With the resurgence of interest in mixology came this desire to hearken back to the early days of cocktail creation, from the late 1800s to prohibition. Behind the wells of speakeasies in the ‘20s, the craft cocktail movement was born, using fresh, bold flavors to mask the overpowering taste of bootleg alcohol. Today, there is a desire to modernize the classic cocktails early bartenders created in saloons and social clubs across the country.
Despite the lack of recognition, the Black Mixologists Club had as much of a foothold on cocktail culture as notable figures such as Jerry Thomas, the creator of the Tom Collins and supposed “father of mixology”.
The organization was developed in 1898 in Washington D.C. to be a pillar in black upper-middle class society. By dressing well and having a sophisticated knowledge of cocktail culture, black Washingtonians were shielded from racist stereotypes associated with drinking straight liquor.
The development of this black uppercrust was born of a migration of formerly enslaved black people from the south to Washington D.C. Yearning to access the comforts and luxuries they’d seen in the city at large, men and women became entrepreneurs, creating an insular community to celebrate their new wealth and develop a distinct culture.
The interest in these black bartenders began spreading outside of their community until they gained regional and national notoriety. It was as if the fact that many of them were born slaves was a nonfactor for many of the white social club and parlor owners looking to entertain the who’s who of society. Their meticulously crafted cocktails were served to the likes of presidents, socialites and other dignitaries.
One of the most influential bartenders to amass wealth and ascend the societal ranks was Tom Bullock, a St. Louis native who created one of the most well-known mint juleps of his time. His mint julep was so well known that Theodore Roosevelt’s refusal to finish his mint julep became the subject of an article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“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.”
Bullock’s exceptional skill led him to be the first black bartender to publish a book of recipes in the United States.
His first book, “The Ideal Bartender,” was published in 1917 and is still revered as one of the seminal books in cocktail history. Historians cite this book as a mainstay because it accurately depicts pre-prohibition drink culture and provides recipes for cocktails considered classics to this day.
Bullock’s highly regarded skill and perceived exceptionalism afforded him relationships with iconic figures and politicians of that time. The introduction of this book was written by George Herbert Walker, the grandfather of the 41st president, George H. W. Bush.
He would, then, go on to write, “173 Pre-Prohibition Cocktails,” a compilation of cocktail recipes that may have been all but lost if not for this book. The pages were also filled with a rare look into the lives of major political figures — what made Benjamin Franklin angry, George Washington’s favorite drink and how Winston Churchill’s mother inspired the Manhattan cocktail.
Though his career was taking off, the prohibition would bring his career, as well as the careers of his fraternity of black mixologists, to a screeching halt.
Today, the interest in the Black Mixologists Club has resurfaced among black DC natives in the industry. To pay homage to the forefathers of black cocktail culture, many bartenders and historians have partnered with each other to create events that commemorate their legacies. One of which is the R.R. Bowie Competition, named after the president of the Black Mixologists Club. This competition centers young, black bartenders who have not been afforded the opportunity to compete in competitions on a national level.
To learn more about the history of the Black Mixologists Club, click here.