IT'S been a long time between drinks for Jerry Thomas, probably the most famous bartender ever to serve a cocktail in New York. He died of apoplexy in 1885 at the age of 55, and it has probably been more than a century since anyone has bothered to concoct the punches, smashes, sangarees and cobblers he made famous in "How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant's Companion," first published in 1862. But there they were, on display and ready to drink, in a tribute to Thomas held this month in the Oak Room at the Plaza hotel.
The event was an antiquarian lark, with overtones of a séance. Hands trembling, cocktail devotees reached for drinks that had not been seen in generations, like the brandy crusta, the gin daisy and the Japanese cocktail. But the time travel went in two directions. Given the current enthusiasm for classics like the manhattan and the sidecar, I was struck by how modern the drinks seemed and how potent Thomas's influence has become, as younger bartenders all over New York City have found their way back to his book. With an eye to history, they are trying to recapture the cocktail culture Thomas helped create, defined by high professional standards, restless inventiveness and a keen sense of how a cocktail can catch the popular mood. Thomas may still be, after all these years, the city's most important bartender.
The Thomas tribute was organized by David Wondrich, author of "Esquire Drinks," and Slow Food, the international organization devoted to preserving the old ways of growing and preparing food. Mr. Wondrich called on a handful of bartenders and cocktail experts to recreate, as accurately as possible, one drink each from Thomas's repertory, an assignment harder than it might sound. The old-time bartenders used very different glassware from ours. A typical cocktail was a mere two to three ounces, and just multiplying the proportions to fit larger glasses can throw a drink out of whack, especially when citrus juices are part of the recipe. Ingredients were different, too.
Today, bartenders use simple syrup to sweeten a drink. A century ago they used gum syrup, a sugar syrup thickened with gum arabic, which imparted a silky quality to a drink. Bitters, a staple of the bartender's repertory, came in dozens of varieties, and many bartenders formulated their own. Thomas was fond of a cardamom-tinged brand called Boker's. Martini fans may be surprised to learn that the drink was usually flavored with orange bitters rather than a lemon twist. By hook and by crook, Mr. Wondrich's team pulled it together.
Sasha Petraske, the owner of Milk and Honey, the cult bar on the Lower East Side, recreated the gin daisy, a light summer drink flavored with curaçao and lemon juice. Robert Hess, who runs a cocktail Web site called Drinkboy.com, made a Japanese cocktail, combining Cognac, almond syrup and bitters of his own formulation. Ted Haigh, a cocktail historian and spirits collector, did Mr. Hess one better. For his brandy crusta, a sort of sugar-rimmed sidecar garnished with an oversize lemon peel, he decided to recreate Thomas's own bitters. Along the way, he experimented with 14 kinds of snakeroot before discovering that the real thing, Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria), could cause cancer and renal failure. Undeterred, he ferreted out a recipe for Boker's bitters published by Scientific American in 1898, which in turn led him on a bizarre shopping spree in a search for quassia chips, powdered catechu and malva flowers. Perhaps the most intriguing cocktail on the menu was the Martinez, a drink often described, wrongly, as the original martini, probably because the names are similar. The drink, in Thomas's recipe, calls for sweetened gin, red vermouth, maraschino liqueur and bitters. It had always sounded like liquid candy to me. Not so. Gary Regan, the author of "New Classic Cocktails" and "The Martini Companion," shook one up and even added a couple of extra dashes of maraschino. The result was a fruity but dry cocktail with real snap to it. Thomas would have been proud. And if he could have lingered, and taken a tour of New York bars, he might have felt right at home. After a long period of creative contraction, the American cocktail has gradually rediscovered itself. Bartenders now accept the idea that fresh ingredients, especially fresh fruit juices, make a better drink. It is now routine for bars and restaurants to have special cocktail menus, and for hotel and restaurant groups to hire specialist beverage managers to curate their cocktail program.
Stirred or Mixed,
the Gilded Age Lives Again
By William Grimes
Chefs now consult with bartenders to create a cocktail list that reflects the spirit of the restaurant and the flavors that come out of the kitchen. An obvious example is Tabla, whose Indian-inspired cuisine has influenced cocktails like the Citrus Ginger Snap, a Champagne drink soaked up with ginger liqueur and decorated with bright-red pomegranate seeds. Many bartenders do their own infusions. At Town, James Moreland uses nearly a dozen bitters formulated at the restaurant. Eben Freeman at Pico dares to use ingredients like piri-piri syrup, based on Portugal's famous hot sauce, and calendula, a kind of marigold. A lot of ridiculous drinks emerge in this freewheeling creative environment, but I regard that as a sign of health. Most cocktails from the classic age, like most of the songs written on Tin Pan Alley, were not classics. They were throwaway fun. But somehow, from the frivolous chorus of Zazas, Bijous, Bee's Knees and other drinks, a genuine star would step forward and win enduring fame. It is the range and the profusion of cocktails being made in New York, as well as the drastically improved chances of getting a well-made classic, that Thomas can take credit for. It is now possible to get something other than a blank stare when ordering a sidecar, and it might even be made with fresh lemon juice. Bars like Angel's Share, Temple Bar and Milk and Honey make a fetish out of building a cocktail the old-fashioned way.
Much of the credit for this must go to Dale DeGroff, who pioneered the revival of the Thomas approach in the mid 1980's when he worked at Aurora, and most memorably at the Promenade Bar at the Rainbow Room. "Joe Baum told me he wanted a classic bar at Aurora," Mr. DeGroff said, "and at the time I didn't know what that meant." Mr. Baum, the visionary restaurateur who created the Four Seasons and Windows on the World, told Mr. DeGroff to read "The Bon-Vivant's Companion."
The experience was an eye-opener. "It wasn't so much the recipes themselves, which were often impossible to reproduce, as it was the categories of drinks that I found there, things like sangarees and cobblers," Mr. DeGroff said. "I thought a cobbler was a dessert." A cobbler, for the record, is a hot-weather drink, based on wine or whiskey, with fresh fruit added. Like bartenders after him, Mr. DeGroff found a new range of possibilities in Thomas's book, and an invitation to experiment with new ingredients and flavors. His influence spread to a new generation of bartenders like Audrey Saunders, whose cocktail list for Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle hotel, with lovingly recreated classics like the daiquiri once served at the Floridita in Havana, comes straight from the school of DeGroff. There is still work to be done. When Mr. Wondrich ran a contest inviting readers to invent a signature drink for Esquire, he received one entry involving whiskey and Country Time lemonade mix. But I find it encouraging that thousands of readers would try to invent a cocktail. It recalls the good old days when G. Selmer Fougner, the wine and cocktail columnist for The New York Sun in the 1930's, would issue a "cocktail call," asking readers for their favorite variations on the classics. He would routinely get hundreds of responses. Thomas himself, as a historical figure, remains tantalizingly vague. The known facts are sketchy. He was born near Watertown, N.Y., in 1830 and learned the bartending trade in New Haven before setting sail for San Francisco and the California gold fields. In 1851 he opened the first of four saloons in New York, below Barnum's Museum at Broadway and Ann Street. Again, wanderlust seized him. For the next several years, Thomas worked as head bartender at top hotels in St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans. His fame spread. At one point, Thomas toured Europe, carrying along a set of solid-silver bar tools. Eventually he returned to New York, where he became the principal bartender at the Metropolitan hotel, on the corner of Broadway and Prince Street. In 1866 he opened his most famous saloon, on Broadway between 21st and 22nd Streets, where he was one of the first to exhibit the work of Thomas Nast. The site is now a Restoration Hardware store. Thomas's death rated a substantial obituary in the city's newspapers, although by 1885, it seems, the public was beginning to forget him. Thomas, The New York Times reminded its readers, "was at one time better known to club men and men about town than any other bartender in this city, and he was very popular among all classes." He was one of the great New Yorkers, and one of the most remarkable creative figures on the American scene. It's only right that he's getting a second career.