“Here’s to Looking At You, Sis”: Connecting the Dots With Bourbon Maven Tomeka Purcell

Grace Williams

It is said that no two people taste the same bourbon in the same way. Tomeka Purcell, a newcomer to the bourbon-making space and one of the only African American women to attempt it, remembers the first bourbon she ever tasted like it was yesterday. Purcell, who has worked in the mortgage industry for more than two decades, was out after work with a predominantly male contingent that included her then-manager. Her alcohol understanding didn’t extend far beyond the occasional wine cooler. Someone in the group insisted that she try a well-known bourbon and she obliged but it didn’t exactly go down easily. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever tasted in my life,” she recalls.

Despite feeling nonplussed about the beverage itself, something about it still struck a chord. She suspected that if the recipe was more to her liking, she would probably enjoy the amber whiskey. As time went by, Purcell realized her quest for the perfect bourbon would probably only end once she made it for herself. Purcell, who now runs her own mortgage-lending business, knows a thing or two about starting up, but mortgages and alcohol are two entirely different undertakings.

Together with her husband, Herbert, Purcell first did research. If they were going to get into bourbon, they wanted to stand out from competitors and deliver a pleasant flavor at a reasonable price point. A few prototypes and tastings later, they arrived at a product that satisfied their criteria and Purcellos1789 was born. The product gets its moniker from their shared last name with an “os” twist on the end, and the number 1789 is a nod to the year Tomeka’s hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was founded. At present, a bottle of Purcellos1789 retails for about $65 on the brand’s website, which is where they do a great deal of their business.

Purcell poured out a bit of her story for This Is Capitalism. Edited excerpts are below.

TIC: Bourbon isn’t exactly targeted to women. What has it meant to you in the past?

Purcell: Over time, I have equated it with success and financial achievement. When we’re watching television, we see someone add a few rocks in a lowball glass and pour what is considered to be a brown alcohol into a glass or they are drinking it neat and throwing it back and we think: “that’s got to be some type of brandy, bourbon, or scotch.” We equate it to being expensive.

TIC: What inspired you to seriously pursue the bourbon space?

Purcell: My main inspiration is being a woman, a working mom, a mother, business owner, and entrepreneur. We women deserve it all, but also, we want to drink like a woman; we don’t want to drink like a man. Sometimes we have to tweak a little bit of what men are getting, but we still deserve it.

After doing the research, I realized there is an opening for this and a reason why it should be here. Only 37% of women drink bourbon. And it’s only because they don’t know about it, or when they tried specific ones, they’ve been too harsh. Keep in mind it’s all based on palate. So anybody that drinks your bourbon is going to taste something different every time.

TIC: Tell us about making the product. What is the first step?

Purcell: It entails finding the distillery that is going to allow you to have full product autonomy. You have to know what you want regarding taste because that is where you choose your distillery. You’re able to work with them on building out your formula, which is the most important piece. You then develop your formula and the raw materials that you want for the processes.

TIC: What else does a distillery do?

Purcell: They come with specific formulas or products that they’ve already done. You taste them and tell them what you think. Then you’re able to add in what you want to give it that taste you’re looking for. Bourbon is often made with rye and you have barley and different materials [in addition to the corn mash]. Based on what you put together and how the aging process is going to go is how you obtain the flavoring that you’re going to taste in your bourbon so you tell the distillery “this is what we want.”

TIC: What about speed bumps?

Purcell: Getting distribution. Understanding the 17 control states [states with a monopoly on sales of alcoholic beverages] and where you can go instead. The ABC [Alcoholic and Beverage Control] Commission in control and non-control states say “You can only present your product to us twice a year – January and July.” You’ve also got to get someone willing to take on your product.

You can’t be the one that brings it. It’s like having to jump through 8000 hoops and the last one is on fire with spikes and it spins really, really fast and out of control.

TIC: How do you compete with established names?

Purcell: Changing the product and the materials we put in. If you research, the majority of other bourbons are anywhere from 51% to 70% corn. We are ninety-nine percent corn and that is what makes the difference in our bourbon. Our distillery in Indiana uses quality ingredients which makes us meet the requirements for non-GMO and organic.

Eventually, we sent out samples and everyone came back with different tastes, flavors, and aromas that they were getting. That is how I equated the bourbon to being sexy. It is so smooth and it has flavors like candy corn, cinnamon and vanilla flavor notes. That makes it something that women will love.

TIC: How did you manage to do all this and keep the price point competitive?

Purcell: It is based on what it costs, from distilling to bottling to aging. We also base it on however many cases or barrels that we’re going to have. We could do a substantial price but the process did not require me to triple the cost. But also, we’re women, so we’re comparing prices in everything that we do. I want to see more women buying this bourbon at a cost that is affordable. [Bourbon can sell for] $100 or $4,000 a bottle, but no one is going to be able to purchase that bourbon just to try it.

TIC: What would you tell early-stage entrepreneurs out there looking for inspiration?

Purcell: We deserve it all and the only way to get that is to go for it.  Whether you are a woman or a man, go for it. You have to step out and do it. There are all these different people doing the same things, adding my idea will only saturate the market.

I always remind people there is a McDonald’s, there’s a Burger King, there is a Wendy’s – there are several people that are doing the exact same things and business is booming. Variety is important. Find your why and stand on it. So whatever your idea is, do it.