Jerry Thomas and Early Inspiration

by Rhett Williams

Now that we’ve clarified that Prohibition did considerably more harm than good, we can trace the evolution of mixed drinks and bartending techniques back even further. 

Drink-makers from the late 1700’s until the 1830’s had to work with fairly archaic tools, serving punches, nogs, slings, and the like, using hot pokers, toddy sticks, and tumblers or mugs. Ice was not only scarce but difficult to work with, so hot water was a more common mixer. Fruits were common in cities and rare in the country, and conversely the country had readily available dairy and clean water. Single-serving Punch became all the rage by the turn of the 19th century, as did the Julep and the Cock-Tail, though the quality of your drink was very dependent on where in the country you were ordering it.

In the 1830’s, ice became a much more regular commodity, changing drinking habits forever. Cold drinks became expected, straws became popular, and bartenders had to learn ice-handling skills and tools. This included the invention of the barspoon, with which to stir the ice, and the shaker to shake it. By the 1880’s, the drinks themselves had become as fancy as the bartender’s tools, including fruit, bitters, liqueurs and cordials, wines, and more readily available spirits. Presentation became paramount to the craft.

“Professor” Jerry Thomas is not confirmed to be the ‘best’ bartender at the time, but he was well-known and mixed drinks in many cities across the U.S. for thirty years, at one point supposedly having a higher income than the President (at the time ~$100 per week). Why he is important is mostly because he wrote what is considered the first comprehensive book on bartending and mixing drinks, aptly titled “How To Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion” in 1862. It contained information on tools of the trade, techniques, and a wealth of recipes. With the turn of the 20th century being the summit of cocktail culture’s popularity, and arguably no better book on bartending being published until the 1930’s, this makes Jerry Thomas the most important bartender of all time.

As bartenders today, we have to understand how drinks were made when they were made best. This is not just geeking-out on history; the more drinks you make the more you realize how important the details are. The quality of ice, the proper tools, the right balance in taste, and the best products possible are the keys to making the best drinks, just as they were 150 years ago. Bartenders need to understand why these things are important before trying to push the envelope, reinventing the wheel, or some other suitable cliché. 

For those of us most interested in classic cocktails, the story stops in that time period. We believe bartenders had it right before Prohibition. We are most interested in the drinks from that period and have no desire for the aforementioned clichés. We also believe that the greatest challenge is to make a perfectly balanced but incredibly simple drink.

Lastly, enjoying and making a classic cocktail is the excitement of tapping into the history of that time. Personally, this is why I find bartending so rewarding. Well… that and alcohol is awesome.

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