Local business owner breaking racial barriers with distillery

PITTSBURGH — Southwestern Pennsylvania has historic ties to whiskey and spirits dating back to the whiskey rebellion in 1794.

These days, craft breweries and distilleries are seeing huge growth, with the industry expected to grow by over 20% next year.

Despite those numbers, there are very few Black-owned distilleries. But one local businessman is breaking through barriers.

Kenyan Hicks has built a small craft spirits distillery from the ground up in a former car shop in Lawrenceville.

“Noire Distillery really comes from our flagship bottle, Noire Expedition, which is taking two words to mean the Black Journey,” Hicks said.

Hicks’ journey took him from the military to Pittsburgh.

While working full-time as a software recruiter here, he began to dabble in craft spirits- and quickly realized he was one-of-a-kind.

“You can walk into any bar or restaurant and look on their shelf, and 9 times out of 10, there may not be any products from African-Americans,” Hicks explained.

That may be the case, not only here in western Pennsylvania, but nationwide. Of the 2,700 operating craft distilleries, by some accounts, there are fewer than 100 that are Black-owned and operated, and just a handful in Pennsylvania.

The American Craft Spirits Association has recognized the need to attract and encourage minorities in the industry. They’ve developed a non-profit, one-year program designed to improve access.

“I’m telling a story from a man who gained his freedom at about age 25. Went on to own his own land, went onto employ folks,” Hicks said.

Hicks is self-taught. He credits his ancestor Moses Godfrey, whose image graces the back of the Noire expedition’s bottle with the inspiration to blaze his path.

There’s meaning behind everything Hicks creates. Today’s spirits run is a newly developed gin that he’s calling Noire Blanc or Black and white.

“It’s to celebrate the Loving versus Virginia case legalizing interracial marriage in the United States and me and my wife are an interracial couple,” Hicks explained.

Noire Blanc is a tribute to Jennifer and their children.

“As we say on the back of the bottle. It is an American story that happens to be Black,” Hicks said. “The success is that if in 5 or 10 years, Noire Expedition is still around, and keeps telling that story for a long time to come.”

Download the FREE WPXI News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Channel 11 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch WPXI NOW

Comments on this article