By Kandi Carper ’05
“My mother was funny about that,” laughs Cebula. “She didn’t think it was appropriate for me to watch the show.”
The Dean Martin Show was the epitome of the ’60s era – suave men in tuxedos and beautiful, sophisticated women in little black dresses. They held a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other. In today’s terms it was midcentury chic – the Mad Men era.
“Think about the movies and variety shows – James Bond, the Rat Pack,” said Cebula. “There’s something about cocktail culture, a social class, an etiquette around it – social niceties of the day that came with these rituals. Everyone was giggling and laughing after they had a drink or two.
“I grew up with parents who didn’t always have a cocktail hour, but they had some friends who were known for some great cocktail parties. I always had a fascination with the very cool glassware. I still remember this wrought-iron stand. It had a free-flowing wine decanter. I thought that was so elegant and beautiful.”
Years later, Cebula discovered it was apple juice in Dean Martin’s glass, but the mystique remained. This time period made a lasting impression on her, and she’s managed to turn this fascination into a profitable business while also educating people on the history and norms of those times.
Cebula and her businesses continue to evolve. Intertwined are Raising the Bar, her traveling popup shop where she sells “vintage and badass” barware; the public history education piece; and “Spokane Imbibes!” the cocktail history classes she offers. She is also considering an e-commerce business, a book club, vintage glassware rentals and private parties.
Cocktail Culture in a Glass
Cebula has her bachelor’s (1992) and master’s degrees (2016) in history from Eastern. As a history student, she began researching cocktail culture in America around the times of the world wars. Her interest was piqued while reading about the country’s culinary history.
“The mixed drink is actually America’s first culinary tradition,” said Cebula. “There’s not really an American food scene until quite late. However, when it comes to alcohol, America, very early on, during the colonial era, came up with different mixed-drink concoctions. People think that the British and others have long drink histories, and they did, but not with mixed spirits. That is really an American invention.”
Cebula also became interested in the glassware, tools, shakers, ice crushers and more. She started collecting a few sets here and there. While vacationing with her husband, Larry, in 2010, she discovered a tourist town on Cape Cod with an “all-things” barware store.
“There were a couple gals who had this amazing shop,” said Cebula. “They had new barware, but they also had a section of vintage barware, and it just took my breath away. They had it all – fine liquors. My idea was to do what they had done.”
But there were a few problems with that idea. As her husband pointed out, this store was close to Boston, with lots of money and people coming through. They were able to offer mixology classes, with little samples, but liquor laws vary from state to state.
“It became clear: there was no way I could have a brick-and-mortar store,” said Cebula. “It was just too much of a commitment. I kind of put it on hold, although I did keep collecting.”
In her travels, Cebula began seeing more and more popup retail, typically for women’s clothing. She took note of that and let the seed of that idea germinate.
“The popup mobile retail model did several things that I needed,” said Cebula. “It provided a shop to sell my barware and, compared to a brick and mortar store, it was much less capital. It offered a lot of flexibility to test the market and do weekend festivals while I was still doing other work.”
In July 2013, Cebula began selling her vintage and badass barware from her popup shop, a turquoise and white 1959 Aljo travel trailer she bought on Craigslist. She and her husband gutted the trailer and put in shelves to display the glassware, bar tools and memorabilia, most of it from the ’40s through ’60s.
A trip through the Raising the Bar popup shop is a trip down memory lane. You’ll hear people say, “My grandma had glasses like that.” Or, “My dad had that exact same ice bucket.”
It takes about three hours for Cebula to set everything up for business and even longer to break it down at the end of the day. Because everything is breakable, it all has to be carefully wrapped and boxed.
This year, she and her popup shop will travel to around 16 events, many in the Spokane-Coeur d’ Alene area, but during festival season, from May through October, she will also travel throughout the Northwest, visiting Portland, Seattle, Fremont, Kirkland, Issaquah and Chelan.
During the offseason, she continues to sell her barware in specialty consignment shops. In the upcoming years, she’ll most likely move to an e-commerce model.
Even though she’s part of the popup shop revolution, Cebula is still a historian at heart. She believes that having her master’s degree and a scholarly history component adds credibility.
“There are a lot of cocktail historians out there, but they aren’t all equal in their scholarship and their historical accuracy,” said Cebula. “Having that traditional academic history training, knowing how to do research and following the trail of sources – it’s important to me because it adds a solid foundation.”
Cebula grew up in Spokane and met her husband, Larry ’92, in professor Ennis’ Columbia Latin American history class at EWU. She was an undergraduate student and Larry was a graduate student. They would go to the PUB for coffee after class. “That’s the history of our history,” Cebula said.
After they graduated from Eastern, Larry continued his education at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, and she remained in Cheney until they eventually married and moved to Joplin, Missouri, where he taught at Southern State University, and she taught high school history.
During the 11 years they lived in Missouri and afterward, the Cebulas were able to collaborate, to develop curricula, write grant proposals and conduct history education workshops.
When they returned to the Northwest in 2008, Professor Larry Cebula became a public historian with a joint appointment at the Washington State Digital Archives and Eastern Washington University. Today, he coordinates the graduate program in public history at EWU.
Like Renee Cebula, there are genuine, scholarly organizations, such as the National Archives, the National Constitution Center and the Smithsonian Institute that have been involved in researching and studying the history of drink, utilizing that history to tell the larger, deeper story.
In March, at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Baltimore, Cebula engaged in discussions with public historians and museum professionals about incorporating the history of drink in the study of public history. She did a poster presentation: History for Hipsters: Cocktail Stories Served Straight Up.
Public history entities, including museums, have been good at connecting with the K-12 age group, especially elementary school students, but the demographic that all the museums and art galleries are trying to reach is millennials – the 20- to 40-year-olds.
“Everyone is trying to figure out how to tap into that group,” said Cebula. “I think this is the perfect avenue to try to serve a shot of history right alongside that craft cocktail. Why not make history enticing, multisensory and interactive?”
And conversely, without an interesting backstory, a cocktail is no more than a glass of liquor and mixer. Or more accurately, as Cebula would point out, a cocktail is any drink made from spirits, sugar, water and bitters.
Cebula is looking at ways to use cocktail history and the craft cocktail movement to really tell early histories of where we live because those drinking stories are part of the social fabric of our town. Drinking history is inclusive, cutting across lines of class, race and gender.
“Spokane was a working man’s town, which meant it was a drinking man’s town,” said Cebula. “In the 1900s there were more than 130 bars in Spokane. After Prohibition, women entered the bar scene as well.”
Through “Spokane Imbibes!” Cebula offers monthly, themed classes, planned into 2017 and held at some of the best up-and-coming local craft cocktail bars in the area. The interactive classes explore the stories behind the cocktails, the ingredients, the mixologist’s secrets to mixing, muddling, shaking and pouring a proper craft cocktail, and of course, the tastings.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of cocktails in America, Cebula recommends these books among others: How to Mix Drinks (1862) by Jerry Thomas ; Imbibe! (2007) and Punch: The Delights and Dangers (2010) both by David Wondrich. Thinking of throwing a cocktail party? Check out Craft Cocktail Party by Julie Reiner or The Cocktail Club by Maureen Christian-Petrosky.
Cebula says that while proper barware and knowledge can certainly add to the experience, anyone (over 21) can do this for fun.
“You don’t need to become a bartender or read a lot of books,” said Cebula. “You don’t need a big bar. You can have a nice tray and a set of glasses and a couple of spirits and a mixer and start playing, practicing and experimenting, and it grows from there. We can all raise the bar.”