Earlier this week, I sat down with Liz Williams and Philip M. Dobard of the Museum of the American Cocktail. Liz Williams is the president and director of the SoFAB Institute, which is the Museum of the American Cocktail’s parent organization. Philip M. Dobard is the Vice President of the SoFAB Institute and director of SoFAB Media.
The Museum of the American Cocktail is slated to reopen on September 29th, 2014 in its new location on O.C. Haley Boulevard in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Could you describe your collection in terms that your bartender could understand?
Liz Williams: I think that the collections that we have are varied. We have 10,000 beer bottles. I think anybody can understand that. And it’s really important because our beer bottles go into the nineteenth century. Anybody who wants to do historical research about what a beer bottle was like and learn about breweries that are no longer in existence would be able to look at those bottles. We have a really interesting collection of absinthe paraphernalia and artifacts. Probably one of the largest on exhibit in the United States. So it’s everything from glasses to old bottles, spoons, and posters. So we have a lot of things that I think anybody who was interested in absinthe would be interested in seeing.
Philip Dobard: Yeah, especially with the rise of, or renaissance, of absinthe culture, there are bartenders now who are rehearsing and cultivating that knowledge of what it means to be an absinthe server. And they need to know how it was done in order to do it now, because we have this large historical gap between the absinthe ban and the time it was reintroduced.
Liz Williams: Also, another reason why an absinthe exhibit is important is because it can set the record straight about all of the mythology surrounding absinthe: Whether it really can kill you, freeze your brain, or whatever the other things people say…
Philip Dobard: Green fairies!
Liz Williams: …and so having some information about absinthe is useful if you’re serving it in order to reassure people, especially now that people are questioning its safety.
Philip Dobard: Absinthe has a lot of baggage.
Liz Williams: The other things that we also have in our collection include information about prohibition, a lot of information about early distilling and moonshine, how stills work. A lot of things that bartenders would be interested in and that have historical relevance today.
Who came up with the idea for the Museum of the American Cocktail?
Liz Williams: That was a group of people led by Dale DeGroff, Ted Haigh, Robert Hess, and others who took their individual collections and put them together into a kind of linear cocktail history that they wanted to show to people. They wanted to make sure that people understood the place of the cocktail in society and culture.
How does the museum acquire its collections?
Liz Williams: Mostly by donation.
Philip Dobard: Historically, the core of the collection was formed from a number of personal collections, pulling from the co-founders collections.
Liz Williams: These are on loan, but we have expanded upon these.
Philip Dobard: We’re now sourcing more broadly and for a number of reasons we want the collection to be as broadly representative of the field and history of the cocktail as possible. We also want to never want to over-rely on one individual’s collection.
Liz Williams: When you are a collector, you are paying money to collect what you like. We are trying to not limit ourselves in that way. We want to be able to collect broadly and be able to cover the story. If you happen to like absinthe spoons, for example, you might collect hundreds of absinthe spoons, but then not collect other things.
Philip Dobard: But we are not the Museum of the Absinthe Spoon.
Points is primarily a specialized blog for academic historians of alcohol and drugs. What quibbles might they have with the museum’s interpretation of drinking culture? What might they be pleased to discover?
Liz Williams: I don’t want to say that we glorify drinking, but we don’t act as if drinking is a great evil. Some might feel that drinking isn’t a good thing. But at the same time, I don’t think that any of our attitudes, collections, or exhibits are irresponsible. We don’t promote misuse of alcohol.
Philip Dobard: We describe the record. We’re not in the prescription business. We’re descriptive, not prescriptive.
How does the museum interpret Prohibition and the history of absinthe’s ban?
Philip Dobard: I see them as two very different things. Absinthe’s ban was primarily about protectionism and prohibition was primarily a matter of political coalition building.
Liz Williams: Yes, I think that in terms of how we go about exhibiting those things, they have to be described through documents of some kind. Either with temperance posters, anti-absinthe posters, and other kinds of documents. We don’t have films of those times and instead rely on photographs. Mainly a two-dimensional way to describe these things. We have a number of Carrie Nation hatchets (for barrel busting). But because of the times, we can’t find some of the early films or newsreels.
Philip Dobard: With the absinthe ban, there’s also a political dimension. Like with prohibition, there was an alliance between reformers, protectionists, and other varied interests that seized an opportunity. The thought was “oh, if we ban absinthe, there’s more of a market share for our product, so we’re going to get in league with [those seeking an absinthe ban].”
Liz Williams: That’s right, wine protectionism because of the fungus that was attacking the vines.
How do you engage with the audience? Do you have beer, wine, or cocktail tastings?
Philip Dobard: Yes. We do frequent tastings. We are very active in spirits education.
Liz Williams: But we also have beer tastings, we actually had wine-making and beer-making classes that talked about issues of aging, and all of that sort of thing. We want to have educated consumers. We’ve had bitters-making classes and liqueur-making classes. So, that in addition to actually learning about the spirits themselves and the history of cocktail making.
How has the museum’s New Orleans location affected the collections, fundraising, and operation? What caused you to select New Orleans as the home of the Museum of the American Cocktail?
Liz Williams: The original people who created the Museum of the American Cocktail felt that New Orleans was the place that never gave up on the cocktail. There are people who say that New Orleans is the place where the cocktail was invented, but that’s really not accurate historically. But you can say that the drinking culture here was such that the cocktail was never lost, and that [New Orlenians] were always a wine and beer-drinking place. [New Orleans] was founded by the French and Spanish, and those are wine-drinking nations. So when wine-drinking, for example, in the 1960s and 1970s became something that kind of usurped the cocktail as the pre-dinner drink, [New Orleans] was already drinking wine, so didn’t have to adopt wine-drinking. We continued drinking cocktails before a meal. So [New Orleans] was sort of the keeper of the flame. I think that’s why [the founders] decided that New Orleans was the right place.
Philip Dobard: And hence the cocktail recovered more quickly from prohibition in New Orleans. Now that’s not to say that cocktails were not drunk during prohibition. They most certainly were. They were everywhere. But New Orleans recovered from that more quickly and never really lost that connection in a way that many other American cities did.
What upcoming museum event are you most excited about?
Both: The opening (of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum) on September 29th!
Liz Williams: There will be a second opening (ceremony) for the Museum of the American Cocktail. However, it will be opening when the Southern Food and Beverage Museum has its ribbon-cutting on September 29th. We are going to celebrate the cocktail independently.
Philip Dobard: We are also very excited for our show opening in Los Angeles on December 6th. That is cocktail-centric: Crafting the Cocktail: Tools of the Trade, which will exhibit state-of-the-art artisanal, handmade cocktail paraphernalia.
Liz Williams: That’s in collaboration with the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles.
Bonus Question: Could you both describe your favorite items in the collection?
Philip Dobard: For sentimental reasons, and having grown up here [in New Orleans], and having dined there as a child, teenager, and adult, it would be the Bruning’s Bar. It’s my favorite piece. For historical reasons, I’d say the absinthe collection.
Liz Williams: I think the absinthe collection, not necessarily a particular piece, but the whole collection. That is a collection that has so much to offer. It’s very broad, it gives you every aspect of absinthe and an understanding of the whole politics of absinthe. We are very fortunate to have it.
Philip Dobard: It documents both the artifacts and political economy of absinthe.
Liz Williams: It’s not the one piece, it’s the whole collection.
Philip Dobard: To clarify, it’s about absinthe service, not absinthe per se.
Liz Williams: Although, we do have examples of all the herbs so you can see what goes into absinthe from the beginning.