The Lost African-American Bartenders who Created the Cocktail
Black bartenders across the South made the Mint Julep a national sensation and, in the process, invented modern mixology.
I don’t know about you, but I find these times we’re living in rather trying. Fortunately, when it all starts getting to me, when the gears in my head start spinning faster and faster until it seems like they’re going to fly off their bearings and rip right through my skull, I know a place nearby where I can hitch my foot up on the rail, lean in and say, “K.J., could I trouble you for a Vieux Carré, please?” and after a minute or two of swift, efficient and precise construction, K.J. will gently place an elegant, stemmed glass in front of me that holds a silky, blood-red liquid that’s cold enough to slow the gears in their ceaseless spinning and so intriguingly flavored that for a few precious minutes I can forget the world in its crumbling.
Now, we know we can thank Willis Carrier for the ability to flip a switch and sleep in coolness through a sweltering July night and Orville and Wilbur Wright for the ability to step into an aluminum tube and step out a few hours later in Paris, Auckland or Cincinnati. But whom can we thank for that Vieux Carré—not the drink itself, I mean, but the whole infrastructure that made it possible? The fact that there’s an institution dedicated to mixing individual iced drinks to order and serving them over the bar.
In general, this is considered an American invention; indeed, in the rest of the world places that made individual iced drinks were traditionally labeled “American Bar,” usually in foot-high gilded letters. The standard line is that the American Bar came together here in the years between 1806, when the Cocktail was first defined in print and 1862, when Jerry Thomas published the first bartender’s guide. The one waypoint that usually gets mentioned is Frederick Tudor’s establishment in the 1810s of a Boston-based business that shipped ice to all the hot cities of America, thus making a cold drink on a sweltering day available to anyone with a spare dime lying around.
That history is not wrong, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t tell us whom to thank, or really much else at all. Unfortunately, there’s no comprehensive, in-depth history of the origin of the American Bar we can resort to with further questions. In part, that’s because professional historians tend to side more with the (progressive) temperance movement than the (rowdy and often politically regressive) saloon-goers, and generally don’t consider bartending and mixed drinks a topic of serious study.
But it’s also because such a thing would not be easy to write. Until the wild successes of the American Bars that were set up at the Paris Exposition of 1867 and the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair gave the bartender’s work a new cachet, newspapers—always the best sources for this kind of history—didn’t make a practice of providing detailed coverage of bartenders and their work, or even identifying them by name on the rare occasion when they did (there are exceptions, but more in the 1850s, after foreign travelers started talking up our drinks, than in the 1810s or 1820s, when the art came together). If newspapers are the first draft of history, in this case it’s a rough outline scribbled on the back of a receipt. Outside of some travelers’ accounts and passing references, we don’t have all that much to go on.
Sure, there are a few names that keep coming up—I’ve written about some of them here—but without a clearer knowledge of their peers and influencers, it’s hard to put their achievements in context. Besides, none of them were there at the very beginning of our period. At the Big Bang; they were influenced by others, and we don’t know who those others were.
So, I’d like to try a different way of looking at the birth of the American Bar. Rather than starting with what names we can find and trying to figure out what those individuals actually did, where they worked, what drinks they made, whom they trained, etc., I’d like to start with the drinks.
Not all the drinks, though; one thing travelers noticed was that Americans sure did come up with a lot of new mixtures: Timberdoodles and Moral Suasions and Brandy Smashers and Ladies’ Blushes and Madeira Cobblers and Fiscal Agents and Gin Crustas and Race-Horse Juleps and Capped Punches and so on in endless profusion.
The first thing to do is set aside the drinks that were entirely derivative of others or proved to be dead ends and go to the drinks that were there at the very beginning. That leaves us with a small handful of drinks, each of them a regional specialty that had begun to go nationwide: the Cocktail, from the Hudson Valley and southern New England; Iced Punch, which was apparently a Philadelphia thing; Sling and Eggnog, from the Mid-Atlantic hinterlands; and the Mint Julep, which was a proud Virginian.
Some of these drinks had strong British roots. The Sling—spirits, sugar and water—was uncomfortably close to the Toddy, known in Scotland since the 1740s. Likewise, Iced Punch, or “Ice Punch” as we tended to call it, had been made in Britain and France since the mid-1700s, although not so very often (in those countries, summers were milder than ours and winters warmer, which reduced both the need for ice and its supply). As a cultural phenomenon, the Cocktail was American, but both its formula, which goes back to the 1690s, and its name, a 1780s slang term for something stimulating, were originally English.
Eggnog and the Mint Julep were on the other hand purely American. But while Eggnog was something of a seasonal drink and remained mostly a northern specialty, not an all-rounder, Mint Julep was wholly American.
The Mint Julep was the king of early American drinks not just because it was as powerful as it was delicious, but because it was the first—the first to catch on, and, along with Ice Punch, the first to demand the use of ice. That 1770 date comes from two mentions, one when Robert Munford, of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, called one of the drunken planters in his satirical play, The Candidate, “Mr. Julip” (spelling was always relaxed when it came to Juleps), and another when the Williamsburg Virginia Gazette printed “A Short Poem on Hunting” by one “S. X.,” which has the hunters mount up for their morning fox-chase only with “the julep o’er, / Which doctors storm at, and which some adore.”
Now, they had been making things called Juleps in England for generations, but they were medicinal: thick syrups, only lightly alcoholic if at all, infused with medicinal herbs, roots, and the like. Camphor was the most common of these, making for something with all the seductive flavor of the common mothball. But, as Mr. X’s summation of medical opinion on the drink confirms, the Virginia Julep was something else entirely. The version the Rev. Harry Toulmin encountered in Norfolk in 1793 is typical: “a tumbler of rum and water, well sweetened, with a slip of mint in it.” Clearly, calling something like this a “Julep” is an example of the same sort of humor that labels a morning edible a “multivitamin.” Some earlier mentions show an even more rudimentary drink, without even the mint.
By the 1840s, however, the Mint Julep had developed into an exquisite construction of fine French brandy and Iberian wines (domestic whiskey had replaced rum during the Revolution and its aftermath, but it was soon shunted aside for more rarefied stuff), berries in season, and a whole forest of mint, not just a meager slip, all combined with a miniature mountain of shaved or finely pulverized ice. By tracking how it got that way, we can at least begin to outline the paths by which American drinks became the American Bar.
It began with ice. I don’t know when the Julep was first iced, but it was before May 4, 1807, when an advertisement for the Wig-Wam Gardens, also in Norfolk, included “Iced Julips” in the list of fine things its proprietor had on offer for the delectation of his guests. Virginia taverns such as J. Pryor’s Haymarket Inn in Richmond had begun including ice-houses among their outbuildings in the 1780s, which may give us a clue as to when the iced Julep began to spread, but many of the state’s large landholders had ice-houses even before that, and it was certainly a common piece of tipplers’ mythology from the Civil War until Prohibition that it was a Virginia aristocrat’s drink—as a bit of newspaper doggerel dedicated to the drink in 1906 put it, “Sir, the Julep is a gentleman’s drink / To be mixed by hands patrician.”
The only problem with the idea of some Virginia gent muddling mint and sugar in a splash of water in the bottom of a tall glass, hacking some lumps of ice off the block on the sideboard, dropping them into a tall glass, filling it up with old Maryland peach brandy or Barbados rum and sticking a bunch of mint in the top, thus creating the iced Julep, is the fact that, before the Civil War, no Southern gentleman or lady, and particularly no Virginia one, would lift finger one to mix himself or herself a drink, come hell or high water.
They had people for that. That’s what they called them: “my people.” What they meant by that, of course, was people who had to do what they said no matter what or be quite literally whipped for it; people whom they could buy and sell as if they weren’t people at all. People whose presence meant they themselves could avoid any manual labor, no matter how trivial it might be.
If there was any drink-mixing going on at those stately Virginia homes, it was black hands doing it. As the English traveler John Davis, who in 1800 spent some months teaching school on a Virginia plantation, put it, where others might set their hands to the plow, “the Virginian only inspects the work of his farm.” And in fact, “Old Dick,” one of the enslaved workers on that plantation, told Davis that in the years before the Revolution one of his responsibilities had been “mixing and tasting” his young enslaver’s Juleps when he called for them first thing in the morning (“he was for a short life and a merry one,” as Dick put it).
But it’s also possible that the iced Julep was first put together at one of those taverns. That some Virginia bartender came up with the process. If that’s where it happened, that bartender, too, might very well have been black. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of details of who was compounding the drinks in the typical 18th-century Virginia tavern, but what we do have suggests that while many bartenders—perhaps most—were white, some were black and enslaved (indeed, after the Juleps carried off his young enslaver Old Dick found himself sold to the keeper of a Georgia tavern, where he was “the only manservant” and “did the work of half a dozen,” presumably including working behind the bar), and there might have been a few who were black and free.
Certainly, if we move forward a couple of decades into the 19th century, we find that, in Virginia anyway, most of those who did build some kind of reputation for mixing drinks were African-American. In fact, between 1820 and the Civil War, there was a surprising number of black Virginian mixologists who made enough of a mark that we can excavate some details of their careers. Very few white Virginia bartenders could say the same thing; indeed, I can’t think of any.
These Virginians were not the first African-American mixologists to build public reputations. In 1803, Othello Pollard (1758 – ca. 1838), who had come up from Philadelphia, began serving Ice Punch and other delicacies to educated young swells at his “Attic Bower” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and advertising the fact in a series of remarkably witty, erudite notices (in English and Latin) placed in the Boston papers. His career there didn’t last long—he was off to Halifax by 1806, where he ended up spending his old age in penury—but it was brilliant and he was long remembered.
Cato Alexander (1780-1858), on the other hand, enjoyed a very long career. Born into slavery in New York, he gained his freedom and, at some point in 1811 or before, opened a roadhouse three miles from New York, just about where Second Avenue crosses 54 Street today. You’ll find more about him in the article linked above, but the great Irish actor Tyrone Power (the original one, not the movie star) summed up his mixological accomplishments ably: “Cato is a great man, foremost amongst cullers of mint, whether for Julep or Hail-storm [an early name for iced Julep; apparently, and unaccountably, not everyone wanted theirs that way]; second to no man as a compounder of cock-tail, and such a hand at a gin-sling!” He was also known for his Ice Punch, and no doubt made a fine Eggnog, too.
But as far as we can tell Cato came to the Julep fairly late, as did New York in general. Orsamus Willard, the white bartender of the City Hotel on Lower Broadway and Cato’s great rival as the preeminent practitioner of his profession in the city, used to tell people that he had mixed the “first Mint Julep made with ice… north of Virginia,” when a visiting “Virginia gentleman” taught him the “art.” That was supposedly in 1817, although the story only saw print in 1851. But Willard was a humble man with a great reputation for honesty, and there was probably more that a grain of truth in the tale. In any case, the first unambiguous mention of people drinking Juleps in the city comes from 1820.
By 1820, the Julep was a legacy in Virginia and had been adopted as an item of local identity. We have only occasional glimpses of the drink’s first acknowledged expert, Jasper Crouch, a Free Person of Color (as he identified himself) from Richmond.
I don’t know when Crouch was born (he died in 1860 and was buried by his friends in the city’s Jewish community). He was active by the 1820s, when he distinguished himself as the caterer—a role that encompassed both chef and mixologist—for two of Richmond’s most august social organizations. The Richmond Light Infantry Blues was the city’s silk-stocking militia regiment, and the Buchanan Spring Quoit Club, which met in a grove outside of town to toss quoits—four-pound brass rings—and eat and drink, was perhaps the most aristocratic sporting club in America. The bowls of Ice Punch Crouch made for both, with French brandy, Jamaican rum and “a dash of old Murdock Madeira,” were legendary, as were the Mint Juleps he served the Quoit Club.
In 1891, one old-timer told the New York Times about his visit to the club, back in 1828. Crouch kept refusing to serve the dinner because Chief Justice John Marshall, the club’s reigning member, was missing. Eventually he arrived, having ridden 30 miles to be there. When the other members crowded around to shake his hand, the 73-year-old Marshall said “I’d rather shake hands with that” and, taking the “tumbler of Mint Julep” (no doubt iced) that was being passed over their heads to him, “held [it] to his mouth ‘til the greens were dry.’” When Virginia waded in, it waded in heavy.
For a couple of these Julep experts, we know even less. About “Carter,” who kept the so-called “Hole in the Wall” bar in the Capitol building in Washington from around 1825 until it was eliminated in the building’s expansion in the mid-1850s, I have been able to find next to nothing, other than the fact that his bar was very, very popular with a certain percentage of the congressmen and senators. (We’ll count Washington as part of Virginia for drinking purposes, anyway; it was certainly home to a great many black Virginians, who settled there when the Commonwealth passed an ordinance forbidding emancipated enslaved people from remaining there for longer than a year after the date they gained their freedom unless they received special dispensation.)
Most of what we know about Robert Burwell, popular bartender in the 1850s at the Cabell House and the Norvell House in Lynchburg, the two finest bars in town, comes from his arrest in Pittsburgh as part of the entourage of a notorious forger, with whom he had been traveling as a friend and equal even though the man was technically his enslaver, having paid $1,500 dollars to get him out from behind the bar. But that’s another story.
While we don’t actually see Carter or Burwell mixing Juleps—their skill with the drink is implied, as it were, by their prominence—for William, who in 1857 was the “colored barkeeper” on the luxury Potomac steamer Baltimore, that’s all we see: we don’t even have his last name. According to a reporter from the Washington Evening Star, who witnessed the attractive power of those drinks on a group of dignitaries out for a pleasure excursion (at the end of the cruise they had to be practically dragged from William’s bar by hooks and ropes), he “knew a thing or two in his line, if not three or four, or five, or six.” Those things included not just what he put into his Juleps, but also the agility and grace with which he mixed them. But that’s the whole of his appearance in the historical record: one laudatory paragraph in the Evening Star.
About Jim Cook (ca. 1808 – 1870) and, especially, John Dabney (ca. 1824 – 1900), we know a whole lot more. Dabney has even received a tribute in Richmond, complete with civic dignitaries, surviving descendants, and even brand-sponsored Mint Juleps. Cook and Dabney were the top Julep artists of their day. In 1860, they were working at the Ballard House (also known as the Exchange Hotel), both of them enslaved but able to keep some of their earnings (a not-uncommon arrangement for those trapped in that cruel system who were fortunate enough to be able to develop special, marketable skills). Cook seems to have been the head bartender and chef and Dabney, already a skilled Julep-constructor in his own right, his assistant; like Jasper Crouch and Cato Alexander, Cook and Dabney were equally adept at drinks and food; theirs was a hard world, and it paid to do as many things well as one could.
In October of that year, the Prince of Wales stopped in Richmond during his tour of America. He gave the city one night, arriving in the late afternoon. As soon as he was settled, the day being a warm one, he desired refreshment. Enter Cook, “the best compounder of cooling drinks in the world,” as the prince had been told. The description of the Julep Cook constructed on the spot for him takes up more than 300 words in the published record of the prince’s trip. It was a communal drink, featuring basins, blocks and obelisks of ice with holes drilled in them for straws. There was a pint-and-a-half silver tumbler, and a bouquet of flowers. After taking a sip, the prince, who was something of a mixologist himself, and not a bad one, demanded full details from Cook. As soon as he and his party drained the first one, they asked for a second, and a third to be brought in the next morning. After draining that one, which was “very large,” they toured the city. The only thing the prince, the future Edward VII, later recalled of Richmond was Cook’s Julep.
After the war broke out, Cook and Dabney, though still enslaved, opened a series of bars, both together and with others (Cook appears to have been rather mercurial, and was involved in more than one stabbing affray in his life). In 1864, Cook slipped through the lines and escaped to Washington, although as soon as the war ended he was back in Richmond, making Juleps. Dabney, in the meanwhile, used his savings to purchase his freedom and that of his wife. After the war, he paid the outstanding part of his debt even though there was no legal compulsion to. This earned him customers among Richmond’s white elite for the rest of his life. When Cook died his brother the Rev. Fields Cook, an African Methodist Episcopal minister in Alexandria, inherited one of his prime possessions: a daguerreotype of that royal Julep. (Who knows? It might still exist.)
The journey the Mint Julep travelled between the lukewarm, basic (in every sense of the word) drink they handed Harry Toulmin in Norfolk and the nectareous tour de force Jim Cook built for the Prince of Wales, is the journey made by American mixology in general, not just in Virginia but in the marble pleasure-palaces of New York and Philadelphia and New Orleans. It raises the fundamental question of influence: were these African-American bartenders and caterers following the fashions being set in the country’s burgeoning urban centers, or was it the other way around?
There is some evidence that suggests that New York was following Virginia. It comes from the 1830s, when the Iced Julep underwent a complete makeover. The new improved version had a name: “Hailstorm” or “Hailstone” Julep, where the glass didn’t just have a couple of largish lumps of ice in it, but was packed with little “hailstones” of ice, or—soon after—with snow ice made by pounding lumps of ice with a mallet (no Virginia gentleman would have malleted his ice, like a common carpenter). We first see this innovation in an 1832 letter the Baltimore lawyer John H. B. Latrobe wrote from a resort in White Sulphur Springs, Virginia (“It is nectar, they say, in this part of the country.”
By 1837, word of this innovation had filtered north. “What a pity ’tis,” wrote the Morning Herald in the midst of a June heat-wave, “that the manufacture of Juleps is not understood to the north of Mason and Dixon’s line. Will some of our southern friends give us a recipe?” The challenge was answered a year later—a long time to wait for a drink—when John B. Wood opened a basement bar at the corner of Wall and Nassau streets, claiming that he was the “original inventor of the real Virginia Julep,” and that “before his snow-capped Juleps the gloomy reflections of time vanish into thin air.”
I don’t know anything about Wood, not his age, his origin or his race. In Washington, D.C., at least, the new Julep was chiefly represented, in the form of “Walker’s Alpine Straw Julep,” by William Walker, who went on to become the richest African-American man in the District. Was the Hailstorm Julep, which brought a new level of sophistication to American mixology (it wasn’t just the ice, it was the mingled wines and spirits, the artistic garnishes, and the whole air of luxury that came with it), an African- American creation?
I can’t prove it and perhaps nobody can, as we simply have too little data on the lines of influence in the Big Bang years of American mixology, and in particular for the early part of them; too few descriptions of the drinks Jasper Crouch was mixing in Richmond and Carter in his Hole in the Wall in Washington. But I suspect that the African-American influence traveled the same way as it did in Southern cooking, or in American music, and that, as in those things, it was so high you can’t get over it, so deep you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t go around it.
When that visiting Virginian taught Willard of the City Hotel how to make individual iced Juleps, he brought Virginia to New York, and the Virginia of that time was a place where—as Philip Morgan shows in Slave Counterpoint, his monumental 1998 study of slavery and the societies it created in eighteenth century Virginia and South Carolina—very few things were purely European or purely African.
In any case, after the Civil War, the Julep began to fade in importance as the iced Cocktail took its place. Juleps were just too strong, unless you devoted an afternoon to drinking one. Nobody had that kind of time anymore. It was still popular in the hot weather, but it had to share its dominion with various Fizzes and Collinses and Coolers and such. In the war-ravaged Old South, the expensive imported brandy and rum that had made the Virginia Julep so smooth, complex and seductive were replaced with bourbon whiskey.
Eventually, that temporary substitute also became an item of Southern identity, although if you were in Washington you could still get a real Virginia Julep at Hancock’s, the odd little place on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Dick Francis (1826-1888), born a Free Person of Color in Virginia, had been making them since the 1840s. And if you thought Washington uninhabitable in the summer and preferred the cooler climate of White Sulphur Springs, now in West Virginia, where rich Virginians had been summering for decades, you could have “Julep Jacob” Stannard (ca. 1840-1892) mix you up one in the grand style, with all the bells and whistles; he’d been making them that way since before the war. Hell, why not take a carriage and go see John Dabney himself, 16 miles away at “Old Sweet”—Sweet Springs, West Virginia—who still had the knowhow and only stopped mixing in the late 1890s?
Even as the last generation born into slavery was fading from the picture, the Julep remained an African-American specialty. In 1913, when Theodore Roosevelt sued an editorial writer who had said that he was frequently drunk since leaving the White House, he testified that he was a very occasional drinker at most, and that though he liked the occasional Mint Julep, while president he had drunk perhaps half a dozen of them a year, made by the White House’s African-American steward, Henry Pinckney (ca. 1861 – 1911), and in the four years since leaving it he had only had tasted Juleps twice: “on one occasion at the Country Club in St. Louis,” where he drank “part of a glass,” and again in Little Rock, where he took a sip from a passed “loving cup” of the drink.
This testimony caused some disbelief, since Thomas Washington “Tom” Bullock (1872-1964), the club’s bartender, was widely regarded as a Julep expert, and those who had had one from his hands found it inconceivable that anyone could take a couple of sips and not finish the thing. But Bullock, the son of a freedman, marks the end of a tradition. The Mint Julep didn’t survive Prohibition except as a once-a-year piece of Southern ritual, and with its passing the direct African-American influence on American mixology went into remission.
Well, except for the Stone Sour. In 1988, Sardi’s Bar Guide, the indispensable record of the Dark Ages of American drinking, identified this characteristic 1970s drink as “of course” a “Sour with the addition of orange juice.” It came in two main varieties: the Rum Stone Sour, with white rum, and—here I’ll add another “of course”—the Amaretto Stone Sour.
If you look through all the standard bar books, going back to Jerry Thomas in 1862, eventually you find that there was a gin-based Stone Sour as early as 1914, but without orange juice. Versions of this pop up occasionally in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, still without the orange. Then, in 1972, the O.J.-and-Bacardi version starts appearing in the Chicago suburbs, whence it spreads to the rest of the Midwest, California, and eventually Sardi’s, right there on little old West 44 Street. Back in Greater Chicago, it apparently began as a golf course and country-club drink, but beyond that its origin was unknown.
There’s one other book, however, where you find a Stone Sour with orange juice: the Ideal Bartender from 1917. Its author? Tom Bullock. (It’s the first book of its kind written by an African-American.) You’ll find the drink right there on page 48, based on gin, not white rum, but served as a long drink just like they did it in the 1970s.
Were those 1970s suburban bartenders consulting Bullock’s book? It is a very rare volume, and always has been. But Bullock worked at the St. Louis Country Club, and before that at the Kenton Club in his native Louisville and perhaps the Pendennis Club there (Jacques Straub, who recorded the Stone Sour back in 1914, also worked at the Pendennis, but the O.J. is Bullock’s alone). It’s possible the volume traveled from country club to country club, and sat there on the shelf above the bar until someone pulled it down and gave the drink a spin. It’s also quite possible that some country-club bartender whom Bullock, an acknowledged expert of his craft, had trained was still behind the bar in 1970, or someone trained by someone Bullock trained (Bullock himself seems to have left the trade with Prohibition). In any case, it was Bullock’s drink, or at least the Bacardi or Amaretto versions of it, that became one of the touchstones of Disco-era drinking. Between the Virginia Mint Julep and the Amaretto Stone Sour, I figure that’s got most of American mixology covered. And hell, he lived almost long enough for me to have thanked him in person. That would have been a start.