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Black BOURBON History Month

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

DBC Newsletter 2/19/2021 Black History


When you think about the cocktail scene and mixologists today, the image that often pops into your head is a curly mustached hipster wearing the vintage hat and his grandad's suspenders. But for Black History Month, I'm highlighting the Black bartenders that led in the industry in its infancy as bar culture was taking off in America.

We started the month off discussing Tom Bullock, who is credited with inventing the Old Fashioned cocktail and honed his bartending repertoire at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, KY.

Tom Bullock

He published the first cocktail book written by a Black American in 1917 titled The Ideal Bartender, with a foreword by none other than George Herbert Walker—grandfather of President Bush 41. Bullock was born in the generation after Emancipation, and while he faced racism, he had forebearers who rose to prominence despite not even having their own freedom.

John Dabney

John "Hail Storm" Dabney was a Richmond bartender extraordinaire who purchased his wife's freedom off the tips he earned making his famous Mint Juleps.

John Dabney

Born an enslaved man to the DeJarnettes of Richmond, VA in the 1820s, Dabney worked in the kitchen as a child and alongside the bartending and catering staff. There he developed a taste for food and spirits, and it served him well. He went on to work at the restaurant owned by members of the DeJarnette family, and he eventually became head waiter at age 18. Dabney moved on to work at the Columbian Hotel, blocks away from the Capitol, where his mint juleps became as famous as his charming banter behind the bar.

What was the magic? He'd take blocks of ice that were shipped in, and used a carpenter's plane to shave it into frosty mounds. Add to that whiskey, sugar, and fresh mint and you have his famous "Hail Storm" julep! He was even recognized by the city of Richmond with an engraved silver cup for his "Champion Juleps". Dabney also worked at other resorts and hotels like Sweet Springs, Ballard House, and Exchange Hotel. Sweet Springs continued to serve the "Julep a la Dabney" for years, always presented in a tall silver goblet with a silver straw and garnished with fruits and flowers to leisure guests just like Dabney did.

Though enslaved, "Hail Storm" Dabney was allowed to make tips by law, and he was already paying off his freedom in the 1850s when his pregnant wife was set up for sale by another Virginian. He was able to leverage his skill & charisma to help bring his family together and keep them that way, a phenomenal feat before the Civil War in the South.

He is celebrated today with renewed vigor for his work and innovation in the hospitality industry. Despite his beginnings, he was able to buy a house in Richmond after the War, and eventually became a restauranteur, philanthropist, and father of Richmond Black elite.

Dick Francis

While "Hail Storm" was entertaining the likes of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Dick Francis was making his own mark in Washington, D.C. Called by the pejorative "Uncle Dick", Francis was an enslaved man who found his way to Hancock's bar on Pennsylvania Ave in the shadow of the White House in the 1840s. He was a favorite of both power brokers and power seekers alike, and he saw firsthand the transitions of power both before the Civil War, during and after. Later in life he ran the private bar and restaurant inside the U.S. Senate.

It's certain that Francis wasn't invited into the debates of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster and others he served on the future of his birth nation. But he saved his tips, too, and invested not only in D.C. real estate, but also in his son's education—sending him to medical school. Francis, the father, died a wealthy, if not respected, businessman in the 1880s. Francis, the son, later bought Hancock's where his father put in 35 years mixing cocktails, and serving up the finest of America's spirits during pivotal times in U.S. history.


If you're looking to support Black spirits producers, here are a few brands that you can take a look at and a taste if you haven't already:

Uncle Nearest Tennessee Whiskey: You know the story... Jack Daniel's first master distiller, a former enslaved man, Nathan Green, credited with introducing the Lincoln County process. I got my hands on some Nearest Green 1870 juice on my Christmas hunt and it's unbelievable. Tasted blind, you'd easily mistake this for a 12-15 year bourbon, not a Tennessee sipping whiskey

Saint Liberty Whiskey: Texas distillery that has a fine series of whiskies as tribute to powerful women in whiskey history. The first bottle produced was "Bertie's Bear Gulch", named for a Black homesteader, distiller, and bootlegger in Montana, Ms. Bertie Brown.

Bertie Brown's homestead, Great Falls Tribune

Saint Cloud Bourbon: Their first release in 2016 tasted like liquid fruitcake! Super polarizing, just as the holiday treat is. One of the first Black bourbon brands, they get better with every release

Duke and Dame Whiskey: a flavored whiskey. I don't drink flavored whiskey—at least I didn't drink it until I was introduced to this brand. Duke and Dame take real bourbon whiskey and infuse it to become a spirit that makes you think you just popped a Werther's Original in your mouth. It's not bad for a sip, but it really shines in old fashioneds and hot toddies. Where you'd normally add simple syrup or honey, add Duke and Dame!

BullYoung Bourbon: Another great cocktail bourbon to me, from a man who knows how to build flavor, Chef Danny Bullock. Not only is it a Black brand, it's the first bourbon from a culinary master who's built his palate around the world.

Honorable Mentions and Up and Comers:

Fresh Bourbon: Highly anticipated Lexington brand who's really trying to start off a new bourbon label the "right way", not rushing a release before it's ready. I'm on the waiting list for this one


Greenwood Whiskey: Young whiskey with roots in the legacy of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, OK—Black Wall Street that was bombed and burned out of existence by racists in 1921.

Guidance Whiskey: A 2-year Iowa whiskey and product of Nashville, it needs more time, but has the right basics for a beautiful older whiskey. Until then, enjoy it in a cocktail

Brough Brothers: Decent start from the first Black distillery in Louisville, but no complexity, no traditional bourbon notes, but may get better with time.

Du Nord Craft Spirits Whiskey: The 1st Black owned distillery in the U.S. This Minneapolis puts out several different types of spirits and I hear the whiskey is making some noise. I'm looking for a sample myself, curious as to what can be done with a 2 year blended whiskey.

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