This time on Meet the Makers, we talk to April Gray, who took over The Bourbonaire Group in St. Louis after her husband passed away in 2020, continuing his legacy and also supporting the education and connection between new bourbon drinkers throughout the city. Rather than a formal question and answer session, this was a broader, conversational experience connecting with April to find out more about the Bourbonaire, her husband who started it, and her story.
From the beginning, April Gray’s husband, Henry Gray, Jr. had a passion for bourbon, and wanted to make bourbon accessible to new drinkers, or to people who thought they didn’t enjoy bourbon – especially those in the African American community. It started in October of 2019 with the desire to teach friends and acquaintances to enjoy and appreciate bourbon. Henry wanted to connect his community with the bourbon world, focusing on “getting a foot in the door” to get them curious and excited about bourbon and whiskey, said April. Within two months, Henry and April had fifty people at their house enjoying Rebel Yell bourbon at an event.
The group grew from there, quickly amassing followers by providing educational events throughout St. Louis and online via their social media Facebook group, The Bourbonaire. According to April, this “showed how many people are not familiar with bourbon and the whiskey world” and how thirsty they are for it once they have some education and experience. For both of them, it was important that the group remain committed to providing basic, approachable education for their members, not delving too deep into esoteric whiskey discussions. They focused on getting bourbon into new hands, and educating those new whiskey drinkers.
April’s love for bourbon grew over time to match Henry’s. While he ran the events and was the face of the organization, April was behind the scenes, helping to coordinate, set up and manage the events. A key turning point was a bourbon event on February 11, 2020, where they partnered with Maker’s Mark. To April, she felt as though Maker’s wanted to gauge the interest and breadth of the group, that Maker’s wanted us to “prove ourselves.” Greta Harper, the regional brand ambassador hosted the event and was shocked by the number of people that showed up and the reach of the group in such a short period of time.
It was a hit. April and Henry had brought in a bevy of people who knew little about bourbon. “Most didn’t know what an Old Fashioned was or what Maker’s Mark was,” said April. And most left with a new appreciation and fascination for bourbon. Maker’s Mark was thrilled and became a partner with them for many events.
As with most whiskey social groups and member organizations, the pandemic forced a shift from in-person to virtual events. For the Bourbonaire group (just like with Bourbon Women), this allowed them to reach outside of the local community to provide for a broader audience. But as this pivot happened, Henry’s health deteriorated and he lost his 4-year battle with colon cancer December 3, 2020. To April’s surprise, a day later, she received a note addressed to her from Bill Samuels Jr., the retired CEO and president of Maker’s Mark to pass along his condolences and share what he’d heard about Henry from the Maker’s Mark team. Henry, she admits, would have been thrilled and honored to receive a personal note from Bill.
April and Henry did everything together, and his death came as a huge shock. She said, “It was hard to focus, and I didn’t really know what my next move was in my life.” What happened next may not surprise you, if you’ve been in the whiskey community for a bit. Word of his passing spread through the group and the local whiskey community and numerous people messaged her to support her and the group itself. “They were really there for me,” she said, and that pushed her to continue The Bourbonaire and the education of bourbon drinkers in Henry’s honor.
“I can’t let these people down and I didn’t want to let Henry down,” she said. Trying to juggle the two, her grief and the group, was a challenge, but she persisted. With support from group members and other whiskey groups like the St. Louis Bourbon Society, she was able to continue the events and education they’d started together. Andrew Chostner and James Thomas, Co-Founders of the St Louis Bourbon Society, were major supporters after Henry died. “They embraced me and helped me and kept me motivated to keep going,” she said.
In February 2021, Todd Randall from Randall’s Wine & Spirits reached out to her to do a Private Barrel Selection in honor of Henry. They reserved the top floor of a local bar, and Greta Harper of Maker’s Mark returned to set up the Private Barrel Selection process and worked to develop the flavor profiles. Initially, they were going to pick one barrel, but because she couldn’t decide between two flavor profiles, they actually chose two barrels. Since she had two charities in mind, they decided to have each barrel support a different charity, St. Jude’s and The Peregrine Society, two organizations that help cancer patients.
To April, it was something Henry would have been ecstatic to experience. They named them The Bourbonaire Sunrise and The Bourbonaire Sunset, to commemorate Henry’s date of birth and date of death. The bottles sold out in two weeks.
It’s now 2022, just over two years since Henry’s death, and the Bourbonaire group is still thriving. For April, it’s about “proving myself to them that I can still do this, and still handle this and keep the group interested and engaged.” It’s a legacy that Henry would want her to continue, and one that she’s passionate about. In fact, as we talked she mentioned a casual bottle share the group had done a few weeks prior, and a direct message she’d received from a Bourbonaire member showing her the bottles he’d bought after an event with the group.
It comes down to two things for The Bourbonaire Facebook group and its members. First, “focus on respect and not judgment” to meet people where they are in their curiosity and knowledge level with bourbon. And second, “no question is a stupid question.” Because we all started with a single sip shared with new friends, and a few questions because we were curious.