The History Of Black Mixology

Mixology as we know it today it isn’t quite a racially charged topic. In fact, where real social issues are concerned, the world of bartending seems safely innocuous: our “mixologist” stereotype a charming anachronism, maybe mustachioed and suspendered, or tattooed like a handsome pirate in overpriced flannel. He’s also, generally, white.

Really. If we’re being honest, there’s a skin color (and gender) associated with the caricature mixologist; the archetype of the modern professional bartender is a white guy. And sure, the pale hipster bartender isn’t without some basis—we’ve all been terrified and awed by the lengths and gravity-defying direction of the facial hair on the guy making our Old Fashioneds—but it also oversimplifies the reality of a category that’s far more diversified in race, gender, and yes, even dress style. And not just today, but at the roots of the profession itself.

Surprising, considering how obsessed mixology is with its history. This is a profession with bars dedicated to particular countries, drinks, even historical time periods (and a profession cocktail historian David Wondrich compares to jazz and movies, as specifically “American”). That there would be gaps anywhere seems insane. And yet, if you Google “famous bartenders,” you’ll see images and lists peppered with names like Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock, and Trader Vic. Important figures, and all white. Fine (and rightful) to include them in the ranks of professional game-changers, but it makes for an egregiously incomplete story—overlooking the ranks of black bartenders, men who actually worked the trade at a time when the mere concept of “service” was shrouded with a horrid, and recent, history.

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Tom Bullock
Tom Bullock, author of the ideal bartender.

Which is why the existence of the Black Mixologists Club might come as a surprise to many. But it actually predates the 21st century resurgence of the term “mixology” by many, many decades. Founded by R. R. Bowie and J. Burke Edelin in 1898, it was a marquee professional association, a gathering place for African Americans who had found an unlikely foothold in the upward social mobility of professional bartending (insofar as black Americans were afforded upward social mobility in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Where mixology history continues to invoke names like Thomas and Craddock, the Black Mixologists Club is evidence of the importance and extent of the bartending profession in the African American community—a community that had in fact been building up ranks for decades.

Four Pioneers

Like other barmen of his time, Cato Alexander began life a slave. Born in New York in 1780, Alexander was freed by the State’s “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” and began working in inns and restaurants. By 1810, he’d not only opened his own establishment, but named it after himself. Cato’s was a bar and inn just a few miles “outside” Manhattan (54th and 2nd Avenue, by today’s standards, Midtown East). As would be the case for several important black mixologists, Alexander catered to influential (white) men of the time, including George Washington. But Alexander he made such a name for himself—with drink specialties ranging from Brandy Juleps to gin cocktails—a New York newspaper actually begged the question “Who has not heard of Cato Alexander?” That was in 1835, thirty years before national abolition was ratified.

It should be noted, Alexander wasn’t the first African American barman. Black men had worked in bars and saloons, for either all black or all white (rarely, though sometimes, mixed) clientele, since the Revolutionary War. But the 19th and early 20th centuries found a handful of black bartenders making regional, and national, names for themselves. Considering the time period, making a name for oneself was immensely significant.

The concept of “influence” was limited, of course, as it meant influence with powerful white men in the context of the service industry. But what social strides could be made were, and meanwhile these bartenders were putting away money, to purchase a future, even freedom, quite literally.

John Dabney was also born a slave in 1824. But as a bartender he became famous for his Mint Juleps, serving them at the Sweet Springs resort in West Virginia—a favored vacation haunt that, in an ironic twist of historical fate, saw the likes of Robert E. Lee. If Juleps were a favorite of the time period, Dabney’s were a favorite of favorites. He even had special silver cups with his name emblazoned on them. “The Julep a la Dabney,” wrote a Kentucky journalist, “is a world-wide art bestowed upon personages whom he holds in high esteem.” Again, it should be noted, Dabney worked in Richmond for wealthy white clientele. He had no choice but to “hold them in high esteem.” But with the wealth he accrued, Dabney was able to purchase freedom for himself and his wife.

The Ideal Bartender by Tom BullockOne of the most egregiously overlooked names in the history of bartending is that of Tom Bullock, a St. Louis bartender who wrote the first cocktail book by an African American. Published in 1917, The Ideal Bartender is an alphabetical catalogue of historic, meticulously constructed cocktails, including a painstakingly layered Pousse Café with Abricontine (apricot liqueur), Maraschine, Curacao, Chartreuse and Brandy. Other drinks include the Cohasset Punch, the Horse Thief Cocktail, the Free Love cocktail (clearly about 50 years ahead of its time) and something called the Diarrhea Draught, page 33.  Leaving that curiosity for another time, Bullock’s recipes are historically fascinating, carefully laid out, and technically sophisticated.

An interesting and maybe unexpected note, the introduction to Bullock’s book was actually written by one George Herbert Walker—grandfather of George H.W. Bush. In fact, Bullock was so influential and well-regarded, that when a certain Col. Theodore Roosevelt refused to finish one of Bullock’s Mint Juleps—on account of temperance—an editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, flagrant with disbelief:

“Who was ever known to drink just a part of one of Tom’s …To believe that a red-blooded man, and a true Colonel at that, ever stopped with just a part of one of those refreshments which have made St. Louis hospitality proverbial and become one of the most distinctive genre institutions, is to strain credibility too far. Are the Colonel’s powers of self-restraint altogether transcendent? Have we found the living superman at last?”

If it’s taken some time for the modern bartending profession to gain credibility as profession—not just side gig for aspiring actors and models—the bartending profession was a powerful vehicle to both wealth and—slightly tainted—social “acceptance” in the lives of Alexander, Dabney, and Bullock (and all who worked with less notoriety alongside them). Serving an all-white clientele, a man could make a living, and clearly a name, but it was within that particular context of hospitality, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an “acceptable” vehicle for what degree of social mobility a black man could hope to achieve. Considering the circumstances—rampant racism, “genteel” condescension dripping with inequality—these bartenders not only made unprecedented financial gains but indelible professional marks, respecting the quality of their work despite the profound inequality of the context. No surprise, perhaps, that so many black bartenders of note were known to make “the best” drink of their respective regions.

If condescension and ascension were ever intertwined, it might be with Dick, or “Uncle Dick,” Francis, as he was unfortunately—with some presumption to endearing—called. Francis, born into slavery in Virginia in 1827, by 1848 had begun working at Hancock’s, on 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C., not at all far from the White House. During his 35 years at Hancock’s, Francis saw the start and end of the Civil War, the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and all manner of awkward, and often violent, historical shifts of power and value. All the while, he was a favorite of the political D.C. crowd, and used the money he earned at Hancock’s  to invest in local real estate and send his son to medical school. Such was his influence with D.C.’s powerful that Francis was asked to bartend for the U.S. Senate after the Civil War.

His son eventually purchased Hancock’s.