The clink of ice, the swirl of spirits, and the dance of flavors in a well-crafted cocktail—these are the hallmarks of a master bartender. Yet, the story of this mastery is richer and more complex than the layers in your favorite drink. Enter the world of Black bartending, a realm filled with history, resilience, and artistry that has shaped the hospitality industry in ways often left unsung.
From the hands of enslaved Africans in the antebellum South to the dynamic mixologists gracing today’s upscale bars, Black bartenders have been the unsung architects of cocktail culture. They’ve juggled the shakers and the societal challenges, all while pouring excellence into every glass.
The antebellum South witnessed enslaved Black people mastering the art of bartending, often standing behind bars in elite white spaces, mixing and serving drinks. Their skillset, creativity, and resilience were unparalleled. By the time the Civil War ended, many of these individuals had transitioned from servitude to entrepreneurship, becoming leading bartenders and bar owners. Figures like Cato Alexander, who in the early 19th century ran one of New York City’s most esteemed establishments, serve as a testament to this era’s excellence.
Fast forward to the early 20th century. The Harlem Renaissance brought with it a vibrant arts scene but also a burgeoning cocktail culture. At the forefront were Black bartenders, mixing drinks, setting trends, and solidifying their position as the soul of the hospitality realm. These weren’t just individuals who could make a good drink; they were artists, cultural diplomats, and ambassadors of Black excellence.
Yet, as history progressed, the stories of these pioneers often faded into the background, overshadowed by the commercialization of the industry. In recent years, however, there’s been a revitalization of interest in the Black heritage of bartending.
Today, right here in the heart of Detroit, the spirits still whisper tales of trailblazers. Bartenders like John Neely, Andre Sykes, and Lisa Carielle are not just behind the bar; they are rewriting the narrative, blending the old with the new, and ensuring that the legacy of Black bartending is both preserved and propelled forward.
So, why is it vital for Black people to be celebrated in this space?
For one, recognizing Black bartenders is a nod to the innovation and creativity that has long defined Black culture. And there’s a newly established group that allows for that culture to shine through across the city.
“Black on Both Sides is a tribute to the service industry and our appreciation for the crafting of a great cocktail in a space that we’ve curated,” shared Carielle. “Our focus is to uplift notable people of color within the community by including those who have put the work in without recognition alongside us as a featured entity during our pop-up bar takeovers. The positions we choose to showcase vary from bartender, to server, to maitre’d, to chef, to D.J., and beyond. The purpose being to create an all-Black space, which is a rarity and sometimes treated as a spectacle – we have chosen to make it a standard. We have traveled to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, even up north to Grand Rapids and the need still remains to fill a gap that no one else has, celebrating those who have worked equally as hard in the process.”
Together, Sykes, Carielle, and Neely are mixing up a blend that insists on good vibes and movement, and it’s got the name ‘Black on Both Sides’ (B.O.B.S.). Every Monday, high up on the Godfrey Io rooftop, the three aren’t just mixing drinks; they’re mixing histories, fusing the old with the new. In addition to good drinks, they provide good beats as every Monday, a new D.J. is debuted, sharing space for Black DJs in the city.
B.O.B.S. isn’t just another night out—it’s a tribute. A nod to the legends of Black bartending, food, and service. This trio, through their talent and charisma, is out to remind everyone of the top-tier talent that’s been in the Black community all along. Plus, they’re all about setting up the next generation for success. They’re putting Black expertise in the spotlight where it belongs. Their collective dream? To unveil their own signature venue, a testament to their passion and expertise in the industry. Until that vision materializes, they channel their vibrant energy and unmatched skills into every restaurant or bar they grace with their presence.
Whenever you find yourself at a B.O.B.S. event, you don’t just get a drink or a plate of food. You get a slice of the Black experience wrapped up in top-notch service and delivered with unmistakable pride. That feeling – that vibe? That’s “Black Opulence,” Carielle says. It’s not just some fancy term. It’s about celebrating traditions, showcasing them with a fresh twist, and making sure everyone feels the heart and soul poured into each creation.
“I think the work we have done, for our city and in others, and the work we still have yet to do, goes beyond just a pop-up with features and booze. We’re establishing a precedent of hospitality that is not a cultural capitalism but a standard in what an evening out should look and feel like,” expressed Carielle.
“To be surrounded by people who love what they do, who know their stuff, who are always ready to take you on a journey – a space that asks you to remain open and look around you at those you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.”
Black Opulence is like the secret ingredient or the special sauce. It’s about knowing where we come from, taking pride in our traditions, and bringing them to the table with style. It’s that extra touch that makes everything just right, the years of knowledge and skill that deserve a tip of the hat.
Being Black isn’t something that gets switched on for an event. It’s a 24/7 experience filled with pride, challenges, joy, and a whole lot of flavor. Black Opulence is about cherishing all of it, celebrating every moment, and serving it up for the world to see. So, here’s the deal when it comes to Black people as a whole: we’re proud, we’re skilled, and we’re here to make waves. Because no matter how you slice it, we are all Black on Both Sides.