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By Shanna Farrell
The cocktail is an American invention and was defined in 1806 as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” Cocktail culture took root on the West Coast around the Gold Rush; access to a specific set of spirits and ingredients dictated by trade roots, geography, and agriculture helped shape the West Coast cocktail in particular. We in UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) are beginning a new oral history project about the legacy of the West Coast cocktail, which will explore the cultivation of the West Coast cocktail’s identity and how it has contributed to the return of bartending as a respectable profession. We consider documenting bar culture important, especially because of the current explosion of cocktail bars around the country. However, due to the nature of the topic, this project won’t qualify for academic or grant funding. ROHO has instead had to look for non-traditional funding opportunities, which has presented us with a set of complications that we had yet to experience.
The people involved in the bar and spirit industry have a unique perspective on the ways in which American life has unfolded and intersected around cocktails. When I first began developing this project I reached out to famed bartender Dale DeGroff, cocktail historian and journalist David Wondrich, and PUNCH co-founders Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau for their insight in identifying interview themes and potential narrators. They are all now serving as our project advisors. We conducted pilot interviews with three Bay Area-based female bartenders and recorded four hours with Wondrich himself. Even early on, themes of community, labor, gender, ethnicity, geography, culinary influence, storytelling and myth making, the dissemination of information, state laws and regulations, bartender/customer relationships, and popular culture have emerged. We hope to interview at least thirty people, including bar owners, bartenders, craft spirit distillers, and cocktail historians, to further unpack these topics.
As the project lead, I’ve encountered various issues planning and rolling out the project, especially because of funding. In an attempt to involve the cocktail community, garner interest in the project, and draw people into ROHO’s archives, we decided to raise money through crowdfunding. We’ve been working for several months to get administrative approval, build out partnerships and out network, choose engaging content from our pilot interviews, and build a project website. This has taken a lot of time and though we are optimistic about the success of the campaign, using this funding mechanism is a risk. We are up against a hard deadline to deliver a large amount of content at campaign’s launch on 3 June 2014 and during its following five-week run.
Crowdfunding campaigns usually have a short video (two to three minutes) explaining the concept of the project, the need for financial support, and establishing its legitimacy. We also need to deliver regular updates throughout the five weeks of the campaign to keep our audience interested in the project. This requires pulling clips from interviews that illustrate the project’s exciting topics and themes. For example, we have one story about how Wondrich discovered that pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes called for Holland gin, which is essentially flavored whiskey not readily available in the United States until the past few years, instead of London dry gin, which is flavored vodka and has dominated the domestic gin market for the past twenty years. This proved to be a revelation for Wondrich while writing the hugely influential book Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar (Perigee Trade, 2007).
Once the campaign is over we will need to share completed interviews with the public as soon as we can to demonstrate that we are using contributions for the intended purpose; this is critical for the project’s reputation if we plan to use this fundraising method in the future. Content will have to be continuously created and sent to narrators for quick approval, which can be difficult due to schedules, file compatibility, and familiarity with technological mediums. Getting clips to narrators in a timely fashion has necessitated our use of free cloud-based technology, such as SoundCloud and Vimeo. Thus far, we have created private tracks on SoundCloud and private channels on Vimeo to share the files in a fast and easily accessible way.
This project will serve as a test for ROHO in many ways: will we be able to produce content, get it to our narrators for approval, and share it publically on a timeline that keeps our audience engaged? Will long-term use of various media outlets like SoundCloud and Vimeo prove successful? Will funders feel satisfied with the level of accessibility of the interviews? Time will tell how the project and its various set of challenges will unfold, but we hope to use digital age techniques to work around the challenges which crowdfunding has presented.
Shanna Farrell is an oral historian in UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office. She holds an MA in Oral History from Columbia University, an Interdisciplinary MA in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University, and a BA in Music from Northeastern University. Aside from her current project on the legacy of the West Coast cocktail, her studies have focused on environmental justice issues in communities impacted by water pollution. Her work includes a community history of the Hudson River, a documentary audio piece entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing: An Oral History” that explored the complexity of issues involved in drilling for natural gas, a study that examined the local politics of “Superfunding” the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, and a landscape study of a changing neighborhood in South Brooklyn.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OHR editors.
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Image credit: a midori sour on ledge over looking Coronado bay and San Diego. © AndrewHelwich via iStockphoto.