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Montana’s Great Lost Barman

June 19, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

art: Nick Hensley

Julian’s Recipes, the second cocktail book ever to be written by a Black bartender, is the legacy of Julian Anderson, whose drinks were considered to be “better than the finest.”

When one thinks of the origins of classic cocktail manuals published in the years preceding Prohibition, a few capitals of drinking culture come to mind: New York, Chicago, San Francisco. Helena, Montana, would be far down the list. And yet that frontier city did in fact, in 1919, produce at least one bartender who turned out a culturally significant cocktail book. Julian’s Recipes, by Julian Anderson, is not only one of the last cocktail books to be released before Prohibition (it went into effect in Montana in 1918), but it was only the second to be written by a Black bartender, following 1917’s The Ideal Bartender by St. Louis’ Tom Bullock.

Bullock’s book has received renewed attention, and sales, in recent weeks, as the nation grapples daily with its legacy of systemic racism and works toward properly acknowledging the voices of Black Americans in all fields. Anderson, however—a contemporary of Bullock, and a figure I only learned of, and began researching, late last year—has not received his due.

Though little-known today, Julian’s Recipes remained a publication of local note in Helena for decades, owing largely to Anderson’s longevity and constancy. He lived to the age of 102, dying in 1962, and for 60 of those years, he worked at The Montana Club, the oldest social club in the state. By the 1940s, Anderson was a citywide institution within an institution, as well as a living through line to the cocktail golden age of the late 19th century.

A 1938 photograph in Helena’s Independent Record newspaper shows a trim man in a white jacket with a dark tie, straining a drink from a great height into a coupe that he holds steady with his other hand. The caption testifies that Anderson’s drinks were considered to be “better than the finest.”

Perhaps the finest of those drinks was the Mint Julep, for which Anderson was renowned. “Rightfully recognized for fame are Julian’s mint juleps, which have been discussed from Havana to Toronto, from San Francisco to Boston,” wrote Ann McCabe in the Independent Record in 1943. Part of the secret to the Juleps’ success was in the mint, which came from Anderson’s own backyard garden, born of cuttings from his childhood home in Bowling Green, Virginia. “Many claim it is ‘the mother of all mint in Helena,’” wrote McCabe.

The recipe included in his manual testifies to the considerable time Anderson spent perfecting the drink. It contains not just bourbon, but brandy and a teaspoon of Jamaican rum. It is sweetened by four cubes of sugar and crowned with copious mint, as well as pineapple, orange, cherry and powdered sugar. (The Juleps were so popular that, even after Anderson’s death, The Montana Club continued to serve them during a dedicated Mint Julep Month “as they were served by Julian Anderson,” according to the Independent Record.)

Details on Anderson’s early life are hazy. The exact year and date of his birth were unknown even to him, though he observed September 23 as his birthday. His parents, Julian and Frances Anderson, were household slaves for a white family in Caroline County, Virginia. At the outbreak of the Civil War, they moved to Europe, either alone or, more likely, in the company of the family they worked under. Anderson believed he was born in Hamburg, Germany.

Upon returning to Virginia after the war, Anderson moved to nearby Washington, D.C., then to Denver, where he worked as a bellhop at the American House, then to Laramie, Wyoming, where he landed at a bakery and confectioner’s shop—a stint that he later credited with helping develop his mixing skills. Though he noted, in 1943, that his drink-making talent “just came natural.” (His talent was all the more remarkable given that, by his own admission, he never drank.)

He moved to Helena in 1886, where he swiftly moved up the ladder of the local hospitality trade. He worked as a porter at the Merchants Hotel before being promoted to manager. After a season as a night clerk at the Broadwater Hotel, in 1893 he finally landed at The Montana Club, a “very exclusive club of men,” as he later described it. (In a 1953 interview, he expanded on that, drolly referring to the members as “Capitalists, you might call them.”)

The Montana Club was a magnet for dignitaries passing through Helena during those years. Anderson served the likes of author Mark Twain, stage star Otis Skinner, politician William Jennings Bryan, Prince Olaf of Norway and Belgian royalty. His favorite customer, however, was Teddy Roosevelt. “He was President then and about the biggest man in the world,” Anderson recalled in 1953. “Everyone respected him and his word was generally law, but he was kind and pleasant to me.”

Anderson’s book is brief, barely 20 pages long and with roughly 60 recipes. But it provides a fascinating window into what an American could expect to find at the best bars, even as far north as Montana, in the 1910s. The selection of cocktails shows that Anderson had been a student of the notable bartenders who had come before him, including George Kappeler and, particularly, Harry Johnson, who seems to have been a significant influence. Anderson served every liquid delicacy the country had enjoyed since cocktails first came into their own in the mid-19th century, including the Sherry Cobbler, Pousse Café, Sazerac and Absinthe Frappé. Anderson’s instructions for Champagne Punch, Egg Nog and Tom & Jerry are as intricate as those for the Julep. The book also contains one of the earlier printed recipes for the Daiquiri (here named “Dai-qui-ri”) and the club’s house drink, the Montana Club Cocktail, a sweet Martini made with Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth—very apt, given that the club and the Martini came to life during the same decade, the 1880s.

If the behavior of the club membership and the attentions of the Independent Record are any measure, Anderson was a respected local figure who only became more venerated as the years went by. He was fêted by the club on the occasion of his 45th year of service in 1938, and again on his 50th, 55th and 60th anniversaries. Yet another party was thrown when he turned 100 years old, at which he was presented a punch bowl brimming with 100 silver dollars. (In a 1943 republication of his book, the club called Anderson “the master of mixers.”)

When Julian’s Recipes was published, Anderson subtitled it “In Remembrance of Olden Times,” perhaps assuming that cocktail culture in the United States, as well as his days as a bartender, were things of the past. Neither would prove true. He went on to spend another 34 years behind the bar, and cocktail culture would return not only with the repeal of Prohibition, but again decades later, leading to renewed interest in what one man accomplished in Helena more than a century ago.

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