Cocktail historians are obsessive people. They research the provenance of a drink, down to the name of the bartender who first concocted it in a long-ago-demolished saloon. Even with a genuine 1930s recipe in hand, they’ll argue about whether the cocktail being created is in fact the “true” version of a drink, since the composition of the ingredients has changed over time.
But they’re also good at digging up really fascinating tales that otherwise would be forgotten. Such as this one: Before Prohibition, most of the bartenders in Washington were African American. And unlike today, when bartending can be viewed as something you do to make money while searching for a “real” career, bartending was viewed as a path to respectability and social access.
Take Dick Francis. Born a slave, he became a bartender at a place called Hancock’s at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Hancock’s was famous for its cocktails and fried chicken, and was a hot spot for politicians from the mid-19th century until 1914, when it closed. Francis made friends with heavy-hitting congressmen while serving the bar’s famous “Hell and Blazes” cocktails. Francis had the ear of the powerful decades before he would have been allowed to vote. After the Civil War, Francis became the bartender and manager of the U.S. Senate’s bar.
Francis’s story is just one you’ll hear May 10 at the Howard Theatre, when the Museum of the American Cocktail hosts “D.C. Toasts: The Black Mixology Club” as part of World Cocktail Week.
“We need to get these stories out there,” says Duane Sylvester, the top-notch bartender at Bourbon Steak. Sylvester is African American, and began discussing the topic with cocktail historian David Wondrich at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans. Wondrich’s research had turned up fascinating details about Washington, including the existence of the Black Mixology Club, a professional organization for bartenders.
During the tribute, bartenders throughout the Howard Theatre will prepare historic drinks, such the Flower Pot Punch, a potent mix of rum, grenadine, pineapple, lemon and lime that was a popular libation at Hancock’s. They’ll tell you about the unsung craftsmen who plied their trade in downtown saloons and U Street speakeasies.
And the Chuck Brown Band will perform, to help you remember it’s a party, not just a history lesson.
Organizers will present the “Tom Bullock Award for Distinguished Service” to a bartender who has done charitable or social work in the community. Its namesake was a black bartender who worked in St. Louis and wrote a cocktail guide called “The Ideal Bartender” in 1917. It was the first cocktail book written by an African American, and the introduction was penned by St. Louis civic leader George Herbert Walker, the grandfather of former president George H.W. Bush. “I doubt that [Francis] has erred in even one of his concoctions,” Walker wrote.
High praise indeed — but all the more remarkable considering the era in which the book was written.
Sylvester is paying his own tribute to Bullock next week, adapting a “boozy” libation called Curacao Punch from Bullock’s book. “It’s sweet and colorful and delicious, and lavishly garnished,” Sylvester says. “It’s simple, but . . . I think people are going to be surprised by the quality of these drinks.”
After the last drops have been poured at the Howard, Sylvester hopes the event “starts a conversation and keeps it going.” He talked with Colin Asare-Appiah, of Bacardi Brands, at Tales of the Cocktail about developing a mentoring program “for people who were uncomfortable with the stereotypes” of bartenders in the overwhelmingly white cocktail scene, Sylvester says.
“If I’m a young person, and I look behind the bar and see a hipster with a curly mustache and rolled-up sleeves, I can’t relate to that.”
For now, though, the focus will be on booze and fun. “We [cocktail aficionados] tend to geek out when there’s history involved, but this is a party,” Sylvester says. “There’s music, there’s dancing, there’s alcohol — it’s a celebration of the city.”
May 10 at 9 p.m.
The Howard Theatre,
620 T St. NW. 202-803-2899. www.dctoasts.com.