Guidance Whiskey Owner Is Helping to Lift Up Other Black Businesses in Nashville
Jason Ridgel talks about overcoming stereotypes in the whiskey business.
During his first job out of college, Jason Ridgel noticed something. He had just graduated with an engineering degree from Tennessee State and he was working for KPMG, one of the big four accounting firms in Nashville.
“I knew the managing partner there made like $2 million a year,” Ridgel recalls. “I watched him speak to everybody when he came into the building. He was one of the nicest guys. He had no flash at all. Everyone else who made way less drove fancier cars and wore nicer suits, and I watched them be assholes. So it was at a young age that I realized the person with the most money doesn’t have to be mean.”
Fast-forward nearly two decades later, Ridgel hasn’t forgotten that formula for compassionate success and he’s channeled into his distillery, Guidance Whiskey, a small-batch whiskey brand distilled in Iowa and housed in Nashville. After just a few years in the liquor business, the 39-year-old Alabama native has already been instrumental in several other Black-owned brands entering the marketplace.
Ridgel landed on the distilling industry after seeing event after event in his career devoting so much money to booze. “I was putting together all these events, and I saw how much money we were spending on alcohol—like more than half the budget,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘I gotta figure out a way to get on that side of the hustle.’”
He researched the business and potential partners before settling on an Iowa-based distillery that would manufacture his new product. Guidance Whiskey, named after the wise advice he had received throughout his life, was founded in Nashville in the fall of 2018. Aware that his new product might have trouble measuring up in the competitive whiskey region that is Tennessee, Ridgel decided to concentrate on what he wanted out of a spirit.
“I was tired of drinking expensive whiskey and lying by saying that I liked something I didn’t like because it was supposed to be premium,” he says. “I wanted to design something that would be an enjoyable sipping whiskey.”
Working with his distillery partner, Ridgel developed a high-corn recipe for his whiskey that manages to be delicious after only two years of aging in charred oak barrels, a far shorter aging time than many big brands. The whiskey’s mash bill is unique, with an overwhelming corn ratio of 88% and notes of burnt caramel, maraschino cherry, and subtle vanilla that, Ridgel says, has made it an ideal pairing for everything from barbecue sauce to chocolate.
Still, entering into a predominantly white, corporate industry wasn’t easy. Of the 44 distilleries in Tennessee, Guidance is only one of two that is Black-owned. The other is Uncle Nearest, named for former slave Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught a young Jack Daniel the craft of distilling. In June of 2020, Jack Daniel’s and Uncle Nearest launched a joint $5 million initiative to increase diversity in the American whiskey industry. But clearly there is still a long way to go.
“Getting into it is the hardest part,” he recalls. “That’s when I heard the craziest things: ‘You can never be a premium small-batch whiskey. You can’t charge fifty bucks a bottle. You’re not a rapper. You’re not a football player. You’re not famous.’ You still get tapped by the good-old boy system where they don’t want you to get into it.”
But Ridgel persevered, putting his head down, making strategic partnerships, and focusing on the positive feedback instead of the hurdles. After less than three years in the whiskey business, Ridgel has built Guidance into a powerful regional brand. This past September, Guidance partnered with Black-owned Legacy Wine and Spirits to distribute its product, adding 50 additional retail locations in Kentucky, Florida, California, Georgia, and Tennessee. Guidance is now available for delivery in 43 states around the country.
“People are taking note of minority bands and hard-working people,” he says. “The biggest thing that I’ve noticed is the changing of the guard. People’s appetite for ‘new’ is almost insatiable. People are so willing to try new spirits now, it’s probably scary to some of the big boys, but it is great for your artisans and for people that have been put on the back-burner forever.”
Ridgel has worked with Black-owned companies like winemakers and fellow TSU grads Twisted Sistuhs, hemp-infused vodka brand Canapa Fiyori due out later this spring, and a locally sourced bourbon project from another TSU alum, Michael Frazier. Ridgel consulted with Greenwood Whiskey out of Atlanta and a Texas vodka named Timeless, and currently contracts with minority-owned business Twisted Corks to handle all his on-premise tastings.
“We’ve got so many more people that are lining up that want to do projects,” he says. “They don’t just carry you because you’re local or because you’re Black-owned. That might have worked last year, but it’s not working this year. We knew it wouldn’t last. Now you’re right back to having to be good at what you do and bust your ass.”
Future plans for Guidance include the release of a ready-to-drink cocktail line under the Tippers brand and a spiked tea project that he wants to call Whis-Tea. (“That’s my love project,” he admits.) But making sure he’s keeping the door open for future generations is never far from his mind.
“There are things we can do with these brands to help generate money together, but until you actually have a product on the shelves, I don’t take a dime from them,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to pay for what people gave me in the beginning. Somebody is gonna knock on your door like you knocked on mine, you can guarantee it. So you’d better pay that forward.”