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Behind the Bottle

A history of Black mixology

From Bullock to Barriere

The most passionate cocktail connoisseurs can tell you everything they know about their favorite bourbon: where it comes from, how it should be sipped, which ice (if any) works best, and the bartender who perfected the recipe. 

The best sips need a story. Space to move around, gesticulate, and interrupt your friends (in a nice way) to tell them about the *chef’s kiss* exquisite Cabernet that changed everything. The best sips also require a healthy dash of science and history – as such, every good history book remembers to talk about the unsung heroes. 

In the world of mixology, that sentiment goes to the Black bartenders whose impact within – and outside – the world of booze too often goes unnoticed. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone boasting the title of mixologist is a white dude named Scot (with one “T”) with a cocktail umbrella tattooed on his forearm. Black mixologists have been making history (and great drinks) for generations, with their influence touching the beverage world beyond wine, beer, liquor, and other social spirits.

Tom Bullock, born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1872, was a Black American bartender working at the St. Louis Country Club before the Prohibition era of the 1920s. Bullock was born only a few years after the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification when the barriers between Black Americans and the then-coveted position of a bartender were insurmountable. Bartenders were seen as prestigious community members, and Black folks doing fantastic work in the industry still weren’t acknowledged as fitting the bill. Bullock created drinks for government officials, and Southern elites, and was rumored to have stirred up a few of his famous mint juleps for Teddy Roosevelt.

Bullock would write “The Ideal Bartender,” becoming the first African American to publish a cocktail book with the title’s 1917 launch. His book would be one of the last cocktail manuals published before the onset of Prohibition and continues to be a resource to mixologists today. 

Robert R. Bowie founded The Mixologist Club (often called The Black Mixology Club) in 1898 as a professional association of Black bartenders in Washington D.C. The club members were recognized as “men of excellent repute” in a November 1900 issue of the Colored American, a weekly Washington D.C. newspaper published from 1893 to 1904. These men were highly respected as masters of their craft and shared a fraternal space to uplift one another and further contribute to the art of mixology. 

Black bartenders, mixologists, and alcohol brand owners are still innovating within the industry today and shaking things up through whole new platforms.

More than 100 years later, Tiffanie Barriere combined her love of people and booze to make the perfect career as a bartender, educating others on the practice of mixology through the lens of storytelling. She has built a community of apprentice mixologists and drinks enthusiasts through her social media presence (@thedrinkingcoach) and has acted as a guest judge on Netflix’s Drink Masters

Barriere describes the importance of acknowledging Black history in the mixology space: “We tend to bring where we’ve come from to what we do. The resilience and the style of how we perform, our love of agriculture and healing and tonic and our celebration style.”

Thandi Walton of @ThandiPoursCocktails discovered mixology as a college student after passing by a local bar in Atlanta, Georgia, and becoming enthralled by the movement and experimentation behind the bar. She describes her experience as a Black mixologist with its unique ups and downs. “It is a male-dominated industry, white male for that matter. So you had times where you butted heads as a Black girl. As a strong Black girl. An African girl.” Walton is currently the Head of Beverage at Thompson Buckhead, a new luxury hotel in Atlanta, and has been featured in Forbes and Food & Wine magazine.

When Jack Summers launched Sorel Liqueur in 2012, he became the only Black person in America with a license to make liquor and the first Black person to hold this license post-prohibition. In a 2021 interview with Brooklyn Magazine, Summers shared, “the best thing I can do, not just for my business but for my industry as well, and perhaps society at large, is to teach about the nature of marginalization.” This mission led him to serve as the co-chair of the Education Committee for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to educate the communities it serves on spirits history and advance the industry.

Pronghorn research reports that Black Americans represent 12% of alcohol consumers in the United States yet make up only 7.8% of workers within the industry and hold just 2% of the spirit industry’s executive positions. Acknowledging the history of Black mixology is a great way to push the industry forward while learning more about your favorite spirits. Celebrating the contributions Black people have made to the culture, business, and history of mixology is crucial to creating a more equitable future for everyone who appreciates a great drink.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Hardy

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