“The Beginnings of Black Drinking Culture in DC” with Andra “AJ” Johnson

Written by Geronimo Collins for Visit Black History

Andra “AJ” Johnson, co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week. Photo by: Naku Mayo

“I didn’t know there were Black bartenders outside of T.G.I. Fridays or that bartending could be a viable career.” – Andra “AJ” Johnson, hospitality entrepreneur and co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week

Over the years, craft cocktails have gained popularity because consumers are becoming more educated on what’s in their glass and how it’s all made. Whiskey varietals (i.e., Bourbon, American, Canadian, Irish, and Scotch whiskeys) aren’t just associated with older men anymore. With brand stories becoming increasingly influential in purchasing decisions, various distilled spirits have regained popularity among younger drinkers. DC’s Black residents have been active participants in Black bar culture for quite some time. Still, many are unaware that the history of Black bar culture and bartending in DC dates back to at least 1898.

Last December, I attended a discussion called “The Beginnings of Black Drinking Culture in DC” at Allegory, a forward-thinking speakeasy inside the Eaton Hotel. The discussion was led by Andra “AJ” Johnson, co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week and co-owner of the newly-opened Serenata. The 18-year hospitality veteran gave attendees a bevy of Black drinking history. Here are a few of my take-aways:

  • Juke Joints, which were around during slavery but became more prevalent during the Reconstruction era, were mostly Black-owned
  • It is believed that the word Juke derives from the Gullah word joog or jug, meaning “rowdy or disorderly”
  • The Cotton Club in Harlem was initially Club Deluxe before heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson sold it to British-immigrant gangster Owney Madden in 1923.
  • Most Black customers did not patronize The Cotton Club. Preferring more welcoming spots like the Savoy Ballroom, Lenox Lounge, and Renaissance Ballroom instead
  • R.R. Bowie and J. Burke Edelin formed DC’s Black Mixologists Club in 1898
  • During segregation, Black people in Washington, DC, made their own party. Opening businesses such as Club Crystal Caverns, The Howard Theater, and the Whitelaw Hotel all located in what was known as “Black Broadway,” now the present-day U Street Corridor
  • “Soul Brother” was a safe word placed on black-owned DC businesses, in areas directly impacted the city’s 1968 Riots
  • Black bartenders experienced career and personal success in the years following the emancipation of enslaved persons.
Andra “AJ” Johnson and guests. Photo by: Naku Mayo

The final part of AJ’s presentation was about a black-owned members-only club that opened in DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood called The Foxtrappe Towne Club. Operating out of the National Association of Colored Women’s R Street building, “The Foxtrappe” (1975-1984), was founded and ran by Malcolm Beech, Bill Lindsay, and Claude Roxborough, Esq. – two C&P Telephone Company managers and an attorney. The three men sought out to create a sophisticated place for Black people to unwind while opening the doors to people of all races. The Foxtrappe’s clientele was made up of the “Who’s-Who” of Black DC, including current Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray and former councilmember and Mayor Marion Barry, Sr. We also learned of Don Baker, a photographer who captured hundreds of moments between 1973-1980 and experienced The Foxtrappe Towne Club in its heyday. He’s currently raising money for the production of a documentary on the history and social landscape that took shape inside “The Trappe.”

Filmed and edited by Naku Mayo

Throughout the evening, we were served variations of classic cocktails, each influenced by the time periods discussed. Our first drink was a “Black Manhattan” with the variant ingredient being Averna Amaro (a traditional Manhattan is made without the Italian herbal liqueur). The base spirit was Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey, appropriately used with the brand’s namesake being Nathan “Nearest” Green, a once-enslaved Black man who showed Jack Daniel the ropes to whiskey distilling.

Black Manhattan made with Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey

Our next cocktail was an Ambrosia Spritz, made with the DC-based Don Ciccio & Figli’s Ambrosia Aperitivo instead of Aperol.

Ambrosia Spritz, made with the DC-based Don Ciccio & Figli’s Ambrosia Aperitivo

The final cocktail was AJ’s very own creation called Night Flights, an “Aviation-meets-Vesper” blend that would make vodka haters recant their disdain – I’m one of them. This cocktail is featured on Liquor.com and Allegory’s BLKNWS menu, in conjunction with the art installation of the same name created by Kahlil Joseph (now on view at the Eaton Hotel Library).

AJ’s very own creation called Night Flights

We ended the night with a Q&A, examining a range of questions about the presence of craft cocktails and bar culture in the lives of DC’s Black residents. A discussion ensued that was relevant to both Black bartenders and consumers. Together we discussed the possibility of reviving the sophistication of DC’s Black bar culture, once experienced at places like The Foxtrappe Towne Club, in a town where African-Americans are no longer the majority. Although this discussion was focused mainly on DC’s bar culture of yesteryear, I’m sure a similar story can be told for American cities that were once home to large Black populations. While I feel continued research on the history of Black bar culture is needed, it is equally vital that we spread the word about today’s Black bartenders. They continue the legacy established by pioneers like John Dabney and Cato Alexander. Many with the goal of not only educating consumers but also demonstrating what it takes to make a great cocktail.

Ingredient list for craft cocktails mentioned above:

Black Manhattan

  • Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey
  • Sweet vermouth
  • Averna
  • Angostura bitters
  • Orange bitters
  • Orange peel

Ambrosia Spritz

  • Don Ciccio & Figli Ambrosia Aperitivo
  • Prosecco
  • Splash soda water
  • Orange wheel

Night Flights

  • Opihr Gin
  • Republic Restoratives Civic Vodka
  • Salers Gentian Apéritif
  • Créme de violette
  • Lemon bitters
  • Lemon peel

Follow AJ on Instagram @whiteplatesblackfaces and visit Serenata when in DC.

Learn more about DMV Black Restaurant Week at www.DMVbrw.com

Donate to Don Baker’s crowdfunding campaign for The Trappe Documentary


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