Why a Richmond trophy is featured in VMHC’s new “Cheers Virginia!” exhibit

The Dabney Cup
We were only allowed to touch the cup with cloth gloves, hence why it's so shiny. | Photo by RICtoday

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We’re continuing #DrinkUpRichmond with a look back at how Richmonders shared similar sips over the centuries in this Commonwealth.

We met up with Paige Newman, a curator at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. She’s spearheading the museum’s newest exhibit, “Cheers, Virginia!” — set to debut Sat., Aug. 6

The exhibit will be located just ahead of the Our Commonwealth display in the Susan and David Goode Gallery. One of the most mysterious artifacts guests will see at the celebration of Virginia craft brewing, distilling + fermenting is what’s dubbed “The Dabney Cup.” It’s actually a gift from the River City ~155 years ago.

John Dabney was a well-known Black restauranteur, bartender, and caterer in Richmond. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he was still enslaved while working the restaurant and bar at the Exchange Hotel & Ballard House + when he was given this trophy.

The cup, made entirely of silver, is engraved with the words, “Complimentary to John Dabney from the citizens of Richmond Va. Champion Julep” and the year 1860. The museum is working to connect the dots if this cup is the award from a competition in Warm Springs, VA

His concoction, the “Hailstorm Julep,” was named for how he chopped up block ice with a carpenter’s plane. He allegedly gave Queen Victoria’s son this julep when he visited Richmond the same year. 

“Dabney never wrote down his recipe for his mint juleps,” Paige said. “But his son said it contained ‘crushed ice, as much as you can pack in, sugar, mint bruised and put in with the ice… Then your good brandy, peach was Dabney’s preference. The top is surrounded by more mint, strawberry, cherry, or a pineapple.” 

Paige added that this summertime special would have multiple metal straws for guests to dig past all that ice. It was definitely made for sharing.

The artifact will be paired with a small book Paige says is the first mixology recipe record of all time, called “The Bar-Tender’s Guide.” In it, you can find julep recipes from the 1860s. In addition to these treasures, the exhibit will feature other old-school alcohol relics from all over the Old Dominion, including moonshine stills, 1990s Legend Brewing bottles + even temperance flyers from the Prohibition era. 

Book open to a Julep page
This isn’t a Dabney recipe, but what other bartenders could make in the 1860s. | Photo by RICtoday

That’s not the last call.

There’s no special tickets needed for “Cheers, Virginia!” outside of the $10 museum fee. It will be open for visitors through Sun., Jan. 29.

The exhibit’s opening day intentionally coincides with the annual BrewHaHa event, which will be hosted on the museum’s front lawn as a celebration of Virginia Craft Beer Month. Catch live music, food trucks + pints from local breweries. Tickets for BrewHaha are on sale now for $35 per adult. The festivities start at 6 p.m. Buy VIP tickets ($45) for an exclusive first look inside the new exhibit.

Doors with a blue sign in front of it
The exhibit will be located just ahead of the “Our Commonwealth” display in the Susan and David Goode Gallery

Two more celebrations coming this fall will also be attached to “Cheers Virginia!” monthly.

Virginia Distilled | Sat., Sept. 17 | 6 p.m. | This inaugural festival will honor Virginia Spirits Month with samples from local whiskey, vodka, and gin distilleries. Tickets will get you access to the spirits, museum admission, live music + a commemorative glass

Virginia Vines | Sat., Oct. 15 | 6 p.m. | Raise your glasses to Virginia Wine Month, and enjoy unlimited samples of VA vino, live music + a commemorative glass.

Pro tip: Designated drivers get into any of these festivals for $10. Stay thirsty, Richmond.