The misperception of spirits in America dates back well before the trafficking of alcohol met resistance and ultimately led to the outlawing of all alcoholic beverages nationwide from 1920 to 1933, when Prohibition was ultimately repealed. Our Puritanical roots have led us astray in at least one significant cultural endeavor. Yet, the mastery of mixology was ultimately born here on our shores. At some point along the way, our indifference and in some cases disregard have resulted in a loss of historical record and acknowledgement of accomplishment that bartenders have played in extolling a significant link to our culinary contributions and social history.
So it came to pass, on an abnormally cold early-March evening, that Slow Food NYC sought to shed light on a most significant and heretofore unknown figure of American culinary lore, ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas’. The good ‘Professor’ (so named by discerning patrons and media in New York) called many cities around the world home during his tenure as most noted bartender of his day. A deserved titan in American culinary teachings, Thomas has long been forgotten-until now. His influence on American cultural esthetic equals that of Samuel Clemens and Walt Whitman. His life was short, from 1830-1885, but his considerable offerings behind the bar still resonate today. In addition to sharing his mastery of mixology with patrons from every walk of life, Thomas’s most significant contribution was his publication of drink recipes, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion (1862), the first of its kind. In it, Thomas provides the discerning bartender a guide to the finest ‘Cocktails, Punches, Juleps, Daisies and Syrups’ (306 recipes in all), to name a few. Recipes created without the farce of artificial syrups and concoctions that have become all too common today, but with the true flavors of natural spirits and ingredients of quality and integrity.
On the corner of Central Park South and Fifth Avenue, under the subtle lights of The Plaza hotel’s famed Oak Room, we took a collective step back in time that evening to celebrate the birth of mixology and raise a glass to fine drink and friendship. Our guest list of Slow Food members, local and international media, as well as sponsors from The Plaza and Hennessy Cognac were treated to the likes of ‘The Blue Blazer’, an otherwise unimpressive concoction of boiling water and Talisker Scotch whisky with a touch of simple syrup. Only in the hands of the ‘King of Cocktails,’ Mr. Dale DeGroff, does the drink come to life in full force and drama as it is set ablaze and passed between two tumblers in long shimmering blue mane. Finished with affectation, Mr. DeGroff, who is the author of the recently published The Craft of The Cocktail, lights an elegant garnish of lemon twist over the completed potion before it is served. Jerry Thomas himself performed this feat no better, I am certain. As Thomas wrote in his landmark publication, ‘The Blue Blazer does not have a very euphonious or classic name, but it tastes better to the palate than it sounds to the ear. A beholder gazing for the first time upon an experienced artist compounding this beverage, would naturally come to the conclusion that it was nectar for Pluto rather than Bacchus.’
Attended by the most esteemed and celebrated mixologists on the continent, our meeting of bartenders not only shared in their esteem for Jerry Thomas but also for his skill in blending flavors, equal to that of chefs who are held in the highest regard for their exploits in the kitchen. In their every day work and through their participation in our Tribute, they have rekindled a love for authentic drinks, drinks that in many cases are as accessible today from a palatability standpoint as they were over one hundred years ago. It is no surprise then that these vintage drinks taste great. In addition to Mr. DeGroff, our celebrated bartenders included:
Mr. Ted ‘Dr. Cocktail’ Haigh, co-owner of CocktailDB.com, the expert’s expert on cocktails and cocktail history.
Mr. Robert ‘Drink Boy’ Hess, founder of DrinkBoy.com, also the moderator of MSN.com’s popular cocktail message board.
Mr. George Papadakis, Head Bartender of the historic Oak Bar, with the Plaza since 1953.
Mr. Sasha Petraske, owner and head bartender of Milk & Honey, New York’s much-acclaimed temple of traditional mixology as well Milk & Honey, London.
Mr. Gary Regan, one of the world’s foremost experts on drink in all its guises. He is a frequent contributor to journals on food and beverage.
Ms. Audrey Saunders, a star protégé of Dale DeGroff, the beverage director of New York’s Hotel Carlyle and its Bemelmans Bar.
Mr. David Wondrich, cocktail and mixology journalist for Esquire and Esquire.com, the author of Esquire Drinks: An Opinionated and Irreverent Guide to Dinking.
For the record our drink list for the evening included Arrack Punch, The Blue Blazer, Brandy Crusta, The Gin Daisy, The Japanese Cocktail, The Manhattan, The Martinez and Tom & Jerry. The Oak Room, which was founded in 1907, was the site of the original Men’s Bar at the Plaza. It looks virtually the same as it did at its inception, save for the fact that the original bar was removed in 1920 to comply with regulations pertaining to Prohibition. In addition to the deft performances of our mixologists, the Cocktail Tribute was replete with the standard and once common, ‘Free Lunch.’ Long banished from the bars of America for economic reasons, the ‘Free Lunch’ was widespread in bars and saloons before Prohibition. Patrons would be treated to a light fare of salty and cured foods, certain to induce thirst and satisfy hunger. Most likely though the extent of the ‘Free Lunch’ (which often included the likes of cheeses, smoked, salmon, baked ham, hard-boiled eggs and cured sardines) can equally be attributed to the convivial nature of a time when there was less concern for turning tables and up-selling than upholding the social value of service to patrons. While the ‘Free Lunch’ has been reduced to peanuts and pretzels (if anything at all), it actually thrives in many European bars; a testament to the significant contribution American cocktail culture has played internationally.
It’s an odd thing to consider what America has contributed to the vast world of meaningful culinary endeavors. Certainly we have modified, borrowed, bastardized and perfected a few culinary traditions from around the world to suit our own tastes. But what have we offered that is truly of our own origin and creation? For starters, consider the Cocktail. And for that we can toast Jerry Thomas.
For the complete list of the drink recipes featured at the Slow Food NYC Tribute to Jerry Thomas e-mail Allen Katz at [email protected]
Allen Katz is co-leader of Slow Food NYC