How do you honor a legacy that has all but been forgotten by a collective consciousness? It’s an almost impossible question, but the team at Allegory – Eaton Workshop’s literary-themed cocktail bar – is answering it in a way that’s interactive, educational and engaging.
Presented in conjunction with multidisciplinary artist Khalil Joseph’s “BLKNWS” exhibit, which opened at Eaton last month and runs through December, Allegory’s head bartender Paul Gonzalez and his team set out to commemorate the legacy of black bartenders who paved the way for the beverage industry.
To do this, the Allegory team called upon prominent black bartenders in the community to craft and submit drinks of their choosing to this special menu. They’ve also included drinks made by bartenders of yesteryear who previously have not received the acclaim owed to them – pioneers like Cato Alexander and John Dabney, to name a few, make appearances.
One such modern bartender making a contribution to the menu is Lauren Paylor, bar director at cocktail bar Dos Mamis and beverage director at restaurant Pom Pom, both newly opened in Petworth. Though the Bronx native came to DC to study nursing at the Catholic University of America, she was quickly embraced by the city’s tightknit and talented hospitality world where she found a community to grow and create with.
When Allegory manager and bartender Deke Dunne and Gonzalez approached her to be part of this experience that she describes as a transition and continuation of the “BLKNWS” exhibit, she was all in. Paylor contributed a drink called the Loco Bananas: a sweet, smoky, banana-infused whiskey and rum-based cocktail.“Seeing this turn in the DC community specifically with celebrating all aspects of history as far as cocktails are concerned is really nice,” Paylor says. “There are so many pieces that are often left out. They’re pertinent, they’re important and they have great significance. I was head over heels to be able to be part of this.”
Gonzalez explains that while his time at other bars in historic stretches of DC piqued his curiosity and appreciation for untold sides of the city’s hospitality history, “BLKNWS” provided Allegory with a platform to dive even deeper and make these bartenders’ stories heard and appreciated in tandem with the impactful message of the art.
“Deke and I used to work at The Gibson, and we thought it was fascinating how 14th and U is such a historic corner,” Gonzalez says. “Most of the people who live in the city now or that just go up and down that block know nothing about Black Broadway or all these amazing clubs. There’s a rich history that’s on that one strip from 7th to 14th Streets [in the U Street Corridor]. We took that as the starting point and started doing a little more research.”
To capture the history of black bartenders in the city, Gonzalez and Dunne dove in and found fascinating and necessary stories of entrepreneurs who did much more than just make a great cocktail in an era where the world was outwardly aiming to oppress them.
“The further we researched, the more we dug into finding all of these historic bartenders, and the greater the story [became],” Gonzalez continues. “These people literally started off as slaves and then by the time it was done, they weren’t just free. They owned businesses. One of them put his son through medical school. These are just stories that people need to know. You don’t call yourself a professional if you only care about the pretty side of history.”
The team found that some of the most important voices in this era were often excluded. Dunne notes that they are lucky to know the limited information that was available to them through their research.
“Cato Alexander was one of the forefathers of the cocktail scene back in the 1830s, and there’s little to nothing [available] about him,” Dunne says. “There are all these famous characters that were some of the best bartenders in the world that were black and had vertical growth in society, and nobody was talking about them.”
Alexander is just one of the talents the Allegory team sheds light on. As a modern black bartender, Paylor is happy to have the opportunity to make history known to those who come through to enjoy the menu.
“There is so much I’m learning now about the significance of black people and people of color in history – specifically in DC – and the broader spectrum of America,” she says. “There’s still so much we don’t know and there’s a little frustration that comes with that, but we’re doing our part to ensure that moving forward, we can continue the conversation and hope that this history doesn’t repeat itself. All people deserve to be celebrated for the impact that they’ve made on this industry, whether it was past or present.”
Experience “BLKNWS” and Allegory’s accompanying cocktail menu through the end of December.
Allegory at Eaton Workshop: 1201 K St. NW, DC; www.allegory-dc.com