UC Berkeley project studies the West Coast cocktail

Shanna Farrell, a historian for the Regional Oral History Project, is hoping an Indiegogo campaign will help raise funds to study the history of the West Coast Cocktail

Shanna Farrell, a historian for the Regional Oral History Project, is hoping an Indiegogo campaign will help her raise money to study the history of the West Coast cocktail. Photo: Risa Nye

Shanna Farrell, of UC Berkley’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), has the perfect qualifications for conducting research on the legacy of the West Coast cocktail: she holds a master’s degree in oral history from Columbia University, and she spent several years tending bar. She is the lead historian on the project, currently seeking financial support through an Indiegogo campaign.

The idea behind the project is to learn more about the history of the West Coast cocktail, while exploring themes that have played a part in its evolution. Farrell will conduct interviews with some of the Bay Area’s most esteemed cocktail historians, bartenders, craft spirit distillers and bar owners. As a recent transplant from New York with bartending experience in Brooklyn, Farrell has observed the tension between the coasts where cocktail culture is concerned, and says the Bay Area cocktail scene has a “rich and varied history that rivals the East Coast.”

St. George’s Absinthe Verte: the first legal American absinthe since the 1912 ban. Photo: Kaia Diringer.

Farrell aims to talk to local distillers at St. George’s Spirits as part of her research. The Alameda company’s Absinthe Verte is the first legal American absinthe since the 1912 ban. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Farrell’s pilot interviews with journalist and cocktail historian David Wondrich, Jennifer Colliau of Small Hand Foods, Claire Sprouse from the Tin Roof Drinks Community, and Rhachel Shaw of the Hog Island Oyster Company have revealed a diverse concoction of themes that cocktail aficionados and local bar history buffs will find fascinating: the evolution of West Coast craft cocktails, the impact of geography, and the “garden to glass” possibilities here—as well as the influence of community, ethnicity, labor, class and gender.

The community of bartenders on the West Coast is “huge, warm and accepting,” Farrell says, and mentions the way bartenders have pulled together to raise funds to cover the medical expenses of one of their own. One example of the community in action is Speed Rack, a local and national competition created by and for female bartenders, which donates 100% of its proceeds to breast cancer research, prevention and education. In San Francisco, it’s an informal competition, Farrell says, and the participants enjoy working for a good cause and “feeling like you’re a part of something.”

Some of the history is surprising. With the resurgence of women tending bar on the West Coast, its seems hard to believe that until 1972, bar owners and saloon operators were subject to a fine of $100 or a sentence of three months in jail if they allowed women to pour wine or spirits. The California Supreme Court finally tossed out that law, but its lingering effects likely explains the long absence of women bartenders in the 1970s and 1980s. (For more insights into the changing role of women in bartending and the “pink drinks” of years ago, see Farrell’s recent article in PUNCH.)

The Mai Tai is being studied as part of the project.

The founders of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s both claim to have invented the Mai Tai cocktail

Farrell wants to learn more about the lineage of training and technique — to discover “who trained with whom,” and to document the histories of veterans in the field. Some of the old-timers and expert mixologists she’s talked to have shared stories about the Polynesian-themed tiki bars that were in vogue in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Though the themes were Polynesian, you might not find any evidence of this when you looked at the faces you saw in tiki restaurants and bars. Non-white bartenders were delegated to the back of the house; Chinese bartenders were often not allowed to eat in the restaurants where they worked.

Bartenders back then had a more proprietary attitude about their work — by necessity. Competition was stiff. Bartenders didn’t write down or share what they put in their drinks because they felt they had to protect their formulas and recipes to keep their jobs. Many of these recipes might have been lost if not for  rum expert and renowned tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. Berry has published six definitive books on the subject, in which he shares some of the once closely guarded or  “lost” recipes of the tiki bar heyday, when the founders of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s both claimed to have invented the Mai Tai. Some of the old-time tiki bartenders are still not willing to reveal all of their recipes, but Berry and Farrell acknowledge that just getting them to talk was a huge accomplishment. Conducting interviews and having conversations like this are the only ways to get these stories (and maybe a few more recipes) documented. The current tiki revival depends on such in-depth research.

In Farrell’s interview with legendary bartender Dale DeGroff, he describes the cocktail as a uniquely American invention, with “a long and storied history, which may be the perfect metaphor for American life: taking spirits from other countries and putting them into a glass together.” Taking it a step further, Bay Area bartenders have created a local subset within this category, based on the utilization of fresh seasonal ingredients essential to the “garden to glass” emphasis so prevalent in today’s West Coast cocktail culture.

Farrell says the interviews so far have already revealed a “rich and storied” history surrounding West Coast-style cocktails. In her next round of interviews, Farrell will talk with a number of experts in their fields: Thad Vogler (Bar Agricole), Murray Stenson (Elysian Bar), Julio Bermejo (Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant), Mike Buhen (Tiki Ti) and Jorg Rupf (St. George Spirits). Her project advisors include David Wondrich, Dale DeGroff, and PUNCH founding editors Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau.

Bartenders hear a lot of stories, but they are also great storytellers themselves. Farrell sees the legacy project as an opportunity to save their stories and histories before “last call.”

As to the revival of tiki bars, Farrell says it’s the best of both worlds. Besides being fun and retro, “Tiki bars offer an elevated drinking experience. The drinks are definitely complicated things. They have layered flavors and many ingredients.” And those little umbrellas.

For more information about the layered flavors and many ingredients involved in ROHO’s Legacy of the West Coast Cocktail project, you can hear Shanna Farrell talk about it in her Indiegogo video (filmed at Prizefighter in Emeryville).

The Indigogo campaign will run through July 11. ROHO is hoping to raise $20,500.

Love cocktails? Read Ms. Barstool’s  reviews of Hotsy Totsy ClubEast Bay Spice CompanyBourbon & BeefPenroseGatherTribune Tavernthe ParagonBoot & Shoe ServicePicànHopscotchFiveRevivalFlora and Prizefighter — and check Berkeleyside Nosh’s Guide to Drinking around Berkeley.

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  • Cherilyn

    Love this — one of the things that makes the Bay Area such a great place to live. Intellectual heft of UC Berkeley meets… cocktails! Cheers!

  • biggerbear

    Isn’t this great! I love it how UC Berkeley is always importing brilliant academics from far away places to research all the really pressing questions that concern California as we face the challenges of the 21st century. And of course it’s especially important that we hear the opinions and benefit from the views of imported denizens of the Capital of Capital, the Seat of Wall Street, the the hub of money and the center of universal warfare, NYC! (Trumpet flourish, drum roll, cannon salute!) Because how could our local culture possibly take care of itself without New Yorkers to tell us how?

  • guest.

    You seem fun! ;-)