BIPOC bartenders shake it up

With bars and restaurants closed around the country, the feeling of plopping down in a seat at the bar after a long week of work is one many people are missing while living under COVID-19. A good drink is the foundation of many a Friday night, whether it’s a fun night out or a relaxing night in. But few people think about the hands making the drinks. Culture Shakers, a new short film by Storm Saulter aims to tell the little-known history of BIPOC in the cocktail industry by highlighting the Black and Latinx mixologists in Gentleman Jack’s Culture Shakers program.

“Every cocktail comes from somewhere,” said Davíd Leon Jr., a Chicago-based mixologist who could be frequently seen behind the bar at The Walk In in Logan Square.

Leon is Puerto Rican and one of six bartenders from around the country chosen to be a “Culture Shaker.” When making a new drink, Leon loves to call on his Carribean heritage, with many of his go-tos using taíno ingredients. Each Culture Shaker included one of their own original drinks in a virtual cookbook. Leon’s drink is called “Anansi” and uses Gentleman Jack, lime juice, grilled banana cinnamon dem, allspice-infused aquafaba, and Angostura bitters.

The film follows each of the Culture Shakers in their respective cities—from Chicago to Miami to Seattle—as they talk about their personal journeys, their favorite drinks, and what it means to be a mixologist of color in an industry that is still predominantly white.

“My goal was with each city to create a portrait of a mixologist and their city, and they try to embody that in a special cocktail,” Saulter says.

Saulter was born in Negril, Jamaica, and is an award-winning filmmaker. His second feature film, Sprinter, swept the 2018 American Black Film Festival, winning “Best Director,” “Best Narrative Feature,” and the “Audience Award.”

Saulter, Leon, and I speak over a Zoom call on a Friday afternoon. Leon tells me his favorite drink is a daiquiri, while Saulter loves anything with coconut. Saulter says the film is an ode to the cultures that created some of the most popular drinks today, from coquito to rum punch.

“It’s much more about the histories of the individuals and what they’re bringing creatively,” Saulter says. “It’s framing the cocktail as something that is embodying not only flavors, but histories and movements.”

Leon says that he’s often the only person of color when he enters a popular bar, pub, or cocktail lounge. He adds that many Black or Brown mixologists don’t have mentors in the industry who can guide them to success. Leon says being a Culture Shaker has provided him with a refreshing change.

“I was in a room of badasses and everyone was a person of color,” he says. “It’s a rare feeling in this industry.”

The history of people of color in bartending is one that is grossly overlooked, especially that of African Americans. David Wondrich, who is widely hailed as one of the foremost historians and writers on the history of cocktails, wrote in The Bitter Southerner that “Black people have been mixing drinks in America since the earliest days of European colonization.” Wondrich writes that bartending was one of the few areas where Black Americans could find success and autonomy, despite being enslaved or subjugated. In fact, the invention of the cocktail itself has recently been credited to Black bartenders across the south who created the Mint Julep, which eventually became a national sensation, and thus invented modern mixology

Leon says the erasure of Black and Brown people from the history books is no surprise.

“Who do you think was making the punch back then for that slave owner?” Leon says. “It’s not giving credit where credit is due.”

Saulter adds that the U.S. is in a period of self-reflection, one that he hopes will lead to a better appreciation of the contributions that marginalized communities have made to this country. 2020 saw the United States in months of civil unrest over police violence and institutional racism. This led to efforts across industries to support Black and Brown communities, including moves to recognize POC already in the food and beverage industry and do more than make performative statements.

“The world has a history of exploitation . . . and we have to actively change the narrative,” Saulter says. “This [film] felt more than just making something about a product. A cocktail can be infused with history, infused with agency, a story with taste and feeling.”

Due to the restraints of COVID-19, Saulter says that he had to act as a “remote director,” employing film crews to different parts of the country to film the Culture Shakers and directing the scenes virtually. Similarly, Leon says the pandemic has changed the food and beverage industry irreparably. Nearly seven million jobs were lost in the U.S. solely from bars and restaurants shuttering or being closed due to the spread of the coronavirus, something that hit Black- and Brown-owned businesses the hardest. Yet Leon remains hopeful.

“We will bounce back,” he says. “It’s something we’ve done time and time again, no matter what person of color you are or where you come from, we have a history of beating the odds and coming back.”   v

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