you being the master blender at this time, but a hundred years. What do you want people to say about your addition? [00:14:31] Victoria: I hope even now that when they speak of me and they speak of nearest in the same vein that it's with love honor and respect that I, as his great, great granddaughter while carrying out Nearest's legacy, I made some of my own, I am the. Female African-American master blender. And so a hundred years from now, they can say that nears green is the first known African [00:15:00] American master distiller and his great, great granddaughter is the first African-American female master blender. [00:15:08] Tiffani: Is there any interest in the next generation of your family to take on the. [00:15:13] Victoria: Yes, we are actually in talks with some now. And, um, we have some very good students, a couple that have already graduated college. So yeah, we hope that it will continue with family owned property. I have no doubt that it won't. So yeah, that is, that is the, [00:15:30] Tiffani: I had an opportunity to interview. Joy Spence at Appleton Rum Estates. She's the current master blender in Jamaica. It's always interesting to talk about how Black women influence culture. People really don't consider that as a factor in how they live in the materials that they used to live their life, having a rum or a whiskey or a wine in your home that has been mixed and blended so carefully and thoughtfully by a Black woman. And that being a part of [00:16:00] your everyday life, it's a joy to see people start to connect those dots and how far reaching it can be. There's a tremendous amount of travel you guys do. Do you have any stories that stick out? Do you have any favorite moments? [00:16:12] Victoria: Well, all of them. People ask me what's my favorite part of my end is what I'm doing that day. I create memories every time I'm on the road, we are fortunate that we get that all the time. And then of course at the distillery, it is just a beautiful thing to see people from all backgrounds, you know, all races come to embrace the history. That brings me a whole lot of joy. So it just depends if I'm at a, you know, a Kroger, a grocery store in Cincinnati, Ohio, which I was there last year. Or whether I'm at the mirror screen distillery, which I was there on Saturdays. So I embrace all of it and we create our special moments, rather are created, worth our brand. Every time we are [00:17:00] out in the public or the public comes to us, or even having interviews just like with you right now. You know, it's all special. I try to embrace every bit of it.. [00:17:11] Tiffani: It's such a great place of like gratitude to live in because it always brings more into your, uh, into your life. Are you curious about anything specifically in the creation of whiskey right now. Are you noticing any new techniques or ideas or challenges within the industry that have sparked or provoked a little bit of curiosity for yourself that you want to explore? [00:17:32] Victoria: There certainly has been a shift in regards to females in the industry. I won't say that our brand. Took the lead on turning the tide, but there definitely has been a shift since we hit the scene. I'm proud of that change far as our brand goes, we've got a lot of things that are going to be taking place this year. We're going to be opening up the longest bar in the world at the distillery. Uh, I'm excited to be working [00:18:00] with. We'll be introducing a rye to our brand. Um, and then we have our single barrel that we will be introducing this year as well. So far as the whiskey, we've got a lot going on. [00:18:15] Tiffani: I've had an opportunity in the last few months to produce another podcast that talks about light sourcing and supply chain and how we're growing things and what we grow. Is that something that is part of your conversations when you're blending and creating is like where you're sourcing product and all of those things. Yeah. That's always a conversation. It's definitely an important conversation because if you don't start with good grades, You're not starting with a good product. [00:18:44] Victoria: I've been fortunate even with our sourced whiskey. Now we have our own whiskey in the bottle from start to finish, which is extremely good. So you definitely want to start out good as my grandmother used to say, you know, You got, are you going to finish how you [00:19:00] start. [00:19:00] Tiffani: For your rye? Um, that you're starting to work on. Do you source locally? Do you, do you have local farmers that you're working with? Like, what's that relationship? [00:19:08] Victoria: Rye doesn't readily grow in Tennessee, so that will continue to be a source product. Until further notice. I'm not sure exactly, you know, where we're going to swing back, but, uh, rye is not one of those grains that, that grows readily in Tennessee, Rye has become a really important conversation in, um, restorative farming because commercial farming in the United States is really only three crops and rye has become a huge part of the conversation and trying to create a more diverse. Uh, ecosystem. So when brands like Uncle Nearest using rye to produce new products that pulls a demand and allows farmers to really show up and bringing restorative agriculture into the conversation, I'm always happy to see a black people being a part of those conversations because historically we have been brilliant and geniuses and have led the world in the spaces of [00:20:00] agriculture and farming. [00:20:01] Tiffani: And so I think it's important to have our voices be a part of that. What has been, I would say if a peak moment for you in the last year, but like those internal moments that, you know, don't often get shared. Is there been something that. [00:20:15] Victoria: It's been difficult for most people, our cost across this country, the last two years, one of the things that I continue to be proud of is the fact that all of our team, we stuck together and we didn't have to furlough or lay anyone off. In fact, we added to the team during these difficult days that hopefully are finally starting to turn, you know, so that is one, you know, one of the things that I have been really proud of in the last year to two years, and the fact that last year on June 18th, we re-opened our doors to the public, to the whiskey family, you know, to welcome them back in. And now at that time we were up on the man to a brand new space. [00:21:00] So our welcome center is open and thriving and we're having sold out tours every weekend. And I'm extremely proud of that. All people are welcome there and that they're all coming and it's just a beautiful thing to witness. Our team is just special. And I think people see that they feel that when they come through the door and I'm proud of that the first face you see, you know, when you walk through the door at the Nearest Green Distillery is one that is welcoming and warm and con uh, we, we would not have it any other way. That's for sure. [00:21:37] Tiffani: I only have one more question for you. Um, what is your favorite way to drink the winter? [00:21:44] Victoria: Oh, my goodness. I don't have a definitive answer for that. It depends on the atmosphere, the environment that I'm in. If I'm hanging out with some girlfriends or some of the guys were smoking cigars. I like it. Neat if we're, you know, [00:22:00] maybe a girl's not out and we're at a restaurant I'm drinking the mirrors in a, in one of my favorite cocktails. So it just depends on the environment that I'm in, but trust and believe that the only with. [00:22:14] Tiffani: Oh, I believe it. I believe in. Thank you so much for joining me today. I appreciate you. I appreciate Fon. I appreciate the Oakland Raiders team. You guys are definitely examples of more than just like excellence in whiskey or excellence in like work and creating community within companies and brands and like just showing people what the possible of how we can work and how we can still produce the things we want and be successful without sacrificing our like humanity and how we take care of each other. So thank you so much for just being out here and doing what y'all do, because I am always deeply grateful. And you're you make it very easy for me to point to an exact of how you should treat your staff and how you should treat your customers. And I used to treat yourself and the excellent use [00:23:00] of aspire to. That is all for this week's episode. Thank you to our guest for spending some time with us. If you love these conversations, be sure to download, subscribe, comment, and share. You can get further connected with the Afros and knives community by following us on Instagram, Twitter. Don't forget to visit our website, Afros and knives.com and sign up for our newsletter. May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be at peace.

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