In honor of Black History Month (and also just because it’s a fascinating part of alcohol’s history in the US), the biddies dive into the history of African American ‘barkeeps’ (bartenders) and mixologists. Tune in to learn about some of the unfortunately lesser-known individuals who have left a lasting mark on cocktail culture – and also about some cool efforts to honor them and support BIPOC mixologists today.

Photo is a sketch of R.R. Bowie, President of the Mixologists Club


Tom Bullock’s The Ideal Bartender Cocktail Book

Episode 51: Uncle Nearest Whiskey – our most listened to episode, ever.


Calla: Old Fashioned with Uncle Nearest Whiskey

Kara: Twilight Cocktail with Uncle Nearest Whiskey (recipe in Tom Bullock’s The Ideal Bartender)



Study Notes for History of Black Bartenders:


  • Black people have been mixing drinks in America since earliest days of European colonization and after the revolution, saloon-keeping was one of the few occupations open to free blacks in America 
  • Just putting this here so I remember who he is – David Wondrich – cocktail columnist for Esquire Magazine 
  • Mixologist Club founded in Washington DC in 1898
    • Founded by Robert R. Bowie (president) and J. Burke Edelin (vice president)
    • “Elite guild of the finest Black bartenders in the district”
    • Professional mixologists and would mix cocktails for big-time events such as one hosted by the National Colored Person Liberty League with 5,000 attendees
  • Really great article by Emily Bell for VinePair points out that the Mixologist Club predates the 21st C resurgence of the term mixology, and that we also tend to think of mixologists as white dudes in flannel shirts with great beards, which is surprising given how much attention mixology pays to history
  • DC’s segregation laws lead to a number of black-owned bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs
    • Philadelphia House, Academy Restaurant, Gray and Costley and Sparta Buffet
  • Mixology also had a more elevated appeal at a time when people of color’s use of alcohol was otherwise often associated with “lawlessness and vice”
  • Bartending, as it is today, is a well learned craft and at the time there were only rudimentary books so it was a difficult skill to master coupled by grueling hours and the physical strain that comes with it
    • Saloons tended to be “populated by a raffish crowd of dissipated clerks, ward heelers, police-court lawyers, avant la lettre trustafarians, newspaperman, hand-shakers, drink-cadgers, gamblers, pimps, confidence men, stock-jobbers and suchlike avoided by the conscientious and the respectable”
    • Saloons could turn into gun and knife fights only adding to stress
  • Interesting the respect given between the South and North

BLACK MIXOLOGY PIONEERS (per Emily Bell’s article)

  • Cato Alexander 
    • New York City, born into slavery in 1780
    • Freed by the State’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, began working at inns and restaurants
    • 1810 opened his own bar and inn and named it after himself: Cato’s located at 54th and 2nd
    • Made a name for himself – New York newspaper published “who has not heard of Cato Alexander?” in 1835
  • John Dabney
    • Born into slavery in 1824, became famous for his mint juleps, serving them at a resort Sweet Springs in West Virgina
    • Made enough money off of his “Julep a la Dabney” that he was able to purchase freedom for himself and his wife
    • Acknowledged in th newspaper as the city’s “cunningest compounder of beverages and the most skillful architect of pyramidal adornments and floral and fruit garniture”
      • Only rivaled by another black bartender Jim Cook who got the Prince of Wales drunk off of them and later he mentioned it was the Prince’s fondest memory of the city
      • Even the top two bartenders of the time Jerry Thomas and William Schmidt were treated with amused condescension after they died, both horribly poor (they were white)
  • Tom Bullock
    • Wrote the first cocktail book by an African American, published in 1917: The Ideal Bartender
      • An alphabetical catalogue of historic, meticulously constructed cocktails like the Horse Thief Cocktail and the Free Love Cocktail, both featuring Old Tom Gin
      • Intro to the book actually written by George Herbert Walker, grandfather of George HW Bush
      • Editorial in St. Louis Post-Dispatch when (then) Col. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t finish one of Bullock’s Mint Juleps due to the temperance movement
  • Uncle Dick Francis
    • Born into slavery in Virginia in 1827, began working at Hancock’s on 12th Street and Penn Ave DC, not far from the White House. So well-known that he was asked to bartend for the US Senate after the Civil War
    • Considered a bartender more than a “Julep-making robot” who would converse regularly with his customers and created regulars
    • President pro tempore of the Senate George F. Edmunds made sure that when the lucrative position of managing that institution’s private restaurant open opening
      • He died 4 years later, illiterate, but left his family a fortune in Washington real estate and watched his son in possession of a medical degree from the University of MIchigan
  • Jasper Crouch
    • In Richmond, VA the Quoit Club was a place that brought together 30 of the city’s leading citizens including Chief Justice John Marshall of the US Supreme Court every other Saturday from May to October
    • A black freed man who presided over all the catering and cooking
    • Known for his particular and unparalleled expertise in Punch-making
      • Leading even some patrons to say its how they acquired gout and gained weight
  • A lot of these bartenders succeeded in times of segregation and struggle due to the admiration from white patrons. This is no way is meant to validate their existence but it’s noticeable that in open communities, there was a sense of warmth and kind treatment that wasn’t typical in most locations at the time. Fascinating that most who had won the admiration and affection where from the white clientele who were some of the system’s biggest stakeholders
    • Cato’s marriage write up in the NY Evening Post
    • Jasper Crouch’s proper funeral, burial plot and headstone


  • Louis Deal
    • In 1892 a man named Frank Beck opened a hotel in Cincinnati called the Atlas Hotel but his head bartender super sucked and was not reliable
    • Replaced his bartender with Louis Deal who was one of his waiters that he trusted
    • Beck was white and so was his clientele. Louis Deal was black.
    • Many bartenders and industry individuals boycotted this and stole the clientele causing a major financial situation
    • George Bear – one of the white bar keeps in the city – gave him an ultimatum. Either fire Deal or they would ramp up their efforts to slander the Atlas Hotel 
    • He did just that – let him go. His business was still closed anyway. 
    • White bartenders were threatened and found it to be an insult that they were engaged in the same business
      • Bear had said he wasn’t racist and it wasnt a matter of personal spite but of self protection
      • The pressure from recovering from intense temperance movements made white bartenders territorial both with this professionals and skill they created but also their position and society
      • Black labor was viewed as “unskilled labor” in any role while bartenders were trying to grow and/or maintain status as “skilled labor” like watch makers or photographers
  • Al Strickland
    • Charles Shere’s saloon in Indianapolis
    • 1891 – said to be the only black bartender in the city
    • The clientele was grudging at best
  • Benjamin Skeeckels
    • Cudahy, WI (outside Milwaukee)
    • Was hired by the town’s ex-supervisor thinking the city was be more open to him then other encounters
    • The town tried to lynch Benjamin but he was able to escape so the citizens demolished the saloon
  • Hattie Carroll
    • Baltimore’s Hotel Emerson – 1963
    • William Zantzinger who was shitfaced drunk at the bar began striking her with the toy cane he was carrying and abused her in the most vile racially charged language but she continued to make his bourbon and ice
    • The beating caused a stroke that eventually would kill her


  • In 2018, Kapri Robinson of Reliable Tavern in Petworth launched Chocolate City’s Best, a cocktail competition for BIPOC talent in the DC region
  • Audra Johnson, managing partner of Latin American cocktail bar Seranata co-founded DMV Black Restaurant Week
    • Also has the R.R. Bowie Cocktail Competition launched in 2018 as part of Black Restaurant Week – brings together bartenders of color who might not have the opportunity to compete in more mainstream events
      • Named after the Mixologist Club’s president – “The idea was to build the confidence for younger or newer bartenders, but also pay homage to the fact that we’re not new to this,” she says. “We’ve been here.”