The Gin Professors
Black History Month: Cato Alexander
Updated: Feb 4
February is Black History Month, and we’re celebrating by looking at the contributions — often overlooked—of African Americans to mixology and cocktail culture in the United States. We can think of no better person to start with than Cato Alexander (1780-1858), whom many cocktail historians consider America’s first celebrity bartender.
Alexander was born a slave in New York City in 1780. He worked at an inn during his youth, where — as he was fond of recalling later in life — he waited on George Washington, helping the future president on and off his horse. In 1799, Alexander gained his freedom under New York’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. He continued to work in hotels and inns before opening his own inn around 1810 called Cato’s Tavern.
Cato’s Tavern was located at the four-mile marker on Harlem Road, which today is located on 54th Street and East Second Avenue in Manhattan. Cato’s Tavern was a short 10-minute gallop outside what was then the northern boundary of New York City, making the roadside inn an easy get-away for white elites and fast men. For 30 years, people would travel to Cato’s Tavern to race carriages, eat curried oysters and game, and drink Alexander’s famous gin cocktails, juleps, eggnog and punches.
Alexander took pride in his craft and hospitality as a host. His reputation spread throughout the United States. As one New York newspaper wrote in 1835, "Who has not heard of Cato Alexander? Not to know Cato’s is not to know the world."
Sadly, Alexander’s generosity got the better of him, as he loaned $100,000 to some of his white patrons. The debts were never repaid, forcing Alexander to close Cato’s Tavern in mid-1840s. Alexander went on to open an oyster-and-beefsteak saloon in the heart of New York City, which closed within a year. Alexander died in poverty in 1858.
Irish actor Tyrone Power regarded Cato Alexander as "foremost among cullers of mint… for julep” and "second to no man as a compounder of cock-tails.”"The julep and cocktail are foundational drinks in the history of American mixology. Alexander was a master of both, and his carefully crafted drinks were the first to be described outside the United States as "cocktails."
Cocktails at the time were a combination of bitters, sugar, water and the spirit of choice. We’re honoring the memory of Cato Alexander with a gin cocktail we imagine might have been served at his famous roadside tavern: a Gin Old Fashioned.
2 oz London Dry Gin or Genever 2 dashes of bitters 1 sugar cube
Muddle the sugar cube and bitters in a mixing glass. Add the gin and fill the glass with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into an Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
For a smokier drink, use a barrel-aged gin. If you’re craving something sweeter, reach for the Old Tom Gin.