Posted on May 10th, 2012
“To understand where we are going, we need to know where we came from.” – anonymous
I’m sure it has escaped no one’s notice recently that cocktail lists have changed. In the 90s and early 00s, vodka was King and we clamoured for drinks such as Cosmopolitans and flavoured Martinis. We hung out in minimalist, starkly-lit venues and those god-awful flavoured vodka-shot bars. Nobody drank gin unless they were over 50 and asking for a whisky cocktail was unthinkable; fast-forward to 2012 and things look very different. Vodka is still popular but it no longer dominates the palates of discerning drinkers. We’ve seen the revival of classic cocktails that grandpa probably drank when he was our age and it looks like he and his pals may have been onto a thing or two. Both consumer and professional knowledge is on the rise – two or three years ago, asking for a Manhattan might have won you a raised eyebrow or a small nod of appreciation from a bartender. Now, you’ll be expected to know exactly which brand of Bourbon or American whiskey you want and you’ll (hopefully) be asked whether you’d like it dry, perfect, or sweet. More than just a passing consumer fad for vintage drinks, it seems that the move towards the ‘classic’ is due to the increasing skill, time and dedication that bartenders are investing in their profession. A profession that can almost entirely be attributed to the work and skill of one man.
Like any industry, bartending has its key influencers and Jerry Thomas is an undisputed figure in this industry. To understand Thomas’ approach, we must realise that some of his work was more a product of necessity rather than creativity; he simply did not have as many ingredients to work with or as much choice as we do today. Thomas understood flavour and how to work with it but the fact is that cocktails in the 1800s were much simpler – often just a blend of spirits, sugar, water and bitters. Accoutrements such as cordials and syrups were all made from scratch, simply because they were not commercially distributed.
In Thomas’ time, water was often used for the dilution of spirits that had been transported in cask and thus at cask strength, hence the appearance of water in so many of his cocktail recipes. The translation of this influence is the trend we are witnessing today as spirits are increasingly being bottled at cask strength in order to give bartenders the ability to affect dilution and to play with taste. Bitters were also very important in the early 1800s; it used to be that every bartender would make his own bitters and some were already starting to blend their own liqueurs. As a category, bitters, due their being made from high-strength alcohol and plants, were regarded as medicinal at this time. The fact that many bartenders the world over have been raiding kitchens to produce their own bitters and syrups is both a response to Thomas’ creations but also stems from a desire to impart a personal touch to the drinks they serve.
It’s important to understand that whilst he may not have invented many of the cocktails of his era that we enjoy today, Jerry Thomas was the first person to put pen to paper – thus chronicling the birth of cocktail culture. To operate as a bartender before Jerry Thomas was more like being a member of a secret society than a recognised profession. Jerry Thomas changed things, he made a name for himself and his peers and by 1863, only one year after his handbook was published, he was already a well-known celebrity bartender. He then travelled across America, gaining experience and gradually accessing some of the best spirits and liqueurs in the world.
“The barkeeper and his assistants possess the agility of acrobats and the prestidigitive [sic] skills of magicians. They are all bottle conjurers. They toss the drinks about; they throw brimful glasses over their heads… I should like to be a barkeeper; if I were clever enough”
By the time he arrived in New Orleans the strength of the bartending fraternity was such that he was able to walk into any bar and build up his knowledge and contacts, thus adding to his reputation. Thomas’ heydays were between the 1850s-1870s. To avoid being drafted to fight in America’s civil war he left America for Europe. Upon his return, he worked in a number of taverns and saloons but he was unable to regain the stellar reputation he had held before his departure. The fact that he could not regain his notoriety must have broken his heart – Jerry Thomas died of a heart attack at the age of 55. As it transpired, Thomas was somewhat misguided in his belief that his reputation had slipped; upon his death he was honoured in newspapers across the whole of America, demonstrating that his skills lay not only in mixing drinks, but also as a self-publicist.
To understand the legacy of Jerry Thomas in today’s context, one must consider him a grandfather of the industry. He was certainly not the most skilled bartender, nor the most creative, but he laid down the foundations for those to follow after him. The fact that Thomas took the time to chronicle so many of the cocktails he made (whether or not he created them) makes his handbook and his methodologies such strong points of reference. We can take influence and inspiration from his recipes and apply our own ideas and interpretations and whilst we may no longer have the stomach for Rum Flips (heated brown ale and raw eggs, anyone?), we’re certainly enjoying the modern-day versions of Mint Juleps, Brandy Crustas and various Punch concoctions.
Beyond the construction of cocktails, Thomas’ relevance to the modern-day barman is indisputable. Thomas was not only a pioneer of exacting methods, and the beauty that is a simple, well-made cocktail, he also understood the value of presence. A journalist during this time wrote of Thomas and his peers: “The barkeeper and his assistants possess the agility of acrobats and the prestidigitive [sic] skills of magicians. They are all bottle conjurers. They toss the drinks about; they throw brimful glasses over their heads… I should like to be a barkeeper; if I were clever enough”. Thomas understood that whilst a good bartender can entertain clients and mix great drinks, the truly great bartender is one whose presence extends well beyond his bar.