Disenchanted with old-school whiskey culture, blender Eboni Major forges her own path
In the whiskey business, the distiller usually gets the credit for exceptional spirits. But behind the scenes in whiskey production, the blender is the gatekeeper of quality control.
"The blender is the one person who's responsible (for whiskey) at every step," said Eboni Major, the Birmingham-based former whiskey blender for Bulleit Bourbon.
A mind for chemistry and a passion for food led Major to pursue a bachelor's degree in food science and technology, which led to a 2015 internship at Bulleit. She eventually became the bourbon maker's first Black blender.
Major is also widely considered to be the first Black woman to work as a whiskey blender at a major distillery, though there is some competition for the title.
After tension erupted over whether Major was being fairly compensated at the Kentucky-based Bulleit, she stepped into her own as a freelance industry expert who lends her talents to other distilleries.
She returned to her home city of Birmingham, Alabama, where she's since launched a limited-edition collaborative release with Dread River Distillery.
Birmingham has come a long way since its place at the epicenter of America's racial tensions in the 1960s. As of the most recent census data, nearly 70% of the Alabama city's population is Black. Meanwhile, Shelbyville, Kentucky, where Major moved when she accepted a position with Bulleit, is 73% white.
"I don't want to make it about race at all, but Kentucky was just very different for me," Major said. "I was walking into situations, arenas or environments where I was the only Black person. It was like, this is my reality."
She returned home to a city with a palpable collaborative spirit.
"Downtown Birmingham looks completely different from when I was coming up," Major said. "Right now, everybody's eager. Empowered for sure. When you look around the city, I feel like people see what's possible and can see beyond the now and what has been."
Community in whiskey
In Kentucky, Major found a community in the whiskey industry, and her connections helped launch her as a prominent face of Bulleit. But as her role grew, she said, her pay did not. That remained a sticking point even after Bulleit released the Major-created limited-edition Blenders’ Select in 2020.
"From my perspective, I was in a job where I was fighting to get equal pay and equal opportunity while I was put on a platform to help sell (whiskey)," she said.
As Major simultaneously acted as blender and de facto brand ambassador, her pay, she said, lingered far below industry standards. In 2022, she filed a lawsuit against Diageo, the company that owns Bulleit, alleging unlawful discrimination and disparate treatment based on her race. That lawsuit is currently in arbitration.
By and large, Major has since forged her own path in the whiskey industry, partnering with like-minded distillers. She wants to believe that women, particularly women of color, are making inroads in an industry long dominated by white men.
"It's definitely rooted in nepotism, which is harmful and makes it harder for women and people of color to come in, even when they are educated and experienced," she said. "When you hire from within, it makes it difficult for people to learn, and it also keeps the industry stagnant."
That's particularly the case in Southern whiskey production, she said. She used Nearest Green, the Black man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey nearly 150 years ago, as an example. Green's contributions to Tennessee whiskey have only in the past few years been thrust into the spotlight.
"You know, we're doing the work but do you know about it?" she said. "And now that you know about it, especially when it comes to women and Black women, it's just making sure it's equitable for everybody."
Carving a path forward with whiskey
Major left Bulleit in 2020, returning to a Birmingham much changed from when her mother worked downtown at the public library. The city was not the place to be after dark when Major was a child, she said. Now, the downtown business district thrives at night.
"Birmingham, in my opinion, is a city that does really well with small businesses, especially in the downtown area," Major said. "We do our best to support each other, and I think that's why these businesses keep thriving."
Since leaving Kentucky, Major has expanded her reach, acting as a consultant for regional distilleries, including in Nashville, where she's lent her expertise to Corsair Distillery.
Corsair owner and distiller Darek Bell called Major the "whiskey whisperer."
"She knows what we’re needing and how to keep everything consistent and of the utmost quality," he said.
Professional, quality-minded blenders like Major are part of the secret to good whiskey, he said.
"Her ability to taste and analyze different barrels, her attention to detail, and her commitment to producing a consistently high-quality product are what make her an invaluable member of our organization," he said. "She's the gatekeeper of quality control, ensuring that every bottle of our bourbon meets our high standards."
Though Major has created her own label under which she wants to blend and produce whiskey, Major Whiskey, she's reluctant to build her own brick-and-mortar distillery. Instead, her path forward is collaborating with other distilleries while dreaming of building her own blending lab.
"We've made good advances with carbon-neutral distilleries, but a distillery is just not in my path," she said. "I want to be able to highlight whiskies from other places and put them in bottles. That's really my dream, and my goal is to have a place to teach people how to blend whiskey."
Her long-term goal is a whiskey "innovation center," a place to highlight small, innovative distilleries, some in places not usually known for whiskey production, including California.
"Where I'm just like an old lady with her cats, but an old girl with her barrels," she said. "Just imagine me mixing, but allowing people to see what I do and taste what I'm working on."
Next for Major: a potential collaboration on a U.S. cognac.
"I believe that putting my efforts and energies there allows me to expand my knowledge of food science and distillation," she said. "But I'm still committed to doing these unique and smaller footprint whiskey blends."
She'll remain part of a swiftly changing Birmingham and hopes to becomes a stakeholder there.
"When I go down to my local coffee shop, I drive around and look at the empty buildings," she said. "I have ideas that will become more of a reality because of the support of this community."
If you go to Birmingham
Birmingham has plenty to offer. Here are just a few of our favorites.
Automatic Seafood and Oysters. This Lakeview district restaurant is fun, absolutely gorgeous and perfect if you love a good raw bar. Absolutely do not skip the fried fish collar. Wander across the street to Birmingham's outpost of Asheville-based Hi-Wire Brewing for an after-dinner beer. 2824 Fifth Ave. S.
Pizza Grace. A semifinalist for the 2023 James Beard Award, this craft pizzeria is dedicated to local producers and quite simply makes a great pie. 2212 Morris Ave., Suite 105
El Barrio. This multi-regional Mexican restaurant features Gulf seafood, seasonal produce, a delicious brunch and some killer margaritas. 2211 Second Ave. N.
Juniper. This cozy and elegant cocktail bar in Forest Park has a courtyard, an indoor swing, and a gorgeous menu of adaptable gin and tonics. 3811 Clairmont Ave. S.
Cayo Coco. This Cuban-inspired bar has a moody, elgant interior and bright classic tropical cocktails, including real-deal daiquiris and The Gun Club Punch, adapted from the Trader Vic’s Bartenders Guide. 2015 First Ave. N., unit A.
Dread River Distilling Company. This urban distillery specializes in small batches of whiskey, gin and rum. Take a distillery tour, sip cocktails in the high-ceilinged barroom or take a cocktail class. 2400 Seventh Ave. S.
The Kelly Birmingham, Tapestry Collection by Hilton. This smart, fun hotel in the heart of the city has an excellent staff and fun bar to come back to after your night on the town. 2027 First Ave. N.