A Brief History of Red Drink

The obscure roots of a centuries-old beverage that’s now a Juneteenth fixture

a red drink bottle and glass with hibiscus flower
Early efforts to sow hibiscus on the mainland had mixed success. Today it grows in many states; in the South, hibiscus used in punch is known as “Florida Cranberry.” Alamy

Is red a flavor? The question can lead to spirited debate in soul food restaurants, at cookouts and in Black homes. For well over a century in African American communities, “red drink” has referred to a variety of highly sweetened, ruby-colored drinks with a berry-citrus flavor profile. The origin of this fixture has long been a mystery. But historians are tracing its roots to West Africa, where people first made red-colored teas from hibiscus flowers and the cola nut some four centuries ago. Among the best known is bissap, which hails from Senegal and has often been used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.

Judith Carney, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, has found that enslaved people taken from West Africa carried hibiscus seeds to the Caribbean, the first port of call on the slave route, where the plant thrived. As the displaced Africans adapted to the unfamiliar settings, they altered their red drink recipes, drawing on the flora and traditions of the different Caribbean islands, adding spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, bay leaves, sugar and occasionally spirits like rum. Today, hibiscus still grows in the Caribbean, where the flower-brewed red beverage became known as sorrel. Adrian Miller, author of the 2014 history Soul Food, says the continuing popularity of these beverages is a testament to the ingenuity of enslaved people “finding substitutes for the red drinks of cultural memory.”

Because the American mainland was not as hospitable to hibiscus, Miller says enslaved people in the Colonies adapted the drink again, replacing hibiscus with berries in the South and cherries in the Mid-Atlantic. According to Miller’s research, the earliest mention of red drink on the mainland dates to the 1870s South, where Black Americans colored lemonade red with strawberries, sumac or tartaric acid. “That was the drink for special occasions: going to the circus, emancipation celebrations,” Miller says. Powdered drinks like Kool-Aid, introduced in the 1920s, and red sodas like Big Red, invented in 1937, became popular substitutes for the homemade beverages. Then Caribbean immigrants brought sorrel to the U.S., and soon varieties of red drink were everywhere.

“This ancestral memory resonates with all of us,” says Jackie Summers, an African American distiller from Brooklyn who created a liqueur version of sorrel. “Red drink’s got terrific cultural significance because it’s a story of perseverance, of people who refused to die and a culture that refused to die.”

a parade float
A Juneteenth parade in Houston, 1976. The holiday recalls June 19, 1865, when African Americans in Texas were told of the Emancipation Proclamation, more than two years after Lincoln issued it. Benny Joseph / UNT

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This article is a selection from the June issue of Smithsonian magazine


Red Delicious: A Sorrel Recipe

The sorrel flower, of the hibiscus family, lends this classic punch its color and tartness, a pleasant counterpoint to the sweetness from the sugar. The drink is popular at cookouts and restaurants but also is a mainstay at holidays like Juneteenth and Christmas.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cinnamon stick
6 cloves
1 cup dried sorrel flowers*
1 cup sugar
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, sliced (optional)

STEPS:

Place ingredients with 10 cups of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and allow to steep at least two hours, preferably overnight.

Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a pitcher or glass bottle and store in the refrigerator. Serve chilled. The punch keeps for up to a week.


*available online and in Caribbean markets

Recipe courtesy of Ramin Ganeshram’s Sweet Hands: Island Cooking From Trinidad & Tobago