The Black Panther Party Had a Cocktail for the Cause
The Black Panther Party began over drinks, a gathering of a small group of people whose conversations grew into an entire field of committed actions around the world. The party also created its own signature cocktail, one that harbors some of the key ingredients for social change.
Party Leader Huey P. Newton's unofficial office was a soul food restaurant-bar in North Oakland called Bosn's Locker. Newton would hold court with the community for hours, often with his shotgun on display as the symbol of the party's work for the survival of Black life through armed self-defense from police violence.
"We drank beer and wine and chewed over our political situation, our social problems, and the merits and shortcomings of other groups. We also discussed the Black achievements of the past, particularly as they helped us to understand current events," wrote Huey P. Newton in his memoir Revolutionary Suicide. "In a sense, these sessions at Bobby [Seale's] house were our political education classes, and the Party sort of grew out of them."
By day, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale worked as community organizers at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center program where they met the party's first recruit, Robert "Li'l Bobby" James Hutton, a teen who had left school but found his calling alongside Newton and Seale's new organization, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Li'l Bobby Hutton had moved with his family from Arkansas to California during the second wave of the Great Migration, when African Americans fled the terror of rampant Klan violence and the oppression of Jim Crow in the South. Hutton was the youngest of seven children and his family lived close by the first Panther office.
Activist and educator Angela Davis recalled meeting Li'l Bobby in her eponymous 1974 autobiography. "I was most impressed by li'l Bobby. He was human, natural, and so clearly unconcerned about fitting the image of a cold, calculating revolutionary. Li'l Bobby initiated a friendly conversation with me by asking some everyday, down-home questions: where I was from, what I did. He had a beautiful smile and an uncorrupted, youthful enthusiasm. After talking to him for a few minutes, I knew that he was serious about the struggle and that there was little if any, egoism in his motives."
Hutton occupies a special place in the party history because he was also the first party member to lose his life for the cause. Two days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. amid national unrest, Panthers had a shoot-out with Oakland police. As Hutton surrendered to police, they gunned down the seventeen year old and he was shot more than ten times.
Across the nation Panthers raised a glass of Hutton's favorite drink, the official cocktail of the Black Panther Party, in his memory.
It went by many different names, all of them fierce: Panther Piss, Bitter Dog, and Bitter Motherfucker*. The basic ingredients were filtered lemon juice concentrate and port wine. Members often used Italian Swiss Colony and Gallo as the wine component, though particular brands were sometimes advised or banned for the purpose of expressing either solidarity or contempt for the forces behind them—and these directives were often shifting.
The Four Deuce's song "W-P-L-J (White Port and Lemon Juice)" offers the basic recipe for this "good, good wine that really make you feel so fine."
To make the drink you "open the bottle and drink the top part of the almost sickeningly sweet, cheap stuff—'the poison,'" recalled Black Panther Chief of Staff David Hilliard in his autobiography and party history This Side of Glory. Then you fill the bottle with a can or a half a can of filtered lemon juice concentrate, put the lid back on and shake vigorously, and then refrigerate the mixture until it is chilled.
Hilliard remembers other variations he and Huey P. Newton tested out in their youth. "[W]e experiment buying Rainer's Ale […] and even Thunderbird, combining ice-cold bottles of the wine with lime Kool-Aid. Looking like embalming fluid, the stuff makes your brain itch; compared to Thunderbird, the Bitter Motherfucker is a fine Burgundy. (Years later, I'm in Washington representing the Party and taken to a fancy restaurant. Condescendingly my host suggests I pick the wine. Château White Port, I coolly reply.)"
In Life on Death Row, acclaimed writer and incarcerated prison abolitionist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who, like Hutton, joined the party when he was a teenager in Philadelphia, claimed that a Bitter Dog was "a Philly refinement on the West Coast's Bitter Mothafucka—both composed of red wine and citrus; grapefruit in the MF, lemon in the dog."
Panther Piss was a sipping cocktail, consumed by passing around the shared bottle in kitchens or living rooms where people would stay up into the wee hours of the morning organizing community health programs and food and clothes distributions or writing articles and poems for community newspapers.
In her 1992 memoir, A Taste of Power, Panther leader Elaine Brown recounts when she and other members started studying at UCLA, they lived in the "Camelot house," a two-story, wood-framed apartment Panther collective, a place "where ideals could be nourished into a reality." Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, a founding Panther nicknamed "the Mayor of the Ghetto" for his leadership and involvement in Los Angeles street gangs, would roll by the Camelot house at midnight to join the conversations "to offer his future plan, to discuss the black economy or culture, to talk about revolution. He would tell funny stories and drink the 'bitter motherfucker,' Gallo port wine and lemon juice, and eat a 'hot-link' sausage sandwich garnished with hot sauce and hot peppers."
The Panthers' work was supported by the wider Black community, and food and drink were a crucial part of how their ideas were spread. The volunteers who sold the party's newspaper in the streets would talk about the group's 10-point program for change, and it was not uncommon for their customers to invite them in to have a drink of bourbon or wine and share a plate while they talked about ideas.
Assata Shakur, who would later become the first woman to be put on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list, still living in exile in Cuba today, was one of those volunteers. In her autobiography, Assata. she describes her first taste of a Bitter Dog when Minister of Culture Emory Douglas took her to see how the Black Panther newspaper was put together.
"A lot of young people were there and some elderly sisters and brothers. As we wrapped the papers in bundles, printed addresses, and counted out papers, we sang Panther songs and marching chants. Every now and then, a few stepped outside to sip a little bitter dog. This was supposedly a Panther invention made of red port and lemon juice. It wasn't too bad, once I got used to it, and by the time 1 a.m. came around, I loved it. Working on the paper distribution didn't even seem like work—it was more like a party. Somebody always gave me a lift home and I would fall into a happy sleep feeling refreshed and renewed."
Panther Piss was a spirit in the truest sense of the word. Its tartness shocked the taste buds, but it was also invigorating, helping people to relax and feel refreshed in the midst of struggle against escalating police violence and the onslaught of the FBI's covert campaign COINTELPRO. A Bitter Dog was almost always served up with good music like the southern shouts of James Brown or the catchy rhythm and blues of the Coasters.
"When it came to me, I took a long swig. It was sour yet sweet, with an aromatic taste to it. We passed the bottle around while the O'Jays' 'Look Over Your Shoulder' played in the background. Soon I could feel the effects—it was potent," recounted Seattle chapter founder Aaron Dixon in My People Are Rising. "We smoked some 'Brother Roogie,' the Panther codename for marijuana. We continued talking and laughing, and I began to loosen up, losing my stiffness. I began to feel like I was in the company of close friends, like we had known each other long before the party, long before this time and place."
The power of the Panther's work was rooted in connecting their ideals to concrete actions in the real mess of everyday life, and even the act of drinking a Bitter Motherfucker was itself a site for political reflection. Several members of the party's leadership banned the use of California wines or making the cocktail altogether in order to stand in solidarity with the multi-ethnic alliance of Filipinos and Mexican Americans in the United Farm Workers Union boycott of California grape growers.
This cocktail for confronting racism is a recipe for change like its name suggests. In his party memoir, We Want Freedom, Abu-Jamal describes it like this: "Movements—real social movements—always piss people off for they demand that which millions dread: change."
*Motherfucker or "Mothafucka'" is not merely an obscenity, but rather, as Bobby Seale explains in the glossary of terms at the end of his autobiography, a vernacular word that signifies power, one which comes from the system of slavery where white exploiters and enslavers raped Black women. It can be directed in anger toward a person someone dislikes, or spoken affirmatively, as Bobby Seale explains, "…[O]ne can use the word to refer to a friend or someone he respects for doing things he never thought could be done by a black man."
Olivia Mena is a writer and scholar. She teaches in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and she is writing a book about revolutionary drinks.