The National Archives taps into America's long, complicated love affair with liquor in a new exhibition.
Drinkers begin gathering at a fully stocked bar, anticipating the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the end of Prohibition.
Like a perfect martini, the relationship between alcohol and the federal government calls for balance. But like many of us after a few, it has also seen its share of stumbles.
The contentious relationship between public taste and government tolerance is at the heart of the exhibit “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History” at the National Archives Museum.
Senior curator Bruce Bustard spent two years assembling more than 100 documents and objects—from Meriwether Lewis’s 1803 receipt for 30 gallons of spirits and six kegs of beer (it’s a wonder he and William Clark made it out of St. Louis) to FDR’s cocktail shaker and Betty Ford’s Serenity Prayer token—that illustrate this compelling social history.
The exhibition is a joy for fact sponges and foodies. Among the most surprising revelations is the sheer volume of liquor enjoyed in the early 19th century. “By 1830, Americans were drinking 7.1 gallons per person [per year] of absolute alcohol,” says Bustard. “That is an astounding amount.”
In an effort to engage visitors on the subject of drinking (and share a glass or two), the National Archives Foundation has appointed Derek Brown its “chief spirits advisor.” The owner-bartender of several Shaw hot spots, including the sherry-focused Mockingbird Hill and the whiskey-soaked Southern Efficiency, Brown has programmed 10 seminars dedicated to that distinctively American elixir, the cocktail.
“Throughout ‘Spirited Republic,’ we see ourselves,” he says. While a narrative emerges from the history of government policy and public reception, Brown notes that the exhibit leaves out “the point of view of industry experts,” such as locally and nationally recognized historians and bartenders. To get their side of the story, he assembled a diverse group, from award-winning beverage writers to renowned American mixologists. “I’m really excited, for example, about the serious and irreverent side of tiki drinks,” Brown says. Tiki cocktail culture “inspired [its] own language and iconography, and there’s no better expert than Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry.”
In addition to Berry (of New Orleans’s beloved tiki restaurant and cocktail bar Latitude 29), participants include standard-bearers like Jim Meehan, founder of the New York City bar PDT, and Chicago’s James Beard Award–winning mixologist Charles Joly. Brown has also corralled 20 local cocktail bars, including Dram & Grain, PX, and Room 11, to participate in a “Bar Trail.” The series will conclude with a “Last Call” celebration on January 9, 2016.
“We drink five gallons less of pure alcohol a year than we once did, much to my great sadness,” Brown says with a laugh. “While the volume of consumption has changed, we do a lot of the same things, don’t we?” “Spirited Republic” is on display through January 10, 2016. Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Museum, Constitution Avenue NW at Ninth Street