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Meet Two Women on a Mission to Bring Black History Behind the Bar

Two women's headshots.
Alexis Brown (left) and Earlecia Richelle Gibb (right, photo by Eric Neumann) are using their prowess behind the bar to start conversations about black history in the industry.

Alexis Brown has been bartending for a long time. “Since before I should have been bartending, honestly,” she says. The Chicago native and former bar manager at now-shuttered M Vie recently earned a spot as a runner at The Aviary — a position she’s hoping will lead to a coveted spot behind the stick at Alinea’s sister cocktail bar. But it wasn’t long ago that Brown was unaware of the career possibilities available on the craft cocktail scene. “I had no idea there was a professional industry for this,” she says. “I thought it was just vodka sodas.”

That changed after the one-two of a "Hey Bartender" viewing and a solo trip to Tales in 2015 opened her eyes to a different side of the industry. Today, Brown is immersing herself in “everything molecular beverage,” but she doesn’t take her professional trajectory for granted; she fills her off hours with research into the men and women of color who have helped shape American cocktail culture. "Of all the classes, programs, and seminars I’ve attended, no one ever mentions The Colored Mixologists Club, Tom Bullock and many of the other pioneers who helped build the American bar culture."

A woman pouring multiple drinks. Alexis Brown attributes the gap in knowledge of black bartending history to an absence of education and resources — but this is a gap she means to fill.

She hosts a series of history luncheons for area bartenders of color she’s named “Causing A Stir,” and she submitted a seminar to Tales highlighting the research she put together. “It’s about perspective, and it’s about privilege,” she says. “It’s awkward, and people either push it away, or they’re open and want to understand.”

Brown sees a cyclical pattern behind the lack of attention given to black history behind the bar, and it’s rooted in the same absence of education and resources that made the current iteration of her profession seem novel to her until recently. She notes the dearth of craft cocktail bars on Chicago’s South Side (where’s she’s from), and a shortage of events hosted by organizations like the USBG in that neighborhood. “When we hosted Causing A Stir, people in attendance just didn’t know about resources [like the USBG],” she says. “Folks are wary of coming down to the South Side, but we have a lot of wonderful things happening down here.”

Brown is hoping to create even more happenings. She’s in talks with the USBG Chicago chapter’s events team to help improve their presence in the city’s South and West Side neighborhoods, and she’s working with artist and community activist Theaster Gates to bring craft cocktails to the Bing Reading Room at the Currency Exchange Café in Washington Park. “The idea is to create a space where people can have the same experience they’d have in Logan Square or Wicker Park, and to bring some of the people from that part of town down here,” she says. It’s her goal to see that exchange between communities help promote inclusivity and shine a light on the contributions of people of color to the industry — both past and present. “If we’re talking about the service industry in America,” she says, “we have to talk about who that was built on. We have to.”

A woman pouring multiple drinks. Earlecia Richelle Gibb isn't afraid of using bartending to advocate social justice. (Photo: Anthony Blue Jr.)

Similarly, Earlecia Richelle Gibb knows it’s generally frowned upon to talk politics behind the bar, so she lets her cocktails speak for themselves. The Beverage Director and Cultural Curator at New York’s swank Upper West Side Nylo Hotel sees her position as “built-in family” for many of her guests as an opportunity to open up the lines of communication about politically and culturally charged topics. Recently, the controversy surrounding the inclusion of the Black Lives Matter movement in national discourse spurred her to create “Strange Fruit,” a visually stunning homage to America’s gruesome relationship with the hanging tree in the form of a cocktail that featured a dangling bunch of crimson currants and her own “Bleeding Rose” syrup. “This is a creative outlet,” Gibbs says. “It’s an art form, and it needs to be to push everything to the next level. Art helps us cope with life.”

Gibb’s background is in fashion, and she developed her narrative approach while leading the bar program at Babbalucci, a relative newcomer and gentrifying face in Harlem, where Gibb was focused on creating a bar program that was inclusive to its community. “I had an opportunity to teach people who look like me,” she says. “People think black people don’t like grappa. That’s not right. They’ve just never had it. I didn’t know I liked it until I had it, either. So, I started to think about how I could use spirits to open up the range for guests.” It was the Cubana Mami — a cocktail inspired by her father’s Latin-American roots that Gibb created for the Bulldog Gin contest — that set her on the path to illustrative mixology. “I used this Cuban fruit called mamey, and I created a whole story behind the cocktail. It was about Winston Churchill and a burlesque dancer, and it was sexy, but it was about women and power.” It was her first competition, and she won second place. “That was the turning point for me. I realized bartending could be a way to tell a story, not just a way to make money.”

A cocktail with a small fake tree leaning over it. Earlecia Richelle Gibb's cocktail Strange Fruit was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the iconic Billie Holiday song — it's a provocative call for important conversations on race. (Photo: Darden Creative)

Gibb’s most recent narrative tribute came in the form of ¡Viva La Loba!, an homage to Tom Bullock’s Bacardi Cocktail recipe inspired by the New Mexican myth of “La Loba," a wolf woman who roamed the forest, breathing new life into the bones of her ancestors. ¡Viva La Loba! pulled histories of oppression together from multiple cultures and origins and earned Gibbs a place in the semifinals at the New York City Bacardi Legacy competition. Steadfast in her belief that honoring the past is the best way to move forward in the present, Gibb is unfazed by the potential discomfort she brought to Bacardi’s doorstep. “We can’t pretend we don’t know how rum got here,” she says. “The liquor industry comes from oppression. It’s derived from immigrants and slaves. We can turn it into a celebratory story, but it’s about acknowledging those whose backs I stand on.”

Gibb believes social and political conversations are best had bar-side, and she wants her cocktails to open up that dialogue. “When you’re in a bar, you’re in a relaxed setting. We can have real conversations that don’t feel heavy.” Gibb acknowledges that the nation is facing a difficult period in history right now, and she hopes she can continue to educate communities over a cocktail or two. “More people are coming to the bar,” she says. “That’s what Americans do when we’re stressed out — we drink.”

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