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Bartending Icons: Jerry Thomas

  • Kevin Gray

Jerry Thomas

Bartenders. The good ones are impossibly dexterous, effortlessly cool, elegantly nonchalant. And we appreciate that. So we thought it time to honor the best of the bunch. Up first: Jerry Thomas.

Known as the Father of American Mixology, Jer was a master behind the bar. As a teenager in the late 1840s, he cut his teeth in New York before heading west to tend bar during the California gold rush. He kept traveling, slinging drinks in Chicago, St. Louis, Charleston and New Orleans before settling back in New York, where he manned the bar at the Metropolitan Hotel. (Don’t go looking for it—the opulent structure once stood at the corner of Broadway and Prince, but was demolished in 1895.)

In 1860, Thomas opened his own bar at 622 Broadway (a quick search shows this storied locale is now a Best Buy), where he held court for a few years before closing up shop and opening at 937 Broadway and then again at 1239 Broadway. Eventually, financial troubles caused him to close this bar, which would be the last he ever owned. Reports have Thomas earning vast sums of money via his work, but reports also show he enjoyed spending that money on a lavish lifestyle that included a serious devotion to sports gambling.

But during his successful run—which included a stint back west at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco—Thomas solidified his reputation as America’s most celebrated saloonkeeper. He mixed cocktails the likes of which drinkers had never seen, and he drew crowds of locals and travelers, all in to see the “Professor” conjure his special potions. One such traveler included the prince of Wales, if anecdotes are to be believed. And why not? Thomas would’ve been the go-to barman for a wealthy dignitary with a taste for juleps.

It’s no small matter to note that in 1862, at the ripe age of 32, Thomas published a book, The Bartender’s Guide. This happened to be America’s first drinks compendium in an age where cocktails were closely guarded trade secrets. Inside: some recipes that are still in circulation today, like the Tom Collins, the Brandy Daisy (the template for the Sidecar) and perhaps his most famous concoction, the Blue Blazer, named for its fiery appearance. This fun number involves setting fire to whiskey and pouring it in lengthy ribbons between two silver mugs. It’s not what you’d call a do-it-yourselfer.

And all the while, the man maintained a serious dedication to dapperness. We’re talking natty vests, bow ties and a hearty mustache, which... sounds pretty similar to many of today’s bartenders.

These days, though, Thomas isn’t doing much (he died in 1885). But his legacy lives on. David Wondrich’s terrific book, Imbibe!—a must-have for any serious drinker’s bookshelf—paints a vivid picture of the larger-than-life figure. And the Bitter Truth, the German-based bitters makers, even created Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters based on a recipe belonging to the man himself.

So the next time you’re enjoying a fine libation, give a silent toast to Jerry. Or a vocal toast. Whatever’s your preference.