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It's Mint Julep season-the perfect time to talk about the Black bartenders who invented it.

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

art work courtesy of the Daily Beast

Last year I wrote about the history of the Mint Julep here, since then I have become better educated, thanks to writers like David Wondrich. His article "The Lost African-American Bartenders Who Invented the Cocktail" is a must-read for any cocktail lover. You can read his well-researched and beautifully written article from the Daily Beast here .

If you can't get to it, or you''d prefer a condensed version so you can get to your cocktail faster, here is my lame attempt at a summary:

While it has been well established that the Mint Julep most likely originated in eighteenth century Virginia, David Wondrich makes a convincing argument in his article that most likely the people mixing Mint Juleps for wealthy white Virginians were slaves, and they most likely invented the Mint Julep as we know it today. He writes about several pre-Civil War black mixologists, who became quite famous in their day for their skills and were most likely responsible for converting what was once a medicinal tasting drink into the refreshing minty cocktail we know it as today.

Othello Pollard (1758-ca-1838) moved from Philadelphia to Cambridge where he opened the "Attic Bower". He served "Iced Punch ( a Philadelphia specialty) and "other delicacies" to young students and gentlemen. He even advertised his Attic bar (Charlotte Perriand anyone?) in the Boston papers. Cato Alexander(1780-1858) was born into slavery but became freed at some point. By 1811 he had made his way to New York CIty, where he opened a roadhouse. It quickly became one of the most popular bars in the city and Cato one of the most admired bartenders, known for his Juelps and Iced punch.

Jasper Crouch, who referred to himself as a free man of color, was well- known in 1820's Richmond where he was both the chef and bartender at the city's poshest clubs; The Richmond Light Infantry Blues Club and the Quoit Club. He was already considered the pre-eminent expert at Juleps but was equally known for his Iced Punch Crouch made with French brandy, Jamaican rum, and Madeira.(Sign me up!) Then there was someone named Carter who ran the bar called "The Hole in the Wall" in the Capitol building in Washington DC. Tragically the bar was demolished when the building was renovated in 1850. One has to wonder if our government would be as partisan today if some version of the "Hole in the Wall" still existed in the Capitol... Jim Cook (ca1808-1870) and John Dabney (1824-1900) were two more legendary black mixologists who worked together and for whom much more autobiographical information exists. They were so famous for their Juleps, that they were even visited by the Prince of Wales in 1860. John Dabney recently received a tribute from the city of Richmond, attended by his descendants. (Mint Juleps were served.) Both men were enslaved while tending bar but were allowed to keep a small portion of their earnings. Amazingly they managed to open a series of bars during the Civil War! They made enough money that Dabney used his earnings to buy freedom for himself and his wife, while Cook escaped to Washington DC. Tom Bullock (1872-1964)was another influential African American mixologist, publishing the cocktail book, "The Ideal Bartender" in 1917. David Wondrich is convinced that it is Tom Bullock who is responsible for the Stone Sour and the Amaretto Sour cocktails. These "disco-era" cocktails have long been rumored to have gotten their start at country clubs in the mid-west. Tom Bullock worked for many years at a country club in Louisville Kentucky, this combined with the fact that his cocktail book is the only one containing a recipe for these sours using orange juice has Wondrich convinced that suburban mid-west bartenders were either consulting his book or had been trained by Bullock or one of his protoges.

It's almost five o' clock- so I'm going to end with David Wondrich's summation- its too perfect to paraphrase.

"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." The Lost African-American Bartenders Who Created the Cocktail, David Wondrich writing for the Daily Beast March 7, 2020 You can read it here

After reading about all these mouth watering Iced-Punches and Mint Juelps, you're probably thirsty, so below is our recipe for a classic Mint Julep. Get ready to break out that ice-crusher.

While a silver tumbler isn’t required, crushed or cracked ice is. If you don't have the classic julep glass, an old fashioned glass will work just fine.

Peppermint is the mint of choice (-not spearmint which has a stronger minty, almost medicinal flavor.) In the bottom of your glass, muddle a few fresh mint leaves with agave nectar, simple syrup, or sugar and a little water.

Fill the glass with crushed ice and fill with bourbon. Stir the drink until the exterior is coated with ice, and garnish with a mint sprig. We like 4 Roses- since this drink is associated with the Kentucky Derby.

Don't forget to fondle your mint sprig, releasing the mint aroma and enhancing the flavors of the cocktail. Sip and enjoy the minty aroma of this ice cold and refreshing beverage .


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