There are more theater folks in the whiskey world than most people realize. Kings County Distillery New York Market Specialist Jennifer Blair is one of them, and her background helps her market spirits more effectively.
BW: What path led you to a career in marketing spirits?
JB: I come to the spirits industry from an entertainment background. I am an actor by trade and have worked extensively on both sides of the camera, as well as in journalism and the media. In the 2010’s I arrived at a sticking point where I was faced with the possibility of moving to LA full time, and I knew straight away that it was the wrong decision for me. I felt the need to mix things up because I feel it is helpful for creatives to experience life outside the bubble of Hollywood – how else will you tell stories about the human condition? So I made a devoted effort to get out into different scenes and meet all sorts of people. Like Bram Stoker wrote, “I long…to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is.”
As it is for many people, I found New York City to be the best place in the world to do that type of thing. So that’s where I remained.
I’ve always been into nightlife and beverages and I have worked as a journalist in that space. By following my own natural interest I found my way to Drammers Club, which is a fine spirits club with a flagship chapter in the city. A fellow member worked with Kings County Distillery at the time and convinced me to come work on the bottling line. There are many opportunities for advancement within the company and everything else followed from that point.
I find marketing and sales to be a natural fit in many ways because marketing is a form of communication. Money talks. I use everything I learned in entertainment in what I do today – it’s “all in.”
BW: Are there any common misconceptions you hear about whiskey made in Brooklyn?
JB: It is true that some people will approach New York whiskey as if it were a bottle of Pace Picante Sauce. And some people – frequently cis men – enjoy sidling up at events and announcing their presence with a common refrain:
“Y’know that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky, right?”
…which is categorically incorrect: bourbon may be produced anywhere in the U.S. and its territories (including Puerto Rico and warehouses in New York City).
That said, many whiskey drinkers do love trying new things and there is an element of connoisseurship that is always attracted to novelty. People like to drink around and perceptions naturally expand as they do. So we’ve benefited quite a lot from their curiosity. It also seems there is a growing appetite for new styles of American whiskey beyond classical bourbon – American single malt, for example. We borrow from global styles of production and maintain an experimental streak, which people generally seem to accept as a good thing. It’s a definite part of the creative direction of our brand.
New York is the birthplace of American spirits, remember – the first distillery in the Americas was founded by the Dutch (on Staten Island) when New York was New Amsterdam. And as the first whiskey distillery to open in the five boroughs post-prohibition, it makes sense that Kings County is in a position to guide American whiskey forward into the future.
BW: What is your favorite way to enjoy whiskey?
JB: With friends, of course! I’m someone who likes to get into the minutiae of various topics and whiskey is one of my favorite ones. I have my spirits crew and when we get together we don’t simply drink it: we’re rattling on about who made it, where they made it, what type of stills they used, what we drank last year, and what we’re going to drink next…(dear readers, some of you will probably understand how this goes). The mental and social elements are part and parcel of the sum total sensory experience.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to work in the spirits industry?
- Find your network and stick up for those allies who understand and defend your dignity.
- Apologize neither for your body nor your mind because both are components of your instrument. Communicate yourself as best you can, remembering always that a point will inevitably arrive when it is no longer your problem to coax others into rectifying the two.
- Don’t be afraid of any part of the work, be it highly visible or deeply inglorious. Do some back-end production stuff if you can, even if you do not ultimately wish to work in production. Build your awareness of how every element of the pipeline works.
- Efficiency is more valuable than “hustle culture.” It’s about doing work – not generating heat.
- Learn where to spend your money when you are given a budget. Challenge yourself to rig together creative solutions with limited resources. It’s part of the fun and can be almost like a game.
- Be wary of over-dependence on apps and “software-as-as-service” solutions. Many are budget vampires and some market problems don’t show up in the data until it’s too late.
- Work clean – nothing beats tidy records on an organized table.
- Study everything, even things that aren’t directly related to spirits. Hospitality is a business of people and all the tech, money, and rote knowledge in the world can’t help you if you do not constantly cultivate the ability to read people and situations (and anticipate their behavior).
All things in nature are about mindfulness, really: the moment you think you’ve “got it” the situation moves again, which forces you to adapt. As Michael Schumacher once said: “I have always been very good at finding the limit.”
Or, to go full Murray Walker: “Two laps to go, then the action will begin. Unless this is the action, which it is.”
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Brooklyn.
JB: Pre-pandemic, it would have been meeting up with friends for a dram and then dancing our faces off at Avant Gardner or Elsewhere (typically until sunrise). But Covid calls for smaller gatherings, and these days I find myself relishing cozier places where you can catch up properly with friends.
In New York, we are lucky to have world-class whiskey bars all over the city (including Queens, where I live – shout-out to Sanfords!). A personal all-time favorite is the Brandy Library in Tribeca – it’s just a lovely, knowledgeable spot where you can hang out for hours and try a bit of everything. Copper & Oak is its sister bar, which is also a great time.
I enjoy both high and low art and I like floating between different levels of poshness like James Bond. I like grand old New York places, like the King Cole bar at the St. Regis. We are famous for our trash in NYC and I also enjoy a good, filthy dive bar, where anything can happen at any time (Rudy’s on 9th Avenue is a favorite).
It is a bonus if there is an excuse to dress up (especially now, after two years of elasticated pants). And the ideal days to hang out are Friday and Saturday, because I like to keep Sundays free to do as little as possible except sleep late, read, and putter around in the kitchen…what have I become…
Photos Courtesy of Bianca Alexis