Catch up with Denaya Jones-Reid, DEEstilled Owner, Seelbach’s Managing Partner, Soul Palate Podcast Co-founder & Co-host in this week’s Meet the Maker. From her background in bartending to her current role with Seelbach’s, and her own DEEstilled mobile boutique lifestyle and spirits company, she’s changing the industry with every sip she shares.  To Denaya, knowledge and passion is something no one can refute, and she’s passionate about creating opportunities for people of color in the spirits industry.  “One thing that people likely don’t understand about my role or what I am working on is how intentional I am about doing whatever is within my power to provide opportunities for education and growth within this industry to people of color, but more specifically black people,” she said.  Those opportunities may be shared one at a time, but that kind of interconnection and support is what makes true change in the spirits industry.

BW: When and how did you discover you wanted to work in the bourbon/whiskey/spirits industry?
DJ: I first fell in love with spirits around 2014, while working in the catering space. That was when I started learning just how many different producers there were within each spirit category and began understanding the differences in grain, production methods, regions, etc. It was fascinating, so I stayed curious, went down the rabbit hole, and never came out!

BW: How did you end up working in the industry?
DJ: My first introduction to the industry was through catering, while still in college. Upon graduating from school, I maintained that job while simultaneously getting my feet wet in bartending. While I knew I would never want to professionally cook for anyone, I fell in love with craft cocktails and the amount of creativity, technique & detail that could go into cocktail creation, which is very similar to that of a chef. I stuck with bartending for quite some time, making my rounds into different areas and different style bars, to find what fit me. On that journey, I participated in and won the 2018 Chocolate City’s Best competition, and that event opened my eyes to the reality that a career in this industry did not have to end or be limited to just bartending. From that point, I was able to commit to a career in this space and allow the journey to take me wherever possible.

Denaya Jones-Reid pouring whiskey into a jigger

BW: What was your previous background – and how do you use your background in your role today? How did your background prepare you for your position in the industry today?
DJ: I got into this industry pretty much as early as I was legally able to serve alcohol, so aside from my part-time jobs as a teenager, my previous background was mostly as a full-time student. Thankfully, my Bachelor’s in Public Relations & Business Admin. has proven itself very useful throughout my career, but I can’t say any of it necessarily prepared me for the positions that I hold today.

BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days at your current company?
DJ: Something surprising that I learned in my early days at Seelbach’s was how pricey private barrels can be! I had no context before on how whiskey is priced, and what the avg. cost certain barrels go for. So to be on the retail side of things and gain a better understanding of how it all works was definitely a shock.

BW: What does your day-to-day life look like?
DJ: Most days are nothing alike. Some days I am in my office answering e-mails and on-boarding products, while some days I am spending a decent amount of time just tasting, taking notes, and shooting content for our social platforms. Another day could involve meetings with brand reps or traveling to a distillery for a barrel pick.

BW: What similarities and differences are there between your former career as a General Manager in the spirits industry and this one?
DJ: The main difference now between my career as General Manager of a craft spirits retailer and my previous career as a full-time bartender is that now my focus is almost entirely on spirits, their production, the story behind the brand, etc… whereas as a bartender the importance of a spirit was always in the context of how it best suits the cocktail. My love for both spaces keeps the consideration of how a spirit could be utilized behind the bar in the back of my mind, but it’s no longer a determining factor in drawing me towards any particular spirit(s).

BW: After working in the whiskey/spirits industry for all this time, what are some of the changes you’ve seen?
DJ: I’ve seen a slight diversion away from the trend of selecting single barrels as an exclusive bottling within the whiskey space. There’s been an uptick in the amount of truly “small batch” blends being offered in place of single barrels, which I actually like. The art of blending 2-3 barrels and coming out of it with some really delicious and unique whiskies is something that I admire and want to incorporate into my own practices when I start my own brand.

BW: What’s the future role or vision you’d like to see the industry move towards?  What are the biggest roadblocks and how can we overcome them to get there?
DJ: The main vision that I have for the spirits industry moving forward is just one of true, authentic diversity and inclusion. Not the kind of inclusion that checks off a box or fits within the confines of a social hashtag, but the kind that acknowledges and honors the true history of how this industry was able to exist and thrive from its onset – which is via the labor, skills, and expertise of individuals of color. Jack Daniels is not the only brand that should be acknowledging the black men & women that have enabled the owners of these “legacy” brands to dominate in this space for as long as they have. In regards to how we can overcome roadblocks like this, while I wish I knew the answers, that is a much larger conversation to continue to be had.

BW: What’s one thing you wish people understood better about your role?
DJ: One thing that people likely don’t understand about my role or what I am working on is how intentional I am about doing whatever is within my power to provide opportunities for education and growth within this industry to people of color, but more specifically black people. I am a black woman before anything else, and I do not want to only see myself and a handful of others being able to make a name for themselves in the spirits industry. I do my best within both Seelbach’s and my work with Chocolate City’s Best to extend any resources I have access to, to others. It can be as simple as being able to offer bartenders a job during the pandemic, or something more fun like providing an opportunity to tour a distillery and engage in the barrel-selecting process, which most people don’t think they’re even able to do!

BW: What’s something in your role and/or company that inspires you or gets you going in the morning?
DJ: Something that gets me going is definitely the fact that I get to taste some amazing (and not so amazing) spirits just about every day. I’m always trying and learning something new, and connecting with some amazing people while doing so.

BW: What advice do you have for women who want to step into a similar role or carve a similar path?
DJ: Don’t be timid. This is the spirits business – by law everyone in this space is an adult, so directness can be a great tool. Ask for the opportunities you want and don’t be shy about it. If you have questions for people around you with more experience, ask them and log all the information you can. One thing no one can refute is your knowledge and passion for something. Educating myself as I go along has been the best investment of my time and energy that I have made so far.

BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in the DC area:
DJ: The perfect whiskey weekend starts with sharing some exclusive releases with some friends that I know will appreciate them, maybe an evening or event at Jack Rose, then ending the weekend with a hand-selected lineup of great whiskies to share on my podcast, Soul Palate.

Where to find her online:
Website: www.deestilledco | IG: @deestilled | FB: /

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