South African Bartenders: Patriots or Defectors?

by Lendl Julian Maarman

As my journey as a bartender continues, I have grown my knowledge on how certain phases of history affected drinking cultures in certain countries. For the purpose of this article I focused on the United States of America and South Africa.

Why these two countries, you may ask? Well, I am from South Africa and the USA is the country which is constantly used as a point of reference for history of drinks and the origins of mixology and bartending. 

Prohibition (1920 – 1933) 

This period defined a big part of American history and its bartending landscape, with opinions still raging between bartenders as to whether it detracted or enhanced the skill of bartending. Some are of the opinion that America was ahead of the pack when it came to bartending and its methods in the late 1800s into the early 1900s. However, with the passing of the 18th Amendment some bartenders feel bartending went into a stalemate.

This led to many bartenders giving up their trade. Those who stayed faithful to our art took to the alleyways, backstreets, basements and attics of American cities to practice.

They were never able to come out and proudly say what they had created or experienced the night before or the challenges that might come with the job. They were quite literally spooks gaining illegal intelligence, living a double life and trading in a prohibited commodity.

They were constantly on the edge of being discovered or identified as a bartender. Whether it slowed down America’s drinking evolution or not, you cannot deny that the “Roaring 20s” will never happen again. 

This is the period of time for which I wish I had been alive. Walking in the time of Al Capone, The Chicago Outfit, John Dillinger, J Edgar Hoover and even the mythical Jay Gatsby by all accounts sounded very exciting. These characters and many more immortalized the Prohibition. Fast forward a century and these names still echo through eternity. 

Before Achilles went to war he was given two options by his mother Thetis: "If you stay in Larissa, you will find peace. You will find a wonderful woman, and you will have sons and daughters, who will have children. And they'll all love you and remember your name. But when your children are dead, and their children after them, your name will be lost. If you to to Troy, glory will be yours. They will write stories about your victories for thousands of years and the world will honor your name. But if you go to Troy, you will never come back, for your glory walks hand-in-hand with your doom. And I shall never see you again."

This would not even be a question to many bartenders. I would sacrifice anything for the immortality of a drink, or my name as a bartender. I will always choose the latter and go to war in the case of Achilles. 

So Americans sacrificed a few decades in return for endless folklore, captivating myths and vivid legends of the time. It’s a legend that every bartender, establishment and entrepreneur tries to replicate or carry on but alas it will never be done.

It is America’s history and hers to keep and treasure so be proud of, and know that you are the envy of the world and the stories to be told for generations more.

Apartheid (1948 – 1994) 

Apartheid had a profound impact on the drinking landscape of South Africa although the lingering negative side effects are more apparent. The bad side would be that the apartheid government sold saw gum beer to the masses and sometimes alcohol was even given in the form of payment for a week’s labour (amongst other atrocities which have been well published). 

We are still currently seeing the rise of South Africa’s speakeasies in the shape of township taverns or shebeens - some that have stood the test of time and had been operating illegally during apartheid but have converted to more commercial gathering areas. 

Most have attained licenses and offer a rather vibey setting with African house music or jazz playing in the background, fresh barbequed meat on the grill and well clad ladies and gentlemen dancing the night away - sometimes in a basement or on some small backstreet. Sound familiar? 

These places served as gathering places for the then underground African National Party leaders and fellow comrades to unwind, along with the anxiousness that speakeasies operated under. Where else did the commanders of the then National Party gather for a drink after work? What was their drink of choice? Unlike the glamourized Prohibition era there is seldom information available or linked to this time. 

We have all the heroes and villains that are as famous and influential as Prohibition counterparts. Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, PW Botha, Joe Slovo, FW De Klerk and Bishop Desmond Tutu to name a few. But where are the vivid recounts of where they drank and what they drank? 

Our history seems to be more current. Having only emerged from our dark past some 20 years ago we are in the unique position of developing and writing our own bar history. This is rather exciting as bartending is still not viewed as a full time profession but as something students do.

Maybe that is the reason for the lack of documentation about drinking in this dark era because it was not appreciated as a profession, while in the USA it has long been a profession to be proud of.

As earlier stated we can influence what will be happening going forward and work on the landscape. But, we will have to start with the basic education of the art as malpractice is common and proper bar management, etiquette, experience and management are seriously lacking most times.

My motivation is that South Africa’s drinking history is current. Instead of being inspired and following trends of the rest of the world we should put an emphasis on being inspired by our history and learning and observing from the world’s trends. 

We have a  large variety of fresh ingredients, a meshing pot of great cultures, drinking sub cultures and some great traditional cuisine, along with some glamorous history to top it all off. Surely this should be enough inspiration. 

We should not focus on pasts of other great countries or try and reincarnate those here but finally create our own history in our own great country. The myths, folklores and legends will follow in good time and hopefully a few defectors, too. 

Read more from History.