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In the Cups: The Heritage That’s In Your Glass

In the Cups: The Heritage That’s In Your Glass


African American historical, modern, and local ties are behind some of your favorite cocktails

Next time you’re at the bar pondering life over your cocktail, consider the lives that are behind your drink. In many cases, what you are imbibing has deep linkages to celebrated Black distillers and mixologists. 

One of the best-known of these is our country’s first master distiller, Nearest Green. Thanks to a 2016 New York Times article and subsequent published work from other historians, many drinkers are aware that he is largely responsible for the creation of the iconic Jack Daniels whisky brand. 

Green was given little, if any, credit for decades. He gained his distilling expertise during a time when enslaved individuals often manned stills because it was considered dirty and even dangerous work. He mentored a young Jack Daniel and developed a friendship over the years. When Daniels founded his distillery, he named Green as the master distiller. 

African American influence on historical cocktails

Have you ever enjoyed a mint julep at a Kentucky Derby party? According to mixologist historian David Wondrich, it may have been an enslaved plantation worker, southern bartender, or a combination of both who were responsible. They likely evolved the drink into what was known both as a gentleman’s drink and a Southern sensation. Jasper Crouch, of Richmond, Virginia was acknowledged as the first Mint Julep expert.

Wondrich’s work also references several Black southern mixologists who made a name for themselves serving the public. Cato Alexander was a freed slave who earned renown for his saloon keeping in New York City. He built his reputation serving Iced Punch among other options, and his drinks were so popular they played a role in creating the word cocktail.

One of the most well-regarded, though rare, cocktail recipe folios was written by a black mixologist. The Ideal Bartender was written by Louisville Kentucky’s Tom Bullock, who was born after slavery and practiced pre-prohibition bartending His book is a standard reference for anyone curious about pre-prohibition imbibing habits of the time. 

Interestingly, Bullock and his book each have presidential ties. Bullock was involved in a liable case, regarding comments he made about the mint julp drinking habits of President Theodore Roosevelt, following Roosevelt’s term in office. Bullock’s book was written with a forward by southern businessman George Walker Bush, whose grandson and great-grandson later occupied the Oval Office. 

Modern impacts on Front Range distilling and mixology

There are several African American bartenders currently upholding the tradition of Bullock, Alexander, and others, locally. One of them is one of the country’s top bartenders and is a Black woman with a strong Colorado connection. Emma Alexander began her career as a bartender before moving on to spirits distribution. She became Beverage Director for Bonanno Concepts between 2019 and 2022 while also founding and hosting the state’s local chapter of Women Who Whiskey. Her time spent behind the bar began at a time when having an African American female bartender was considered more unique, and now involves a much more open and versatile landscape. Since leaving Denver, she has focused on her cocktail service consulting company, EHA Consultants.

In Colorado one particular distiller that is still operating stands out for its historical connections to the state’s African American communities – Rising Sun Distillery owned by Dawn and Dawn and operating out of a Zuni Street location. They craft more than ten varieties of spirits and have medaled at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. 

Sol Richardson’s grandfather owned a saloon in the 80’s and 90’s but also was instrumental in establishing the area’s first Juneteenth celebration and in supporting social justice and entrepreneurship. The pair keeps that tradition alive today by supporting local charities and keeping social justice and equal opportunity as a core part of their company’s values.

These were two examples we could find locally, and to be honest, we wished there were more. But we’re holding out hope for a future that embraces creative ways to articulate the strong but still under-appreciated African American influences. We’d love to see these on the front range, and for people to be talking about the deeper stories of how and why their drinks came to be.  



Deborah Cameron
Deb brings a passion for community journalism and for the local food scene. She started out as an intern and over the years grew into our current Cuisine Editor. She has appeared in multiple publications including the Longmont Leader, The Left Hand Valley Courier, Ms. Mayhem, Finance101, and Ask.com. When not writing she's eating, road tripping, dog-parking, or watching high school softball. She moved to Colorado from Seattle in the early 2000s after spending a year traveling the U.S. in a teal Ford Escort hatchback. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, and a rescue dog named Charlie.

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