Cocktails are all about stories. The story of the recipe, maybe even the ingredients, of who created it, of the first time you drank it.
Take the Jasmine cocktail. It’s a mixture of gin, fresh lemon juice, Cointreau (an orange-flavored liqueur), and Campari (a bright red bitter aperitif). The first time I heard about this cocktail was during my oral history interview with Paul Harrington, a former East Bay bartender, about the cocktail revival in the Bay Area.
Harrington kept returning to the story of one particularly significant drink. In the 1990s, he was bartending at the Townhouse in Emeryville, a section of the East Bay between Berkeley and Oakland, when his friend Matt Jasmin, whom he’d met in architecture school, came in. The Townhouse, which originally opened in 1926, had recently reinvented itself as a fine-dining restaurant with a bar to match. This was a time before cocktail menus were common. Jasmin asked Harrington to make him a drink he’d never had before. Harrington would often ask customers who wanted a bespoke cocktail a few questions, like what kind of mood they were in and whether they wanted something spirit-forward or refreshing. Harrington thought for a second and decided to swap out a couple of ingredients in the Pegu Club, a cocktail he loved, one that had shaped him as a bartender; he traded the lime juice and bitters for lemon juice and Campari. He shook up what became the Jasmine, a little bitter, a little dry, all nuanced.
He wrote about it in his classic book, Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, which was published in 1998 and would go on to influence countless young bartenders all over the country.
As an oral historian at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, I find that listening to the story of formative moments, how people make sense of where they are from, how they interpret their identities, drives home how complex our personal histories are and why the act of bearing witness is so valuable. When I first read Tommy Orange’s There There, I was knee-deep in my Bay Area cocktail oral history project, documenting why the Jasmine was so important to Harrington. Not far into the book, we meet Dene Oxendene, an Urban Indian, who is on his way to downtown Oakland to be interviewed for a cultural arts grant for a film project. He thinks about his uncle, who had explained his film project: “It’s about Indians coming to Oakland. Living in Oakland…. I asked them to tell me a story about how they ended up in Oakland, or if they were born here, then I asked what it’s been like living in Oakland.” In front of the grant panel, Dene explains he inherited this project from his uncle. He wants his subjects to narrate their answers in story form; whatever that means to them, and regardless of his own directorial vision, is OK.
Later, when Dene’s project is underway, he is interviewing Calvin, another Native man who grew up in Oakland. Dene makes a few suggestions of Calvin to kick things off:
“You’re gonna say your name and tribe. Talk about the place or places you’ve lived in Oakland, and then if you can think of a story to tell, like something that’s happened to you in Oakland that might, like, give a picture of what it’s been like for you specifically, growing up in Oakland, as a Native person, what it’s been like.”
Calvin regards himself more as an Oakland native than a Native. Dene hears this and isn’t sure how to get Calvin to the story, not wanting to force his own ideas. Instead, they talk about the project, which leads them to an honest conversation about their disparate interpretations of their identities.
When Calvin says that he doesn’t know if it’s right for him to claim being Native if he doesn’t know anything about it, Dene asks him if he thinks being Native is about knowing something. “No, but it’s about a culture, and a history,” Calvin responds.
We don’t all experience our lives, our histories, or, for that matter, our home the same way. In There There, a dozen characters feel their stories, interpret their stories, differently. Every time I conduct an oral history interview, I’m reminded of this. The Jasmine meant something different to Harrington than it did to the scores of young bartenders who made it later. To him, the cocktail represented a moment that proved he was good at his job—talking to people and making them happy, knowing which flavors pair well together, and understanding which classic cocktail recipes could be twisted into something new.
After Harrington left the industry in 1998, trading tins and spoons for blueprints and buildings as an architect, novice bartenders across the Bay Area turned to his book to develop foundational knowledge, and the drinks in his book took on new meanings. When I interviewed Erik Adkins, who helped open Flora in downtown Oakland, he pulled a tattered copy of Harrington’s book out of his bag as he started to talk about how it was a gateway to mixing cocktails. For Adkins, Harrington’s book was the start of something. He read it behind the bar on slow nights and glimpsed connections between old and new drinks. “Suddenly I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m making a Pegu Club! That’s what a Daiquiri is!” It helped him understand how a Pegu Club could become a Jasmine.
After listening to Harrington and Adkins, every time I sip a Jasmine it inevitably conjures memories of interviewing those who shaped the Bay Area cocktail revival—and what it meant to me to be the person in the room not directing their interpretations of moments over cocktails but instead really listening. Like the Jasmine, these narratives were layered, complex, nuanced.
By juxtaposing different perspectives of Urban Indians in Oakland, marked by their orbit around a place, Orange’s book asks us to consider how each of us experiences “there.” How Dene and Calvin see themselves, see Oakland, how they end up in the same place, at the climax, differs. The stories we tell about ourselves and others, how we bear witness, reveal a culture and a history and an individual.•
The Jasmine Cocktail Recipe
- 1 ½ ounces gin
- ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
- ¼ ounce Cointreau
- ¼ ounce Campari
Assemble the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add enough ice to cover the liquid. Shake until the tins are cold, about 15 to 20 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.
Please be sure to sign up for our free, monthly California Book Club, which will discuss There There with Tommy Orange on November 18 at 6 p.m. Pacific (please note the time change). To join the California Book Club, click here. Join us in the Clubhouse to talk about what most compels you about this novel.