Andre Sanford launched Monte Vista Vodka in Detroit earlier this year. Sanford is happy to learn from other Black-owned businesses who have been operating in this space for years. (photo courtesy of Andre Sanford)

As a fashion industry designer and brand ambassador, Ty Mopkins said he recognized a void during social events for prominent companies, like Nike and Adidas.

“We would be at these parties and I would look at what we were drinking, and none of those brands represented (Black people),” he said.

The Detroiter said that realization fueled what he viewed as a prime opportunity to increase Black representation in the liquor market and build generational wealth.

Mopkins earlier this year launched the wine brand Roselawn Select, as a nod to the Detroit street he grew up on. Mopkins said it was important to him to create something that felt like the “real Detroit” and not the “social media Detroit.”

“I wanted to make a brand that felt like it came from a guy who actually grew up here and knows the city, beyond the nightlife in downtown and Midtown,” Mopkins said. “All that stuff is cool or whatever, but that’s not the real Detroit and that’s not all I want people to see when they see my brand.”

There are about 175 Black-owned spirit companies in the country, which account for about 2% of all liquor industry executives in America, according to Forbes. Last year, Black people spent about $3 billion in America on liquor, said Lazar Favors, chief executive curator of Black Spirits Legacy, a national group of Black entrepreneurs who work in the liquor industry.

Favors, also a Detroiter, said, like Mokpins, he got into the spirits business after realizing there was a lack of Black-owned brands in many bars across the country.

“It started with the idea of bringing awareness to African American-owned brands that you may not be aware of,” Favors said.

Mopkins and Favors were among the businessmen who took part last week in a panel discussion as part of the “Liquid Forum,” hosted by Black Spirits Legacy. The event centered on the ins and outs of running a liquor business as a Black entrepreneur. The two-day program also included the second annual Taste of Black Spirits event to celebrate and bring more awareness to Black-owned spirit companies and distilleries.

Attendees said some of the biggest barriers Black liquor companies face are access to capital, navigating an industry dominated by white men, and learning the legal aspects of distribution.

Mopkins’ Roselawn Select isn’t widely available for purchase yet, but he has done wine tasting and bottle signing events in Detroit since the brand launched. Mopkins said customers can find out where and how to buy his wine on Instagram.

“There’s a lot of stuff I had to learn just to step into this business, and I stepped in it late,” he said, “but I know I can make something that makes money and keeps money here in Detroit and something I can pass down to my kids when I’m done with it.”

Navigating rules

Favors said outside of brands like D’usse and Ciroc, which are endorsed by rappers and celebrities, there are other Black spirit companies that deserve the same attention.

“These are not celebrity-owned brands we’re talking about,” he said. “We’re talking about African American-owned brands, some who have been around since 2012, and some who are brand new.

“As consciousness about where Black people spend our money grows, this is an opportunity to think about how and where we spend our money and then put our money where our mouth is,” he said. 

A total of 21 Black-owned brands and/or distillers from across the country showed up to the Black Spirits Legacy events last week, including representatives from Black Momma Vodka, Duke and Dame Whiskey, Royalty Spirits, Islandjon Vodka and Roselawn Select. 

Vanessa Braxton, owner of Black Momma Vodka and Gravesande Braxton Distillery in New York, was the first Black woman in the country to be named a master distiller and master blender via a proclamation of the New York State Legislature. 

group of people
Vanessa Braxton, owner of Black Momma Vodka and Gravesande Braxton Distillery in New York, speaks on a panel during the “Liquid Forum” hosted by Black Spirits Legacy in Detroit on Sept. 29 and Sept. 30, 2022. Braxton said collaborative events give young Black entrepreneurs the chance to learn in ways that she couldn’t. (BridgeDetroit photo by Bryce Huffman)

Braxton said collaborative events like the ones held in Detroit last week give young Black entrepreneurs the chance to learn in ways that she couldn’t.

“There wasn’t really anyone for me to follow along,” she said. “I had to do a lot of things by myself. But I invented a lot of ways to move within that space.

“Learn these rules and learn these laws now,” she continued, “learn it while you haven’t put a ton of time or money in yet, so if you need to pivot or change, you still can.”

Detroiter Andre Sanford, owner and CEO of Monte Vista Vodka, said learning the regulations and guidelines for opening a spirits business is a hurdle for many Black people who want to get in the industry.

“You have to make sure you have all your paperwork in order and to be able to sell it in the first place,” Sanford said. “That’s the first thing you want to check with your local State Liquor Board.  See what permits and licenses you need to get to make sure you get everything in order.”

Sanford is retooling his website, but, in the meantime, said information about Monte Vista’s availability is on the brand’s social media at Facebook or Instagram. Sanford, who launched his business in April, said it was also a struggle to create a brand.

“A lot of us do not know how to do it,” he said. “You may actually be interested in doing it and don’t know how, so it’s best to do research on it and try to find all avenues of trying to create one.”

For Sanford, Black Spirits Legacy has been a resource to help him understand how to develop a brand and create a marketing plan. The group also gives him experienced people in the industry to bounce ideas off of.

“I’m still learning as I go, but at least I know there are people around who can help me understand the process,” he said.

Connecting Black brands 

Alan Henderson, who played in the NBA from 1995 to 2007, founded Henderson Spirits Group after retiring from professional basketball. Henderson’s spirits branding company promotes Black-owned liquor companies and distillers including Tom Bullock’s and Birdie Brown Plain Hooch.

Henderson commended Favors’ legacy group for bringing the Black-owned businesses together.

“He is working to connect Black brands with consumers, retailers, distributors, compliance firms, importers, and investors,” Henderson said. “These contacts are extremely helpful for both existing and future brand owners.”

One of these connections is Detroit restaurant Yum Village in the city’s New Center area and has a recently opened second location in West Village. The Afro-Caribbean restaurant serves Black-owned beer, wine and spirits that are difficult to find elsewhere.

two people in the restaurant'
Yum Village on Woodward Avenue in New Center prominently displays Duke and Dame in the restaurant’s indoor seating area. Owner Godwin Ihentuge said he has made sure his restaurant incubates and promotes businesses owned by Black and Brown people. (BridgeDetroit photos by Christine Ferretti)

The restaurant first got its liquor license in early 2020, before the pandemic forced Yum Village to be carry-out only for nearly a year. Owner Godwin Ihentuge said that he has made sure his restaurant incubates and promotes businesses owned by Black and Brown people.

“Because oftentimes, businesses run by people in marginalized groups need to get a little bit of a boost to compete with companies with fewer barriers,” said Ihentuge, who has signage for Duke and Dame prominently displayed in the restaurant’s indoor dining area.

Ihentuge said his restaurant’s bar serves about 35 different Black-owned wine, beer and spirit brands. Many of the customers, he added, haven’t found these brands anywhere else.

“So there’s a lot of discovery around the alcohol but much more often than not,” he said, “the patrons are surprised at how complete a bar they can create using only Black-owned spirits.”

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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