Joseph Lamour

Racism and cocktail culture: The whitewashed history of your favorite drinks

The history of spirits, liqueurs, and mixed drinks is blurred around the edges, as if it stumbled home barefoot after a wild night out. And although we assume that historical records about how our favorite cocktails came to be are mostly accurate (and that their authors were sober), we can’t really be sure. Because the reality is, along with America’s history of colonialism comes a lot of truth-stretching large swaths of missing information. And wouldn't you guess, a lot of it has to do with the fact that the trailblazers seemingly erased from the record were enslaved people.

Cocktails as a concept, are around 150 years old in an official capacity, as the first ones were published in text by the man every bartender you come across will regard as the “father of modern mixology,” Jerry Thomas, in 1862’s How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion.” Preeminent cocktail writer and historian David Wondrich discovered in his book, Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl that cocktails as we now know them were actually first mixed in England years earlier, even though they didn’t have that name yet. While some things are undisputed in his regard, of course.

The very first printed record of cocktail recipes of the julep reportedly appears in Thomas’ book — and the mint julep is mentioned by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, in 1983 became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, and was also probably invented by a Black man enslaved on a plantation. We can safely assume this because his captors, Norfolk Virginia’s Wig-Wam Gardens, included “Iced Julips” in the list of things its proprietor had to offer “the delectation of his guests”, and clearly a slave owner wasn’t shaving ice for the delectation of anything.

What is undisputed, however, is how it got so popular. Jasper Crouch was a free person of color working in Richmond and the first acknowledged master of the mint julep. Until recently, Crouch nor another Richmond bartender named John Dabney were acknowledged, and his juleps were apparently so delicious, he made enough money off them to free himself and his wife from slavery.

Yet when you look up the mint julep, another “symbol of sophisticated southern charm” becomes apparent: racial exclusion. The man who gets the credit for its staying power is former Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who brought the drink from Kentucky to D.C. to the Willard hotel — and clearly, all the white people there were very into it, because it’s still served there now. Yet when you read about it, almost every article about the drink I saw, in Town and Country, bartending lesson plans, and elsewhere, there’s no mention of Dabney or Crouch.

Of course, we have no documents to prove anything because enslaved people did not have an honored identity, so when it comes to proving who invented something during that time, evidence is hard to come by. “Honestly, that sort of specificity is hard to come by, it’s also kinda impossible to prove for me,” says Greg Titian, host and mixologist of the YouTube channel How to Drink, where he provides cocktail tutorials, fun facts, and history for his 1.26 million subscribers. We chatted a bit about the history of various aspects of antebellum and post slavery cocktail history how that affects the things we drink today. “I just know when something sounds real, real suspect,” he says.

The injustices that enslaved Africans endured on this side of the world is boundless — as are the histories of the spirits they contain. I, myself, descended from a long line of sugarcane plantation farmers in Haiti, and my further ancestors were enslaved and grew sugar like the kind used for the globally lauded Rhum Barbancourt. The spirit was likely invented by enslaved peoples in the West Indies like Jamaica, Bermuda, and Haiti, Anthony Dias Blue tells us in his meditation on the history of spirits. The process was borne of the slaves discovering that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol. After its discovery by their captors (and by “discovery” I mean robbery), rum is said to have been given to the very people who created it, slaves, to subdue them.

In a way, enslaved people implemented the concept of zero-waste centuries before the trailblazers who do it now. This situation is also believed to have happened with Brazil’s cachaça by the undisputed inventors of the transatlantic slave trade, the Portuguese. Alas, white folk stealing and then claiming the art of a Black person and making countless mountains of riches off of it, like scientific racism, is a tradition modern society loves to still practice.

This leads to the historical record glossing over the human part of the slave trade, like this excerpt on the history of spirit production in Frederick T. Smith’s 2007 book Rum. A perfectly fine book, but in the 397 words in this excerpt, the word “slave” appears thrice, two in reference to the industry of slavery and not the people who did the work. He also attributes rum’s popularity solely to the “anxieties of the colonists” and none of the anxieties of slaves in chains a few yards away. Dehumanizing can be direct, like slavery itself, or in much more subtle ways, like historians talking about rum production as if machines made them.

This explains how a “Southern” tropical punch with its provenance as entwined in the Caribbean slave trade as the family trees of island folk its made from: the Planter’s Punch. Its invention was claimed by a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, called the Planter's Hotel, originally a nineteenth-century retreat for wealthy rice planters (although another hotel, this time in St. Louis, also called the Planter's Hotel, has claimed it too.)

So who made Jamaican rum, grenadine, pineapple, orange juice, lime, and soda topped with fruit first? No one knows for sure, but its flavors and ingredients directly correspond to tropical punches in the Caribbean, and the original idea of punch itself is Indian in origin coming to the New World via pirates and British colonization. Island punches Include Jamaica’s Ti Punch, which is more like an Old Fashioned, and Jamaican rum punch, which bears similarities to Planter’s Punch. Even if either American hotel had invented it, the very reason all of these bear the name “planters” is due to the name of the slave owners of Jamaica’s plantations. Not cute.

And it wasn’t just the people who created cocktails who were erased from history, it was also those who shone in the bartending industry. Dick Francis, another former slave, was said to have earned enough as a bartender in our nation's capital in the mid-1800s to send his son to medical school. By the time he passed away, “Uncle Dick” as patrons liked to call him, saw his son buy the very Pennsylvania Avenue bar where he worked. He and the men who achieved so much were often infantilized, reducing them to a caretaker role.

Another hidden figure whose story has come life in the past decade is Uncle Nearest, whose real name is Nathan Green — the father of American whiskey’s process. Green — who the stereotype of the “helpful Negro” was all too easily forced upon — is now attributed to teaching Jack Daniels the distillation process that he used to made countless dollars off of while in servitude. Notice the nicknames of a lot of these black bartenders include the term “uncle” — which is much like the trope of the mammy, a stereotypical caretaker role associated with cooking, nurturing, and getting credit for nothing.

Look, all of this information about the erasure of Black people in the cocktail world is a given, even if we didn’t know all the details. No one was going to humanize an enslaved person during that time by acknowledging them for a genius accomplishment. But if we’re going to continue to enjoy the cocktails, we have to start giving credit where credit is due. “Most publications that are willing to print a piece about historical tippling want an amusing anecdote or two and then a recipe, not a clear-eyed look at serious social issues,” Wondrich said, in an article on Black bartenders in the Bitter Southerner.

I thought about the great tradition of Black bartenders in America as I mixed a complex cocktail called a Glassine Stamp. The main component, Yellow Chartreuse, is made by monks from the Order of Chartreuse. The centuries-old spirit contains around 130 herbs and plants used to make it, and the recipe is only known by two of them. A preserved manuscript created by the Alchemist has sat in a monastery for more than 400 years, which is why we know its history. We also know all of this because the people who had a hand in getting into my glass have their freedom. And while knowing the history of a spirit might not seem like a huge deal, it is. Finally decolonizing the history of booze culture could be a catalyst for change: If people stop ignoring the very real injustices that shaped the culture of how we consume, imbibe, and live, there could finally be a shift in racial equity. And that’s something to drink to.