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Lee-Fendall House Chronicles the History of the Cocktail

The port city of Alexandria played a major role in the production and consumption of liquor

Alexandria, VA — The Lee-Fendall House Museum celebrated the origins and history of the humble yet mighty cocktail in a fun event over the weekend called Cocktail Chronicles, focusing on the Golden Era of the Cocktail, 1860s-1920s. The event included a silent auction of an important photograph of the home’s previous owners, to add to the fundraising efforts to rebuild the crumbled brick wall on the property.

Lee-Fendall’s Cocktail Chronicles had guests arrive at scheduled entry times to keep crowds down and distancing up. (Photos by Susan Mulligan Fleischman unless otherwise indicated)

Three classic and very old cocktails were mixed on-site: the Original (gin, water, bitters, sugar, and grated nutmeg), the Moral Suasion (sugar, lemon, brandy, Benedictine, Curaçao, and cognac with strawberries, lemon and orange), and the Sazerac (sugar, whiskey, bitters and lemon, with a hint of absinthe). Appetizers and snacks were also available.

Lee-Fendall House Executive Director Martha Withers explained the original event was Sips and Secrets, but they needed to change that up due to the pandemic. “We had a lot of fun researching these old cocktails,” Withers said. “Alcohol was a major part of the history here in Alexandria. We wanted to talk about that more and embrace the social history.”

Lee-Fendall House Executive Director Martha Withers mixes a Sazerac.

Amanda Roper, Manager of Interpretation, explained the connection during a short, informative presentation. “There’s sadly a dark history here. Sugar was a core ingredient in cocktails, but it came from plantations that practiced brutal slave labor.”

Manager of Interpretation Amanda Roper gave an informative presentation on the history and legacy of the cocktail.

Sugar was used to improve the taste of the liquor, and bitters were added for flavor and medicinal qualities. The first Bartenders Guide was published in 1862 by Jerry Thomas, an American bartender with a flair for the dramatic. By the latter part of the 19th century, people were looking for a smoother taste and finish, and vermouth seemed to fit the bill. With it came the birth of two popular cocktails that remain in vogue today, the Manhattan and the Martini.

Lee-Fendall Docent Mary Almond prepares to mix up a Moral Suasion. It was delicious!

Alexandria has a long history of alcohol production and consumption. Philip Fendall and George Washington were friends and had thriving distilleries. A New Jersey man named E.E. Downham came to town and set up a grocery business, but discovered the liquor business was far more lucrative.

The Downham family in the garden at the Lee-Fendall House. E.E. Downham is the older gentleman, lower right. A print of this photograph was auctioned off at the event to raise funds for the wall rebuild. (Photo courtesy of Lee-Fendall House)

In 1903, Downham’s son, Robert Downham, bought the Lee-Fendall House. Nearly 120 years later, the event organizers at Lee-Fendalll house auctioned off a fabulous black and white photograph of the Downham family, pictured in the same garden with the women raising a glass, to help raise funds for the crumbled wall at the historic home.

Fundraising is underway to rebuild the collapsed wall, but they still a long way to go. Consider donating! www.leefendallhouse.org

What’s Next for Lee-Fendall?

The Lee-Fendall House Museum will be hosting a new special exhibit this October entitled “Love and Death: Victorian Hair Keepsakes.” From intricate wreaths of hair woven together from members of a single family to intimate jewelry pieces created to remember a deceased loved one, learn about how this custom developed and the skills required to fashion these keepsakes. 

Courtesy of Lee-Fendall House

This exhibit will feature objects from the Lee-Fendall House Museum collection as well as the private collection of Mary Almond and will be on view October 1-31, 2021. Note, Mary Almond first introduced us to this Victorian mourning jewelry on an episode of Trash or Treasure on Z-TV.

Additionally, the Lee-Fendall House Museum has several other events and exhibits coming up, including Prohibition Walking tours and Ghost and Grief tours (just in time for Halloween!) as well as a Civil War Walking tour and a special presentation in November, “Under the Same Roof: Enslaved and Free Workers.” Visit www.leefendall.org for more, and to donate.

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