Part of writing history is finding a path around the load of stories and “facts” that have been handed down to us so that you can see the real people standing behind them. When it comes to the history of drinking in America, one of those “facts” is that bartenders were always beefy white guys with mustaches. That path is not easy to find, maybe because we’ve been looking in the wrong places.
There are two enduring traditions of the American bar. The first one involves mixing delicious drinks from quality ingredients in elegant surroundings. It’s got lots of mahogany and polished brass and people on their best behavior sipping from jewel-like glasses holding icy little puddles of concentrated delight. Back when drinks cost fifteen cents or two for a quarter, at these joints your quarter only got you one drink. Nowadays, these are the places where a hipster with interesting ink all over her arms mixes you a spectacular Bittered Mai Tai with cachaça and nocino and charges your credit card $15 for it. Let’s call this the fancy tradition—fancy drinks in fancy bars for fancy people.
Then there’s the other one. The one with friends in low places. The lowdown tradition, let’s call it, is, of course, the one with the shots and the ice-cold bottles of Miller High Life; the one where there’s a jukebox, which is always playing something as old and familiar as the street where you learned to ride a bicycle, where the person on the next stool is as likely to work in the post office as a law office, and where “maintenance” is spelled d-u-c-t-t-a-p-e. It’s the one with the dives.