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Spirits 101: Who's Jerry Thomas?

Image of Jerry Thomas from a facsimile edition of his book
Image of Jerry Thomas from a facsimile edition of his book
LJ Solmonson

A man stands behind a bar, nattily turned out in vest, diamond neck pin, diamond cuff links and diamond rings, all agleam in the evening light. In each of his hands he holds a silver mug, from which he pours back and forth a flaming waterfall of scotch. The drink: the Blue Blazer. The man: Jerry Thomas, the "original" mixologist in the 19th century's golden age of cocktails. Without Thomas, aka the Professor, it's highly likely that we wouldn't be drinking the distinctive, envelope-pushing cocktails we're able to enjoy in this modern cocktail renaissance.

So, who was this marvel of mixology? He was, by turns, a gold miner, a sailor, an artist and an inventor. He tended bar in every important town from London to San Francisco. In the 1860s, while still in his thirties, he was earning more than $100 a week. While other barmen's names from the era are known, few are as steeped in celebrity as that of Jerry Thomas. 

Thomas' stardom has been assured for two reasons. First, in 1862, his bartender's guide How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant's Companion was published. The book was the first of its kind, a collection of all the great cocktail recipes of the time. The Mint Julep? It was there. The Manhattan and Tom Collins? You'll find them in the 1876 edition. But wait. Like the Ginsu knives commercial, there's more. Flips, fizzes, cobblers, punches. Recipes for making one's own syrups. Bottled cocktail instructions. The list goes on. Thomas was the P.T. Barnum of the bar, a showman par excellence, except that his offerings were never flim-flam. They were the real McCoy.

Barmen mixed drinks like those Thomas chronicled on a regular basis. And, then - then, they forgot (a vast oversimplification of history here). By the 1950s, '60s and '70s, cocktails were a pale reflection - watery ice, bottled sour mix, not a piece of fresh fruit to be seen of their past glory. Exhibit A: the day-glo maraschino cherry that graced so many a Shirley Temple and Old Fashioned.

Just think what it would have been like back in 1985 when Dale DeGroff, soon to be bartender at the Rainbow Room, discovered Thomas' book? The classic bar revival in America was about to begin. Which brings us to the second reason that we know Thomas so well today. That would be thanks in great part to David Wondrich, whose groundbreaking book Imbibe! (mentioned before in these pages) brought Thomas and the world of real cocktails to life at a time when the cocktail renaissance was seriously underway. And the rest, as they say, is drinking history.

For a far more detailed exploration of the man and the drinks, by all means turn to Wondrich. But if you aren't in a page-turning mood, simply do what Thomas himself would have suggested: Have a drink, as it would have been made back in the Professor's time.


Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at ljsolmonson@gmail.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.


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