A Conversation With Tamika T. Hall

A Conversation With Tamika T. Hall

There’s a long history in the United States of Black people’s contributions to different areas of human ingenuity — art, science, invention, and more — being stripped from the record books. But Tamika T. Hall, a journalist-turned-author and mother of six, is doing her part in giving Black creators in the spirits industry their proper due. Through her years of experience covering the spirits industry for publications like stupidDOPE, The Examiner, and her own site LadyBlogga.com, she realized a major problem: Black mixologists weren’t getting their due. If you weren’t deep into history, you’d never know that a Black man, Nearest Green, taught Jack Daniels how to distill whiskey, or that another Black bartender, John Dabney, made the mint julep a household drink. But her upcoming book Black Mixcellence aims to change that, by telling the stories of historic Black mixology pioneers — and also showcasing the genius of present day Black mixologists by presenting their creations. She’s a new author, and works by day as a marketing manager at the edTech company Yellowbrick, but her most important job doesn’t have a barcode or business card. Hall has six children, her youngest in third grade and her oldest an ironworker at Local 40. In honor of Mother’s Day, The 10,000 spoke to Tamika T. Hall about her career, her dedication to chronicling Black mixology, and how she manages motherhood through all of it. 

How did you initially get into covering contributions to the spirits industry and spirits culture?
This book initially started as a Black mixology book featuring Black mixologists and their recipes.  If you look at the cocktail book space and the recipe book space, we really have minimal representation in terms of books that are published in big bookstores like Barnes & Noble. There are a lot of online books and self-published books, because trying to get these types of books out there is tough. So the idea initially started when Kathy Iandoli introduced me to Kingston Imperial, an independent company who recently acquired a distribution deal with Random House. The idea began to create a book of recipes from Black mixologists, and as we moved through the process, having interviews and speaking to different mixologists, it was a recurring theme that everyone was referring to the Uncle Nearest story. That was the first thing that stuck out in my mind. I knew about him, but I didn’t really know a lot, so I started digging into that. While I was covering a Maker’s Mark event maybe three or four years ago around the Kentucky Derby, the big conversation was a mint julep. Having to do research about the mint julep is when I learned that that, too, was made famous by a Black mixologist. But for me, as it was front-facing, I thought it really started at the Kentucky Derby, because you only hear it in conjunction with the derby. You think that’s where it started, but it’s not. A few Black mixologists had a hand in making that cocktail famous down south, and that’s kind of where it got its legs to become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. So then I started thinking, I wonder what else we did? What other contributions did we have to push mixology to the forefront?

So you think about it. Mixology is a service, right? So as slaves, we were doing a lot of service jobs because we had to, not so much because we wanted to. And so per usual, even today, I feel like this is a work ethic that we always have –– we would do this service with a smile and turn it into something great. Somewhere in the back of their mind, they were like, “I can do this outside, after this is all said and done.” That’s really where mixology got its gusto. Now, there were some white bartenders. And you had a big difference between the North and the South in how the white bartenders and the Black bartenders were treated. That’s another interesting dynamic. The white bartenders in the north were given a lot of the praise because being a mixologist was scientific, so they were considered smart, and slaves couldn’t be that smart to do this type of job. But in the south, it was the opposite. Because in the south, Black slaves as bartenders were revered. The North was different: Black people can’t be bartenders. The same type of stuff that we deal with now, is the same thing they were dealing with. 

I obviously didn’t cover everything. But I just tried to pick the biggest milestones and kind of carry those stories, and then go into present day Black mixologists and give them some shine and make sure that their story is documented, so that we’re not digging for it like we’re digging for commentary about Nearest Green, Birdie Brown, John Dabney, and all these people to figure out what they did.

While you were covering spirits for The Examiner and StupidDOPE, what did you notice about the way that Black people were represented?
We weren’t represented, simply. I think the most I saw of anything close to Black mixologists being represented was whenever I’ve covered Bacardi, because that’s Puerto Rican rum and it has its own story. So they did a lot of events that were focused on rum, and Havana, and Latinos in the space. But still from a mixology perspective, were there Black mixologists? No. Were there Black spirits brands? Definitely not. The first time I really started seeing like Black owned spirits companies was two or three years ago when I started hearing about the McBride sisters. With the book, we want to bring light to the fact that we are in the space, we are doing big things, we own companies, we own restaurants.

When you were doing this work early on, did you find that there just weren’t many Black mixologists, or that there were plenty, but they just weren’t getting press coverage or social media attention?
I wouldn’t say there were plenty; they just weren’t getting the shine. Even at events, whenever you see your favorite alcohol or your favorite drink or cocktail, you’ll see big athletes repping the brand. You’ll see Nas holding a bottle, you’ll see Diddy dancing around with Ciroc. So when people think Black-owned spirits brands, people think of those, but there’s so much more out there. So I think the Black mixologists and the Black-owned spirits brands get overshadowed by that part. Brands will go directly to them and say, “we need to sell this,” and that’s the face, instead of grabbing a local Black mixologist who might have a business and let them rep the alcohol in their spirits or events. I think that’s the shortcoming; they’re just not getting the representation that they deserve.

You’ve also covered other types of arts and entertainment. What kind of parallels have you seen between the spirits industry and the entertainment industry, in terms of how Black people are treated regarding equity?
I think the lack of representation and publicizing of who exists in this space is very telling of our presence in history as a whole. A lot of the things that we’ve done have been overshadowed by what other people have done, and a lot of people have taken credit for things that we’ve done. Going back to the story of Uncle Nearest and how he is the person who created the recipe for Jack Daniels’ brand, the perfect example.

Some people might say, “a drink is a drink. What kind of a recipe will a Black mixologist come up with that a white mixologist can’t?
At the end of the day, creativity is creativity. Someone could close their eyes and drink a drink and not know who created what. However, when it comes to taking the credit for some of the innovative things that have happened, and a lot of the accomplishments and things that were done during the time that started all of this, that’s where it gets important. Now, you have people who are in the industry, and they’re making their way and just not getting the same recognition as people who are doing the same thing. It’s a matter of shedding light evenly on everyone, and not just honing in on certain people. Mixology is a very white, male-dominated industry, and after that, it becomes a very white, female-dominated industry. Then you’ll have a few Black and Brown bartenders sprinkled in. But you know, how come they can’t get the same shine as these other mixologists?

Yeah, that was my next question. The racial inequities seem clear, but what do you think causes them?
I don’t know how these competitions are configured. A lot of the bartenders that I sourced for this book were contestants in the Black Restaurant Week mixology competition. So it made it easy to see that they were there. But if I hadn’t used this one particular competition as a guide, they would have been harder to find. I wouldn’t have found them so easily, I really would have had to do some digging. It shouldn’t be that hard. Maker’s Mark Restaurant Week with Black Restaurant Week opened the door, and then I started fishing around after that. 

How important are competitions like that in the world of mixology?
Cocktail competitions are how a lot of mixologists build a reputation to get their names out there. So knowing that you won certain competitions means that you’re definitely on your A game. This person knows what they’re doing. So a lot of mixologists, while they work at bars, compete to win the prize money and get their name out there. Tales of the Cocktail is a major cocktail convention, and there’s workshops, competitions and awards. If you’re recognized on anything coming out of Tales of the Cocktail, then you are definitely making your way.

Well, what would you say were some of the more interesting stories, both present and past, that you learned while making the book? Whether it’s stories about how certain people got into the business, stories about certain mixologists’ backgrounds, or the origins of some revered drinks.
The fact that we, as slaves, used this particular area of service. A lot of the bartenders, the mixologists, worked to buy their freedom like this. This wasn’t only a means of providing service with a smile, but this is how they gained their freedom. And even after, they attempted to open bars and keep the momentum going as careers. Mixologists also doubled as chefs, because they had to cook and serve drinks. Tom Bullock wrote the first cocktail book back in the early 1900s, and sprinkled tips within the cocktail book. I always wondered where it came from that you don’t put ice in wine as a cardinal rule; that’s an actual tip in the book. We know that these “tips” exist now, but I personally had no idea where it came from, so it was enlightening. 

Then in the present day, you have a lot of mixologists who started just as, “I have to get a job, let me go do this.” While the money wasn’t good, a lot of them fell in love with the service behind serving people, making drinks, and people being appreciative of them, or them being able to create things. Having their art appreciated in the moment. The drink has amazing garnish, or it’s a really cool color, or it has smoke. Then you have people who are making the classic drinks, like the Old Fashioned and the Dirty Martini that are really good at what they do. Sometimes you can go to five different bars and order an old fashioned and in each bar, you’re going to get a different taste and display every time. You know the taste that you’re looking for, especially if you know what the classic cocktail looks/tastes like, so having someone be skilled at that is important for me. I’m a stickler for that. 

Also, I learned that there’s a difference between a mixologist and a bartender. Some mixologists prefer to be called a bartender, and bartenders prefer to be mixologists. Some bartenders feel like mixology is a millennial term, and that a lot of modern day “mixologists” are more performative. They’re doing magic tricks and turning things colors, but they really don’t know how to mix a drink. They’re putting on for Instagram. Versus a bartender, who is really tuned into their craft, they know how to make those classic cocktails. Maybe they took a bartending course, while a lot of mixologists didn’t take that basic bartending course. But there are some who said they took it because they needed to know the science behind mixing a drink. Now, again, it’s up to the person what they prefer to be called. But a lot of people did express that.

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