Punch Drunk: On Jerry Thomas' Bar-Tender's Guide

I was looking for a punch. I'm not sure why. I wasn't planning a party, but having just watched the first debate, keeping a recipe on hand that would obliterate all memory of politics and the election seemed like a very good thing.

A friend suggested that I consult Jerry Thomas' Bar-Tenders Guide. He did not tell me, at least not at first, that Jerry Thomas died in 1885, with a reputation as one of the country's first true mixologists, a bartender so famous he was given an obituary in The New York Times.

How odd it is that a bartender gets remembered at all. Bartenders, after all, make drinks, which are more ephemeral than meals and kisses, and are made and enjoyed mostly to complement more pressing social pursuits. More to the point, a bartender's particular skill set leads directly to inebriation, a state of mind that tends to limit one's memorability.

There is the occasional bartender whose dexterity with a bottle or a shaker can lead to a momentary thrill, like an exotic form of juggling (immortalized by Tom Cruise in Cocktail). This set of skills is known as "bar flair," and is, I've learned, scrutinized by an organization called the FBA (see barflair.org). To each his own.

Thomas, apparently, could do both. Not only was he the godfather of mixology, apparently he also was one of the early flair masters. His signature drink was the Blue Blazer, a Scotch and sugar concoction that was lit on fire and tossed from flagon to flagon, resulting in a blue arc of flaming liquid ("The novice in mixing this beverage should be careful not to scald himself," he wrote in the Guide, adding helpfully, "It will be necessary to practise [sic] for some time with cold water.")

Thomas was born in 1832 in upstate New York. As a young man, he got around. He took part in California's Gold Rush and worked minstrel shows, hotels and saloons from San Francisco to St. Louis. He acquired a drinks repertoire that at the time was unparalleled, which he used to full advantage upon his return to Manhattan. At his famous tavern on 22nd and Broadway, Thomas perfected countless recipes for flips, sours, shrubs, smashes, cobblers and, of course, punches; most of these he collected in pamphlets, to which he added for the duration of his life. His obituary lists him as the originator of the Tom and Jerry, and while the drink probably preceded him, he did much to popularize it.

Thomas' Bar-Tenders Guide (there are several versions -- I'm looking at an 1887 reprint) reads like an encyclopedia of 19th-century enjoyment, though it must be said that the use of sugar, whether powdered or in loaf form, suggests the pre-Prohibition saloon crowd had one hell of a sweet tooth.

As for the man's punches, they aren't all that different from those served at a contemporary holiday party: a crazy amount of booze, mixed together with fruit (usually citrus), sugar and some other defining ingredient, whether orgeat, maraschino liqueur, arrack, Champagne, port, boiling milk, what have you.

For your election-season pleasure, here's one of his more stalwart recipes. And look for more on the blog in the coming days.

(Editor's note: Tonight's hopefully highly comic VP debate, and two more upcoming Presidential debates, may require some very serious drinking. See also: How Drunk Would You Be If You Actually Followed the Presidential Debate Drinking Game?)

Philadelphia Fish-House Punch

From: Bar-Tender's Guide, by Jerry Thomas

Serves: Generally sufficient for one person

1/3 pint of lemon juice

3/4 pound of white sugar dissolved in sufficient water

1/2 pint of cognac brandy

1/4 pint of peach brandy

1/4 pint of Jamaica rum

2 1/2 pints of cold water

1. Ice and serve.


Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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