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Malcolm Jenkins is using his star power to address the lack of diversity in the spirits industry through a new partnership with Kensington’s New Liberty Distillery.
“As the first spirit group to source from Black and brown farmers and vendors from grain to glass, we will be creating a delicious scratch bourbon that will help make serious systemic changes,” said the former Eagles safety and Super Bowl champ.
The partnership, which will start production this year, is the latest move for New Liberty’s Rob Cassell, who recently announced a $1.4 million acquisition of Bucks County’s Faber Distilling.
“One of the things that I think clicked with Malcolm and I early on was we both appreciate something that’s genuine and true to itself,” Cassell told Billy Penn.
“So far this seems like it will be the first whiskey made exclusively from grains from Black and brown farmers,” he said. “There are plenty of other athletes or celebrities that just create a label, [but] doing something that’s a bit more visceral is what we’re trying to achieve with this.”
The U.S. now has more than 2,500 distilleries, a number that’s been growing nearly 15% annually for the last five years with no signs of slowing. Yet Black Americans only account for 8% of the workforce and 2% of executives in the industry, according to Pronghorn, an incubator that supports, grows and sustains Black-owned spirits businesses.
Celebrity athlete backed spirits are not new by any stretch, but most lack the genuine involvement Jenkins has with Cassell.
The pair first met through the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation’s “Blitz, Bowties, Bourbon and Beyond” fundraising events, where a whiskey-making day at New Liberty has been offered as an auction prize.
Over the last few years, according to Cassell, he and Jenkins developed a relationship where casual whiskey tastings and conversations naturally shifted into the idea of working together.
“To be an owner of a spirit that I’ve come to love makes it even more special,” Jenkins said.
The project will not be an easy lift. It’s been challenging to find Black- and brown-owned farms poised to provide the barley, wheat, rye, and corn needed for scaled production, Cassell said, noting that highlights one of the stark disparities the project is trying to address.
Some purchasing agreements for current and future crops are already in place, but they need to find more places that produce chemical free, non-GMO grains. For farmers, selling grains directly to a whiskey distillery like New Liberty results in a larger profit margin than selling in bulk to an aggregator, Cassell said.
“I’ve done tons of lobbying for the spirits industry where I talk about how distilleries provide a value-add to the agricultural supply chain,” he explained. “But it’s at this moment that you look at it and apply it to this area and all of a sudden it has so much more meaning.”
He’s excited about working with a large variety of suppliers because it provides an opportunity to create multiple expressions under the same label — like a wheated bourbon or high rye bourbon, each featuring a specific farmer and grain.
The first batch is slated for production this year, and will need an additional two to four years to age until it’s ready for the public. But for Jenkins and Cassell, this project and partnership is already working toward what they hope will be lasting change in the spirits industry.
“This is real, this is genuine, and fits to what I’ve always tried to do [and] what Malcolm has always done with his activism and philanthropy,” Cassell said. “I hope people copy what we’re doing, because that will only be a better thing for this issue.”