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A Red Drink to Celebrate Independence

This hibiscus iced tea is more than just delicious. 

I grew up in Houston and celebrated Juneteenth annually. In my community it was a festive, boisterous day of music and prayer, fueled by a huge spread of delicious, inviting treats. From sweets to meats, the tables were covered with seemingly limitless red foods and drinks. Why was all the celebratory food and drink red? To answer that, we need a little context.

In 2021, June 19 became a federal holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day, making it the first new holiday since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday became a federal holiday in 1983. 

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But Juneteenth isn’t new; emancipation has been celebrated in one form or another (at first mostly in Texas and Louisiana) since the enslaved were freed. The day has been known by names such as Black Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Manumission Day, and the 19th of June. 

“For a long time, Juneteenth wasn’t the only emancipation celebration,” says Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard Award–winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (2013). “African Americans across the country marked various milestones in the struggle for freedom on different dates, but that patchwork of community traditions faded over time. Wherever and whenever these celebrations took place, it didn’t matter what drink the hosts served—a carbonated beverage, lemonade, Kool-Aid, or punch—it just had to be red.”

Red drink is rooted in West Africa, but it holds a special place on African American menus. West Africans have long used their native plant hibiscus, also known as roselle, to make a popular hospitality drink called bissap. 

To make this drink, water is infused with hibiscus flowers (usually dried). Sweeteners (such as cane syrup), as well as fragrant, bright-tasting citrus, ginger, and other spices, were added to balance the bitterness. Enslaved West Africans brought memories of this drink to the Americas with them during the slave trade. 

Origins of Juneteenth

Prior to the Civil War, there were 19 free states and 15 slave states. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its second year of the war. His proclamation stated that all enslaved persons within the rebellious states were freed. (Because of legal technicalities, the proclamation freed slaves in only 10 of 15 slave states.) But the news of newfound freedom wasn’t disseminated as it should have been. It wasn’t until June 10, 1865—a full 29 months after President Lincoln’s proclamation—that Union Army General Gordon Granger was instructed to deliver the news to the people of Galveston, Texas. Records show that nine days later, he did just that. The date of that announcement, June 19, became a day of remembrance and celebration for African Americans. 

“Hibiscus was easily transplanted in the Caribbean because of the similarity in climate,” Miller says. “In Jamaica, the plants bloom around Christmas, and sorrel, a local and beloved riff on bissap, was created. Without regular access to hibiscus, the captives who arrived in temperate climates in North America relied upon fruit and dyes to create the desired color. The generic term ‘red drink’ was born. The extended family of crimson-colored beverages are a nod to bissap, even if they don’t have the same ingredients.”

So now, as a professional bartender, I know that our Juneteenth drinks were red because of cultural memory. But as a kid, the preparation felt like the lead-up to Christmas. What could be better than a day playing with my friends, family, neighbors, and church community and eating and drinking treats? Watermelon, barbecue, soda, cakes, balloons—it was even better than Christmas!

The special Juneteenth red drink for us kids was ice-cold Big Red soda. Bottles of the crimson beverage rested in ice chests while hibiscus iced tea (that was sometimes spiked with alcohol) was served out of large punch bowls or gallon jugs for the adults. 

You can make this astonishingly beautiful infusion an essential part of your Juneteenth holiday too. The flavorings or spirits you add are up to you; to spark your imagination, I offer recipes for both a basic tea and a version spiked with rum. But the red color is a constant—a constant reminder to celebrate liberation and happiness while remembering those who came before. 

Tiffanie Barriere is an educator and influencer in the cocktail industry and has a love for sharing African American culture and its influences on the American cocktail space. She currently lives in Atlanta and is recognized on all social platforms as The Drinking Coach.