The Wilmington mixologist makes a mean cocktail — but he’s equally passionate about correcting history through his nonprofit, Third Person Project.
by Wiley Cash | photography by Mallory Cash
When you sidle up to a bar to order a beer or cocktail, you probably don’t expect your bartender to have authored two books, have a graduate degree in liberal studies or to be a leading advocate in the movement for historical justice. But if Joel Finsel is behind the bar, then that’s exactly what you get — along with a very good drink.
One crisp day in early fall, I spent an hour or so with Finsel in downtown Wilmington at the Brooklyn Arts Center, a deconsecrated church that was built in 1888 and passed through the hands of numerous congregations before falling into disrepair. It was saved by a public and private partnership in the late 1990s, and over the past decade has hosted weddings, community events and concerts by musicians like Brandi Carlile and Old Crow Medicine Show. The sprawling complex, which features the event space, a bridal suite, an annex that once served as an old schoolhouse, a courtyard and the Bell Tower Tasting Room, is now a busy hub of art, culture and celebration. It was in the Bell Tower Tasting room where I found Finsel, ready and waiting to mix up a few cocktails.
As Finsel mixed our first drink — a mulled apple cider — I asked him how he’s been able to build a career as a bartender with one foot in the literary world, another in modern art and another (apparently Finsel has three feet) in bartending. He smiled. “I think I’ve always been attracted to chaos,” he said. That surprised me: Finsel is one of the most measured people I’ve ever met, and to watch him work behind the bar is to witness a seemingly effortless precision.
The steaming-hot apple cider was poured with bourbon and garnished with star anise, lemon and a cinnamon stick stirrer. It tasted like a winter evening, presents wrapped under the tree and the kids blessedly asleep before the chaos of Christmas morning.
I asked Finsel about his childhood growing up in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, a small blue-collar town on the banks of the Lehigh River about an hour and a half northwest of Philadelphia.
“Until I was 5, my family lived in a trailer on a dirt road, 2 miles up along the side of a mountain. It was awesome because there were bears and deer, and you could just pick up rocks and there were orange salamanders everywhere,” he said. “And then my great-grandmother passed away and we moved into her house in town, which changed everything for me. I was suddenly in the middle of a small town and I could walk to high school and there were girls there.”
The abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline also moved to Lehighton in his youth in the second decade of the 20th century. Finsel’s mother had grown up in the area hearing stories about Kline and his work, and her interest led her to become one of the country’s preeminent specialists on Kline. When Finsel was young, his mother began working on a biography of the artist, but it wasn’t until Finsel graduated from college and was teaching school in Philadelphia that he asked for a look at the manuscript.
“I was home for Christmas, and I asked her if I could take a look at it,” he said. “What she had was a huge document of notes, but no structure.” Mother and son began working on the project together, and they would do so for over 20 years before Franz Kline in Coal Country was published in 2019. It was the first biography to examine the artist’s formative years in Pennsylvania, Boston and London before he became one of the founding members of the New York School.
The next cocktail Finsel prepared was the Cat’s Whiskers, a tipple of rye, honey, lemon and bitters that tastes like a party thrown by Jay Gatsby: a jazz band taking the stage, the audience filled with men in smart suits and women in flapper dresses, snow pounding against the stained-glass windows as the hour tips past midnight.
The book on Kline was not the first book Finsel had published. During a long career as a bartender — one that began in college and would lead to reviews and spots in publications like Bartender Magazine, Cosmopolitan and a profile in Playboy as one of the country’s Top 10 mixologists — Finsel had accumulated countless stories from coworkers and patrons, many of which he recounted in his 2009 book, Cocktails & Conversations, which mixes barroom lore with the histories of mixology and cocktail recipes.
One bar customer who had an enormous influence on Finsel’s life was the abstract expressionist Edward Meneeley, a contemporary and friend of artists like Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol. Finsel and Meneeley met while Finsel was in college at Kutztown University and working at a bar across the street from Meneeley’s art studio.
“Ed introduced me to mixing things like Campari and soda back in the day when everyone drank Captain and Coke, circa 1998,” Finsel said. “Ed would come into the bar and throw his old copies of The New Yorker at me and tell me I needed to educate myself out of this town, so I got to know the work of the magazine’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl pretty well. I wasn’t even 21 yet.”
The next cocktail Finsel made was the Lavender 75, in which West Indian Orange Bitters combine with gin, lemon, lavender and a splash of Champagne for an incredibly complex and layered taste, both dry and deeply flavorful.
When Finsel and his wife Jess James (who owns a popular vintage clothing boutique in Wilmington) moved to town in 2005, Finsel brought his two main interests south with him: mixology and contemporary art. He took a job as the bartender of Café Phoenix in downtown Wilmington and designed one of the first craft cocktail menus in the city. He also curated the art on the restaurant’s walls, hosting artists like his friend Meneeley and Leon Schenker.
Suddenly work by internationally known artists, valued at tens of thousands of dollars, was hanging where local art had once dominated.
It was after a few years there, where he eventually earned an MA in liberal studies from University of North Carolina Wilmington, that Finsel first learned about the 1898 race massacre, the only successful coup in American history that saw white supremacists murder untold numbers of Black citizens while overthrowing the local government.
He was shocked to learn that something so horrible had happened in a city he loved. It galvanized him to cofound Third Person Project, a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering and preserving history. One of the group’s first projects was gathering and digitizing copies of The Daily Record, which was the only newspaper for Black people in North Carolina before it was destroyed during these events.
Since then, the organization has gone on to host musicians like Rhiannon Giddens, who came to Wilmington to perform the “Songs of 1898” at a 2018 event with Finsel’s Third Person co-founder, writer John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Third Person has gone on to lead Wilmington in efforts to save historic buildings, mark burial places and uncover histories, often by partnering with local institutions like UNC Wilmington’s Equity Institute.
On a smaller scale, Finsel is also contributing to history with his impact on its cocktail scene. The final drink he mixes — the True Blue — is a good example. He created it years ago when he designed the cocktail menu for the Wilmington restaurant True Blue Butcher and Table.
The cocktail remains a fixture and, with its mix of pear, elderflower and bubbles, I understand why. Our interview is over and, as Finsel cleans up behind the bar, he tells me he plans to spend the rest of the afternoon working on an essay about 1898. Cocktails, conversation, curating, correcting history: it’s all in a day’s work.
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.