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Professor Jerry Thomas

In the 1850s professional bartender, Professor Jerry Thomas, went as far as London and Paris to find recipes

he would compile in his book “How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivants’s

Companion”.


He said the book contained clear and reliable directions for mixing all the

beverages used in the United States, together with the most popular British,

French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish recipes, embracing punches, juleps,

cobblers, ect., ect., in endless variety.


The first half of the book contains directions for mixing 236 drinks suitable for

public venues as well as private use. Appended to the back of the book are

instructions by another barman, Christian Schultz for the distillation and

manufacture of more than 400 cordials, liqueurs, and fancy syrups. The book was

especially useful in rural areas where the variety of liquors was limited and

shipments could be unreliable.


Anyone who had a copy of “How to Mix Drinks” could make an amazing amount

of mixed drinks. If a certain liquor was not available, a decent imitation could be

manufactured using herbs and spices stocked by the local apothecary which could

usually be found in a town. Thomas did forget to include advice on the practical

aspects of bartending. He corrected this in the 1876 and 1887 paperback editions of

the Bon Vivant’s Companion. The recipes and distillation formulas were

supplemented with suggestions about mixing drinks, work ethics, and the proper

handling of liquors.


Jerry Thomas was born in Sackets Harbor, New York in 1832. As a young man, he

learned bartending in New Haven, Connecticut before sailing for California during

its mid-19th century Gold Rush. While in California, Thomas worked as a

bartender, gold prospector and minstrel show manager. According to his 1885

obituary, he was left some money by his father, which helped in these travels.


Thomas moved back to the East Coast in 1851, settling in New York City. He

opened a saloon below Barnum's American Museum; it would be the first of four

saloons he would run in New York City over his lifetime. After running this first

bar, Thomas went on the road for several years, working as the head bartender

at hotels and saloons in St. Louis, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois; San Francisco,

California; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans, Louisiana. At one point

he toured Europe, carrying along a set of solid-silver bar tools.  He was well

known for his showmanship as a bartender: he developed elaborate and flashy

techniques of mixing cocktails, sometimes while juggling bottles, cups and mixers.

He often wore flashy jewelry and had his bar tools and cups embellished with

precious stones and metals. At the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, Thomas was

earning $100 a week—more than the Vice President of the United States.


Thomas developed his signature drink, the Blue Blazer, at the El Dorado gambling

saloon in San Francisco. The drink is made by lighting whiskey afire and passing it

back and forth between two mixing glasses, creating an arc of flame. His mixing of

the "Martinez", which recipe was published in the 1887 edition of his guide, has

sometimes been viewed as a precursor to the modern martini.


After traveling the world, Thomas found himself back in New York. Upon

returning to New York City, he became head bartender at the Metropolitan hotel.

In 1866 he opened his own bar again, on Broadway between 21st and 22nd Streets,

which became his most famous establishment. Thomas was an active man about

town, a flashy dresser who was fond of kid gloves and his gold Parisian watch. He

enjoyed going to bare-knuckle prize fights, and was an art collector. He enjoyed

traveling. By middle age he was married and had two daughters. Toward the end of

his life, Thomas tried speculating on Wall Street, but bad judgments rendered him

broke. He had to sell his successful saloon and auction off his considerable art

collection; he tried opening a new bar but was unable to maintain the level of

popularity as his more famous location.  He died in New York City of a stroke in

1885 at the age of 55.


Professor Jerry Thomas was the first to collect recipes and make them uniform, but

he was certainly not the last. Still without Thomas’ work, bartending would have

been very different out West and the world.

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