The indispensable tool for the Massachusetts adult beverage trade.

Single Blog Title

This is a single blog caption


By Kirsten Amann
Did you know that in 1945, Michigan passed a law prohibiting women from working behind the bar? There was a loophole that allowed male owners to employ their wives or daughters behind the stick, but according to the new law, even women who owned drinking establishments were not permitted to work behind their own bars. Previous years leading up to this had seen a boom in female barkeeps in the U.S. “With many male bartenders now off serving in the military, somebody needed to serve those martinis,” writes Allison O’Meara in Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol. Bessie the Bartender’s service was understood to be just as patriotic as that of Rosie the Riveter for a while, but “when the war ended and men came back home, women were expected to put down the shakers and step back from behind the bar,” she writes.

March is Women’s History Month, and as our social and traditional media channels abound with tributes to historic women of the past and present this month, I can’t help but think about laws like this and how they would affect those of us working in the field if they suddenly passed today. I also think of the women who risked everything back then to flout the laws and forge their own paths for future generations.

The late Helen David of Port Huron, Michigan looms large among these inspiring 20th century barmaids. Helen was born March 24, 1915, the child of Tony and Elizabeth Hibye, who emigrated from Beirut, Lebanon to the United States. Her parents owned an ice cream parlor and candy shop which the family lived above and where Helen would reside until she passed away at 91. Helen’s father Tony died in 1937 when Helen was 21 years old in the midst of the Great Depression. Realizing they would need more than ice cream and sweets to support themselves, Helen’s mother decided to turn the ice cream parlor into a bar: “When Elizabeth first converted the family ice cream parlor into a tavern in 1937, Helen told her, ‘Proper ladies do not run a saloon,’’ writes Jeannette Hurt in Drink Like a Woman. “Elizabeth’s rejoinder: ‘A lady is a lady no matter where you put her, but she’s got to have a buck in her pocket.’” Preach, Elizabeth!

They opened the Brass Rail which would become one of the most beloved and legendary bars in Port Huron and beyond. Her younger cousin Tony Abou-Ganim, now a famous mixologist, traces his passion for the industry to the Brass Rail: “‘It was magic as a child,’” he is quoted in the Difford’s Guide: “‘Going in with my father, seeing my uncles behind the great bar with the huge mirrors, shiny brass, the onyx pillars, the Shirley Temples. I think that’s why I fell in love with the profession.’”

Helen was a mentor to Abou-Ganim, who is today a world-renowned beverage industry luminary known as the Modern Mixologist. He forged his own path in the industry bringing craft cocktails to Las Vegas casinos like the Bellagio, building bar programs in cocktail meccas of New York and San Francisco, appearing on Iron Chef, and mentoring a whole generation of aspiring bar stars. He credits Helen for teaching him to greet guests like family and treat them as you would treat guests in your home. Abou-Ganim keeps Helen’s memory alive today, through the Helen David Relief Fund, created with the USBG Foundation to help bartenders and families going through cancer treatment, and the Tales of the Cocktail Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes the achievement of an individual who has made significant contributions and lasting impact in the hospitality industry over the course of their career.

Vibe-wise, Helen’s Brass Rail was decorated to feel welcoming, and the original style was intentionally left unchanged for many decades. Helen kept it “like a living room” according to her cousin Maroun Abou-Ghanem who took over the Brass Rail after she passed away in 2006 and ran the bar until he died suddenly in 2021. “‘Helen kept it like a living room, and we wanted to make sure and keep it that way,’” he told THE KEEL in 2019. “‘Everybody loves the place.’” The Brass Rail was shuttered during the pandemic and sold but is today reopened and operating under new owners who are devoted to preserving its legacy.

In addition to being a spectacular host and proprietor, Helen is remembered for her community work and philanthropy and has been called the “Queen of Port Huron”. A whole second article could be written about her contributions to the community, and she was honored with many awards and accolades during her lifetime, including the 1974 Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Service Award; the 1975 Michigan Licensed Beverage Association Appreciation Award; the 1975 Humanitarian of the Year award from the American-Lebanese-Syrian Club; the 1983 Michigan Licensed Beverage Association Outstanding Membership Award; the 1985 Woman of the Year Award; the 1986 Spirit of Port Huron Award; the 1999 Women of Distinction Award by the Blue Water Council of Girl Scouts, and more. Her work lives on today through funds and benefit organizations created with gifts from her estate, which have provided $300,000 in total support to her favorite organizations since their creation.

Helen’s cousin Tony cites philanthropy as part of the reason the people of Port Huron turned a blind eye to the ridiculous 1945 state law prohibiting her from bartending in her own establishment. The law was challenged that same year by bar owner Valentine Goesaert, a widow who wanted to continue running her family bar after her husband died. The Goesaert vs. Cleary case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where it was unfortunately upheld. It emboldened institutions across the country to pass similar laws, and would not be changed for nearly 30 years.

Though Helen’s cousin described The Brass Rail bar as feeling “like a living room”, it boasts many original, unique design elements, such as custom stained glass, Tiffany lamps, and a huge piece of original woodwork spanning thirteen feet, two inches tall by sixteen feet, eight inches. Carved on either side of the mantle are two female figures, one representing the goddess of wisdom and another representing the goddess of knowledge. Cheers to Helen David, who had both of these qualities in spades. Her birthday, March 24, also happens to be National Cocktail Day. Let’s celebrate with a Brass Rail Cocktail created by her cousin, Tony Abou-Ganim.


1 1/2 ounces of Cruzan Single Barrel rum
3/4 ounce of B&B
1 ounce of lemon juice
1/2 ounce of simple syrup
1 tsp egg white
2 dashes of Angostura orange bitters

In a mixing glass, ADD rum, B&B, fresh lemon,
simple, egg white, and orange bitters;
SHAKE with ice until well blended. STRAIN
into a chilled cocktail coupe. GARNISH with
the essence of a burnt orange twist
and discard. SPRINKLE the surface
with ground cinnamon.