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Prohibition provides an interesting perspective on the history of racial discrimination in the United States. A number of African-American bartenders saw their craft as a gateway to the middle class in an era when many doors were closed to black workers. Kojo talks with historians and mixologists who are now unearthing the stories — and the recipes — behind that generation of African-American bartenders.
- Garrett Peck Author, "The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet" (Rutgers University Press)
- David Wondrich drinks correspondent, Esquire magazine; author, "Imbibe!" and "Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl"
- Duane Sylvestre Bartender, Bourbon Steak
Flower Pot Punch Recipe
This was a celebrated cocktail created at Hancock’s restaurant, according to cocktail historian Charles Wheeler, who noted that the African American bartenders there practiced a “lost art” before Prohibition. He wrote, “In a glass filled with crushed ice were introduced sugar and the juices of lemon and lime, colored red with Grenadine, drenched to the top with Santa Cruz rum and decorated artistically with whatever fruits were in season.”
From the “Cocktail Interlude” section of “Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t” by Garrett Peck
2 oz. Cruzan three-year white rum
.5 oz. lemon juice
.5 oz. lime juice
.5 oz. pineapple syrup
1 dash Grenadine
Fill a rocks glass with crushed ice. Add all of the ingredients and then stir until frosty. Garnish with seasonal fruits and a couple sprigs of mint.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation. Local bars are great spots for meeting friends and engaging in wide-ranging conversation or pulling up in a corner to watch people and take some time to think, all the while enjoying a well-made cocktail. Thanks to a cocktail renaissance, today's bartenders and their patrons are learning a lot more about the lasting cultural contributions of those who came before them.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd as their stories from the years before and doing Prohibition, historians and mixologists are finding many of our early bartenders were early -- were African-American with fascinating stories of overcoming discrimination, segregation and, in some cases, Prohibition to build solid careers at a time when many doors were closed to black workers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to share some of their stories with us is Garrett Peck, he's a literary journalist and independent historian. He's author of four books including "Prohibition in Washington, DC: How Dry We Weren't" and "The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet." Garrett Peck, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again.
MR. GARRETT PECKSame here. Thanks so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Duane Sylvestre. He's a bartender and cocktail educator at Bourbon Steak in D.C. Duane Sylvestre, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MR. DUANE SYLVESTREThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios in New York City is David Wondrich. He is a historian and author. He is the drinks correspondent for Esquire magazine and author of the books "Imbibe!" and "Punch." David Wondrich, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID WONDRICHThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDII'll start with you, David. With great restaurant and bar scenes flourishing in cities like New York and D.C., Portland and Ashville today, we sometimes forget that America was not always, well, a culinary headquarters, a culinary darling. How did we first gain entry under the global stage?
WONDRICHThe first thing -- when travelers came over in the years after the revolution, the early days of the American republic, the first thing they really paid any attention to was, well, A, how bad the food was, pork and hominy, basically, in much of the country, badly prepared, very basic. But, on the other hand, the drinks were delicious.
WONDRICHAnd they always -- even the most critical travelers had to stop and say, you know, on a hot day, a mint julep is truly a delightful thing. So it really started very early, and this was the first thing -- the first American thing that the world paid any attention to, culturally, at least. So it's kind of funny. It was our calling card on the global stage.
NNAMDIIf, indeed, that was our calling card, how well we imbibe, so when Prohibition came along and effectively put an end to that scene, at least out in the open, what was lost, David?
WONDRICHWell, it was...
NNAMDIDid we lose our international reputation?
WONDRICHTo -- for a time, we did, indeed. We also lost an apprenticeship tradition, a handed-down tradition of making finely crafted drinks of the bartender as being a person of respect. And that was a hard one position to reach. But top bartenders before Prohibition were known as being almost gentlemen. It was a rare thing, when afterwards, they were beverage mechanics. And, really, it took a very long time to get back to the respect that they had earned from working their craft.
NNAMDIAnd because, today, we're looking at them as gentlemen and gentlewomen. Again, 800-433-8850. If you have an ancestor who tended bar in the years before, even during Prohibition, we'd like to hear your story or their story, 800-433-8850. If you tend bar now and consider it a profession rather than a job, give us a call and tell us why.
NNAMDIYou can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Garrett, it's my understanding that when you set out to write about Prohibition, one of your goals was to explore a largely ignored prospective on the era, that of the black community. What did you find or not find when you started looking into it?
PECKWell, I discovered how difficult it was actually to answer this question. I had pitched, actually, to my publisher the idea within the book, "Prohibition in Washington, DC." Then I wanted to look at black community's response to Prohibition. And I swear I spent about half of my research time answering this one question because I really had to dig.
PECKWhat I discovered was that, you know, in 1920, when Prohibition begins in D.C., we -- this was still a Jim Crow city, and there were four big newspapers -- four big white newspapers, and they wouldn't touch black issues. And so I really had to go dive into the separate institutions that the African-American community had to discover what they thought about Prohibition. So it was really quite a chore to be able to find thought leaders and, you know, bar tenders and so on that I could quote from.
NNAMDIAt least one figure who was concerned about the effect Prohibition would have on the black community here is Washington, D.C., came from a very different line of work. Why was a pastor worried, and what did he do about it?
PECKYeah. There was one pastor from the Cosmopolitan Baptist Church, which doesn't exist anymore, but right on the eve when Prohibition begins in D.C., it was said actually, in 1917, he was very concerned because he knew that 900 African-American men were porters in bars. And come November 1, 1917, all the 900 men would suddenly be unemployed because they won't be able to make drinks anymore.
PECKAnd considering right before Prohibition started, there were 267 licensed bars in D.C., which meant that they had, on average, three to four African-Americans working for them. So this was a significant source of employment in the Washington, D.C., area. So, in essence, this one pastor, though, was trying to set up a jobs board to find new work opportunities for these men.
NNAMDIIt would have been a major job loss. Duane Sylvestre, you point out that for much of the last few decades, bartending has been thought of by most as a job some people do in college or to make ends meet even though the gig falls through. How is that changing, and are we now, in a sense, getting back to the way things used to be?
SYLVESTREI couldn't speak as to where can -- if we can approach the levels that it used to be, but certainly, there are many people that still of this as a pass through opportunity to make some quick cash, maybe there something -- in between jobs or while they go through school. And it's my hope that through the research of historians like David and Garrett and these events that we're promoting that we can tell a story because as a bartender, that's what we do and tell a story that helps us connect to a history in our own past.
SYLVESTREPeople want to grow up and do things that they can connect to that maybe what their father has done, and there's some legitimacy that's promoted by these stories. Certainly, we'd like to see an increase in activity in people that come into this as a profession, not looked down upon as wasting their time or hurry up and grow up but decide what you want to do.
SYLVESTREI'm just trying to remember all the conversations that I've had with the influential people in my life. It sometimes is looked down upon, and we are approaching a course where we are achieving the status of at least chefs or hospitality professionals as opposed to just a bartender.
NNAMDIWell, you have been on this show before, yet my most vivid memory of you is you mixing a drink for me at Bourbon Steak and then explaining to me in some detail what you were doing. It's what you seem to do for all, if not, most of your customers. How did you know that for you, tending bar was going to be more than just a job?
SYLVESTREFor me, it's only been about -- it's always been about entertainment and education. If I can share that part of what I do in the bar just is a platform for me to do just that. It's what I love. It's what my passion is. Drinks are easy. It's a social lubricant, and it helps to create a fun environment, not necessarily the drunken stupor that so many would've promoted.
SYLVESTRECertainly, a part of the temperance and prohibition activities when they were saying -- waving their fingers at the establishments and the people that work there. For me, it's my craft, and it's a way for me to share a good time. We talk about the drink or the plate in front of you or any other topic that is appealing to you and can give us mutual enjoyment.
NNAMDIWell, the professionalism of it impressed me because there's the stereotype of the bartender being someone to whom you pour your troubles out. The bartender being the person that educates you in an entertaining way about exactly what you're imbibing was somewhat new to me, and you helped me to understand that that's the way the profession historically was and the way it's getting back to be again.
NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation on mixology in general and black mixologists in particular. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Are you interested in the craft cocktails scene but not sure it's for you? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. David, bars and music go together like peanut butter and jelly, I guess. The years of Prohibition and the Harlem Renaissance and what we might call U Street's first heyday overlapped to a great extent. What significance did you see -- do you see in that? First you, David.
WONDRICHWell, the significant -- music was always in bars in the 19th century, but it was more of a sideline. But during Prohibition, because everything had to go underground, you suddenly had these combination venues where it would be -- the speakeasy would be a bar, it would be a dance hall, it will be all these different venues jammed together, and the very clandestine nature of it, I think, really helped to add excitement and to bring cross-pollination.
WONDRICHYou have Duke Ellington in New York playing at the Cotton Club, and people went to the Cotton Club just to get a drink, some of them, but at the same time, they were exposed to this amazing music. And, I mean, same in D.C. Even after prohibition, Jelly Roll Morton, one of my heroes and, you know, one of the founders of jazz, tended bar in D.C. and ran a club. And he made the drinks. He played the piano. He hosted the people. He did everything there. It was -- it's kind of amazing to see this pressure cooker of Prohibition putting these things together and developing them.
PECKYeah. We do call 1920 as the jazz age for a reason because this is really when jazz becomes hugely popular during this era. And, of course, wherever there were jazz clubs, there were also cocktails. They frequently were not served in cocktail glasses but rather coffee mugs. So I guess there was a raid or something, it'd look like you were having a cup of tea or a cup of coffee.
PECKBut, yeah, certainly, you look along the U Street corridor here in Washington, D.C., and the jazz clubs really popped up during the 1920s, you know. For example, I think one of our best known jazz clubs is Bohemian Cavern. That opened in 1926, you know?
PECKAnd there were lots of clubs right along the U Street area. So for a long time, it had been a destination neighborhood for people to go out to have a good time largely because, first off, there was the baseball stadium right where Howard University Hospital is now.
PECKBut once the jazz clubs opened up, there is one historian called Constance Green who called the black part to the city the secret city because whatever happened over there, it's sort of like Las Vegas, right? What happens in the black part of the city isn't told elsewhere.
PECKExactly. And so white people soon realized they could go over to the U Street area and have a good time. And you had African Americans and white people rubbing shoulders together. This is really a novelty that springs up during the 1920s, you know, and largely because of jazz and because of cocktails.
NNAMDIBut I guess the difference between what was happening here and what was going on in places like Harlem, at places like the Cotton Club, is that D.C. was unique in a way during Prohibition because there was no strong organized crime presence in the city. What did that mean for African-American entrepreneurs?
PECKYeah. It meant that local entrepreneurs could actually own their businesses, and they didn't necessarily had to tie in with organized crime or Mafioso type that they could actually running their own business and make the profits from it, you know, so which is really kind of unique. Other big cities, you know. We talk about the Harlem Renaissance, for example, which is much more than just Harlem itself in Manhattan.
PECKIt's really a nationwide phenomenon. But the actual -- many of the Harlem clubs themselves on Manhattan were actually owned by the mob. And certainly they were -- had African-American bartenders and managers and so on, and yet there was still the Mafia behind there actually owning the place. Here in U Street, though, this was largely locally owned businesses, and -- which really makes D.C. quite unique.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, David?
WONDRICHWell, yeah, it's definitely unique. I think the fact that the federal government is there watching your every move in D.C. was pretty inhibiting, I guess. In New York, it definitely was -- it was a mob thing. There were individual entrepreneurs. There were -- but none of the big clubs, really. You -- in New York, you always need more capital than you do anywhere else. And it was really -- to open a big nightclub was out of the financial means of most, and you really needed that bootlegging money behind it to do it.
WONDRICHAnd so Prohibition was great for that because there was so much bootlegging money.
NNAMDIWell, Duane, cocktail culture has come back in a big way over the last few years, but some don't see themselves reflected in that movement. And I'm wondering if there is a racial divide that still persists within the imbibing community, at least here.
SYLVESTREWell, from the other side of the bar, it can be intimidating, especially with the trend of cocktail culture or this hipster notion with rolled-up sleeves and curly mustaches, and it doesn't necessarily speak to everyone. But this is about history and really making a connection with the person on the other side of the bar. People go out because they want to have a good time. They don't necessarily want to be dictated to, told what to drink or be judged for their choices.
SYLVESTRESo we want -- it's very careful a balance between education and waving your finger 'cause you don't want to be the guy behind the bar speeding scripts of history to someone that's not at all interested. They may just be interested in their vodka martini, apple martini, and, you know, it's a fine line to walk to be sure that everyone that's on the other side of your table, your guest, is made to feel comfortable.
SYLVESTRESo there are some people that shy away from the cocktail culture, and I don't know that it's racially motivated, but just because there's a persona that's been associated because it has become cool. And the hipsters -- I hope I'm using the right term 'cause they're not hippies -- that have grabbed on to it, you know, there's definitely -- there are some great spoofs that have been put out there about mixology and what mixologists say and do, and it can be off-putting to people that are really just want to be a quick in-and-out rum and coke and have a great time.
NNAMDIWell, let's go to the phones and talk with Cara, who is in Silver Spring, Md. Cara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARAHi, Kojo. I just wanted to say that I feel so blessed to hear today's topic. I'm an African-American bartender in D.C., have been for the past seven years, and I think that the contributions that Duane and David and Garrett are making to the drink industry is really important. My question really is for Duane.
CARAI was wondering how he responds to people who still kind of look down on, you know, the mixologist, on the bartender and other profession as something that you do on your way to another career. I have people who ask me what I do all the time. When I say bartending, they kind of look at me, like -- and they pause, like, uh, and what else? So...
CARA...how do you -- and I'm someone who actually -- in the past few years, I've really tried to teach them my skill and learn. I've read your book "Imbibe!" and really have tried to delve into the history of cocktails and really bring my skills up. But people still look at me as like, you know, feel good times rum and Coke girl.
NNAMDIWell, I'll have both Duane and David respond 'cause David is the author of "Imbibe!" But first you, Duane.
SYLVESTREJust as long as you're proud in what you're doing and you present yourself professionally, I think you can stand with your head high and still present yourself. It is -- it can be a challenge. My wife is a professional, works a 9:00 to 5:00. And when we go out, you know, in the earlies in our relationship, she would tell people I was a bar manager or a restaurant manager.
SYLVESTREAnd it's taking time, but people will respect you if you respect yourself. And you are part of a respected community, so just keep your -- education is for you, and that helps you and gives you stories to share with people. And they will respect you as a social host.
NNAMDIAny advice, David, for Cara?
WONDRICHWell, exactly what Duane said, you know? I think you don't have to apologize to anybody. You're working with your hands, something that most people who work in cubicles today are beginning to see more and more that they would rather be doing that, you know? It's -- rather than pushing electrons around, you're touching people's lives. I think that's important, I have to say.
NNAMDICara, thank you very much for your call. We got to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850. Got questions about the era of Prohibition and the cocktail renaissance that's under way? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking on Food Wednesday about mixologists in general and black mixologists in particular with black mixologist Duane Sylvestre. He's a bartender and cocktail educator at Bourbon Steak in D.C. Garrett Peck is a literary journalist and independent historian. He is the author of four books, including "Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't" and "The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet."
NNAMDIDavid Wondrich is a historian and author. He's the drinks correspondent for Esquire magazine and author of the books "Imbibe!" and "Punch." All of our guests are involved in the research and planning for D.C. Toasts: The Black Mixology Club. That's an event coming up on May 10 at the Howard Theatre.
NNAMDIAnd for more information about that, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. To join this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. David Wondrich, last year you were called on to lead a toast to one Tom Bullock. Who was he, and what can you tell us about his legacy, "The Ideal Bartender?"
WONDRICHWell, Tom Bullock was an African-American man who was a bartender, and he did something -- it was a first. He was the first African-American to publish a cocktail book in 1917, right before Prohibition. And it was introduced by Prescott Bush of the -- maybe it wasn't Prescott. It was one of the...
NNAMDIGeorge Herbert Walker.
WONDRICHGeorge Herbert Walker. Thank you.
WONDRICHYou get lost in those names up there in New England.
NNAMDIThe father of George Herbert Walker...
WONDRICHBut -- yeah, exactly. And so -- and it was a very well-published fancy book, and it really encapsulated this tradition. And it sort of -- it got me thinking, when I was looking at this, who are the other guys? And for a long time I couldn't find any other guys. But finally, one of the things that we did for this tribute is we found some of the other guys, the other unheralded black bartenders who were holding the fort and making excellent drinks under adverse conditions.
NNAMDIYeah. I wanted you to talk about one of those other guys. Garret, here in D.C., Dick Francis was tending bar in the U.S. Senate. How did that job help him in many ways get a foothold in the middle class?
PECKYeah. Bartending paid pretty well as it still does today, you know? And it's a job that has a fair amount of social prestige because you get to rub elbows, rub shoulders here with a lot of different people. So being able to work at a prominent restaurant or a prominent bar such as the U.S. Senate -- or Dick Francis also worked at a very famous restaurant, which is now in the Federal Triangle, that's been long since demolished since the 1930s, but it was called Hancock's.
PECKAnd it was famous for its fried chicken, and everyone in the city went to this place. It was also famous for the flower pot punch, which we're going to be serving here at the event to the Howard Theatre on May 10.
NNAMDIWell, I know noticed that it says that he tended bar in the Senate Bar, and then that bar was eventually given over to him. What does that mean, given over to him, that he had control with the bar, so to speak?
PECKI don't know. Dave, do you know that?
WONDRICHYeah. He was the manager.
NNAMDIOh, he was the manager of the bar.
WONDRICHOne of his favorite clients at Hancock's was a senator, and they became friends. And when this -- it was the Democratic Party's turn to choose who run the bar, this guy chose Dick Francis. I mean, the very idea that it was a bar...
NNAMDIOh, so there was politics involved, too.
WONDRICHOf course, it is D.C. But the funny thing is Dick Francis wasn't even the first black man to manage the bar in Congress. There was a man evidently by the name of Carter who -- before the Capitol building was expanded with expanded wings and each House got their own bar, before that, there was one bar for both Houses, and it was ran by this guy named Carter about whom might been able to find nothing other than, you know, he was African-American. He was well-respected. And for -- from the 1830s through the 1850s, he ran the bar in Congress.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Owen in Leesburg, Va. Owen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OWENHi. I'm a barista for a certain well-known coffee company.
OWENAnd when you guys are talking about explaining your drinks and as being form of entertainment in addition to serving the drinks, that has a lot of resonance for me as a barista. So I was wondering whether you see this resurgence in the cocktail scene as having some sort of kinship with the surge and proliferation of this individualized coffee companies and whether you maybe see there are being some kind of shared professional kinship there.
NNAMDIFascinating question. Care to comment on that at all, Duane Sylvestre?
SYLVESTREI think that absolutely there is a kinship between the barista and the bartender, and it's deeper than just the name. In many bars, you'll find the barista set up behind the bar certainly in Europe where they are one and the same. But the kinship and the banter and the service across counter is absolutely every bit as in sync between the two professions, jobs, however you want to refer to it. The craftsmanship that goes into crafting those coffees is every bit as involved as a well-crafted cocktail. So, yeah, I think there is definitely a kinship.
NNAMDIAnd that was being recognized today, isn't it, Garret Peck, the craftsmanship that goes into building a cocktail and knowledge that people like Duane and, I guess, Kara others bring to the bar, so to speak, when they're doing that?
PECKYeah, absolutely. You know, the skills that you see bartenders developing today or also people who make coffee, these are kitchen skills largely, right? They are being -- they have to know about fresh ingredients and about how do you mix them together and so on. So it's not so much anymore about just here is the vodka bottle and the soda gun and just mix them together. Here you go, that's $4.50.
PECKBut you had to actually know how these things mix together and so on. And also -- I'd also say that consumers are so much better educated, the fact that people want to have these more complex drinks. I mean, when you go to this national franchise, which our caller here just mentioned, you know, you listen to how people order their drinks.
PECKIt's just jaw-dropping, you know, how many different choices they have. And do they want grande or venti or, you know, the other sizes, and, you know, do you want a caramel macchiato half caf with foam, no whip. You know, it's incredible the choices that we have here. I think in human history, this is the best time to be a drinker, whether it's of coffee or of cocktails.
NNAMDIDavid, what do you is giving rise to this phenomenon? On the one hand, people seem to want more information about what they're consuming. On the other, they seem -- best information seems to be more readily available than it used to be.
WONDRICHWell, that helps too. Yes. I think it's -- it goes beyond the bar or even the coffee bar. And you get into big cultural movements, which, you know, as a drinks historian, I'm probably not perfectly equipped to understand. But nonetheless, we've got -- the world seems to be splitting up into a slow food and a fast food version where some people want things very cheap, very quick, and other people are willing to pay money for things that are made exactly for them, handcrafted for them, the old fashioned way if possible, you know, a way that's the antithesis of fast food.
WONDRICHAnd the bar, for a very long time in America, was in the fast food world, and now it's moving into the slow food world, at least to some many bars. And it's -- again, it's that idea that I'm getting something made by hand for me right in front of me now. It's not off the shelf. It's not the same thing that you get anywhere else. It's just for me. And I think people respond very powerfully to that, not just in bars and any other thing in life these days.
NNAMDIDuane, while we're focusing on highlighting some unsung African-American bartenders, you point out that the history of bartender's period is still largely untold. How is that changing? And why do you feel it's important?
SYLVESTREWell, again, touching back to you want to do what you have -- you can connect to him what you have history, and there is - through all of the research of David and Garrett and -- I mean, Dave -- in our email threads before, David presented a link to the Library of Congress, and I jumped on it to climb through those dusty halls of the Internet. And it's really sporadic and few and far between.
SYLVESTREAnd I think it's important that when we get even the little bits we share these stories so that we can -- when you talk about something, all of a sudden, it becomes more available. So where it's more readily available now because of conversations that'd been had, the more conversations we will have will produce additional information.
NNAMDIAnd the more cohesive history of all this. I want to get in Benedict in Manassas, Va. Benedict, you're on the air. We're short of time. Please make your question or comment brief.
BENEDICTGood afternoon, everyone. I would like to thank everyone for bringing this to the public. Most people fail to realize that coffee and bars play a crucial role to every part of every civilization. It's how people decompress and think and be inspired. And bartenders are needed. I mean, we have legislation doing other things, but that's fine.
BENEDICTBut for the person who goes into a bar and decompress and have a conversation and actually able to sort through that conversation and come out with positive results, you see that over a period of time. And I would like to thank you very much for bringing this to people's attention.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. David, we're running out of time as I said. But as you've continued to research, did you know that -- note any common connection that stands out between the cities where African-Americans were able to make a good living tending bar?
WONDRICHThere were mostly in the South as far as I could see. At least, there -- in a Jim Crow and a heavily segregated America, African-Americans could make a living tending bar for the people of their community, and they could make an OK living. But the really opulent bars -- in the South, there was a long tradition of African-American men behind the bar. In the North, not so much. And...
NNAMDIAnd Washington, D.C., used to be in those days.
NNAMDISleepy Southern town.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're out of time. David Wondrich is a historian and author. He is the drinks correspondent for Esquire magazine and author of the books "Imbibe!" and "Punch." Garrett Peck is a literary journalist and independent historian, author of four books, including "Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't" and "The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet." Duane Sylvestre is a bartender and cocktail educator at Bourbon Steak D.C. That event, May 10, Black Mixology Club. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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