Jerry Thomas, The Father of Mixology

Every once in a while, a cocktail comes along that is better than any you’ve had before it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Tom Collins, or a Long Island Iced Tea, or if it’s the first time you’ve tried it or the one thousandth time; what matters is that it was prepared with unsurpassable care, attention to detail, and love, using only the finest ingredients. When the perfectly balanced drink crosses one’s lips, imparting a feeling of simultaneous warmth and cool with just a hint of reassuring bitterness on the tail end, one might  wonder, (aloud, if she/he has already had a few), “Wow! I wonder who invented cocktails!”

Well, it turns out that nobody knows who invented the cocktail. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for several hundred years the occult practice of mixing spirits together with various plants, fruits, and what have you in a cup was strictly an oral tradition. Like magicians or the alchemists of yore, those who liked to mix booze with whatever else was lying around were notoriously tight-lipped about their ingredients and methods. But one bejeweled, larger-than-life figure changed all that, bringing fancy drinks to the masses: Jeremiah P. Thomas, more popularly known as Jerry Thomas, or “Professor” Jerry Thomas, The Father of Mixology.

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Born in Sackets Harbor, NY in 1830, Jerry Thomas was by all accounts a man of big  appetites, enamored of fine clothing and diamonds, who lived a life of mythic proportions. In some respects, Thomas can be viewed as a lesser-known member of the great American Folk Hero Pantheon, right alongside Paul Bunyan and Harry Houdini.

Whilst striking out in the bloody California gold rush of the mid-1800s, and a reprehensible stint running a minstrel show, Thomas managed to pick up a thing or two about bartending and showmanship. In 1851, he moved to New York City, opening a saloon beneath Barnum’s American Museum. This was a century before that movie Cocktail came along and inexplicably stormed the box office; in fact for all intents and purposes, bartenders and cocktails as we know them didn’t exist. Saloons typically carried whiskey, gin, and maybe some brandy. If you wanted to get really crazy, you could get a sprinkle of sugar or nutmeg on top, but that was about it. The guys who were experimenting at all often combined things seemingly at random, like high school kids who just found the key to their parents’ liquor cabinet. This chaotic period in the history of mixology was doubtless a time of great experimentation and must have given rise to a plethora of ghastly new concoctions, the majority of which thankfully never made it out of the 19th century.

Compared to most barkeeps, Thomas had the unique advantage of relative wealth and mobility, and in his frequent travels he often came across new spiritual concoctions, which he would record, modify in turn and add to his repertoire. His great innovation was to build upon the flavor profiles present in old-timey alcoholic drinks like toddies and punches that were traditionally prepared in bulk and served hot in non-saloon settings. Thomas’ breadth of knowledge and willingness to experiment, combined with his flamboyant appearance, and penchant for pyrotechnics behind the bar, ensured that he would be able to travel to saloons all over the country spreading the gospel of mixology to bartenders and drinkers far and wide.

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The Iconic Occidental Hotel was destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Engraving courtesy of Wikipedia

Over the course of the next decade, “Professor” Jerry presided over a slew of bars across the country with a diamond-studded fist, often juggling glasses, and performing trick pours and sleight of hand. Thomas even held court for a time at the iconic Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, where it was said he made more money than the vice president of the United States.He gained much notoriety for his signature drink, the Blue Blazer, which entailed setting boiling water and whiskey on fire, and pouring  the flaming result back and forth between two mugs, creating a ribbon of flame. It might be fun to order one of these the next time you go to your neighborhood dive, but only if you hate your bartender.

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Jerry Thomas and the Blue Blazer. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1862, Thomas made his most indelible contribution to the art of mixology, when he published the Bar-Tenders Guide (also known as The Bon-Vivant’s Companion and How To Mix Drinks), the first book of drinks to be published in the United States. Eventually, The Professor came back to New York City, opening perhaps his most storied saloon, at the site of what is now Restoration Hardware.

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Restoration Hardware, located at 935 Broadway In the Flatiron District, was once the site of Jerry Thomas’ last and most well-loved saloon in New York City. Photo courtesy of Racked

A tireless innovator, Jerry Thomas continued to come up with new and ever tastier ways to help us all relax.  While he is credited with inventing or popularizing dozens of drinks, there is one that stands out above the rest, both for its enduring popularity and the enduring controversy concerning its origins: The Martini.

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Martini. Photo courtesy of wineenthusiast

A good Martini is a drink of simple beauty; a splash of vermouth, gin, and an olive or a lemon in the right glass are all it takes. That hasn’t stopped some poor misguided souls from trying to somehow improve on perfection by dumping whatever tickles their fancy into a Martini glass in the name of boredom, but I digress. The Martini emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the mid-1920s, sans garnish, and gained popularity quickly. Some historians have theorized that the rise of the martini was fueled by the Prohibition, as gin was one of the easiest liquors to make illicitly. Martinis were typically sweeter or “wetter” back then, with a higher ratio of vermouth to gin, but over the years, the drink became steadily drier.

Conversely, the Martinez incorporates bitters and Maraschino into the mix, and stands the gin to vermouth ratio typical in a Martini on its head, producing a much sweeter drink.

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Jerry Thomas’ popular recipe for the Martinez, from Bartenders Guide, How To Mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks, 1887. Photo courtesy of the Jerry Thomas Project

So how does our diamond-studded protagonist figure into this?

According to lore, during his tenure at the aforementioned Occidental Hotel, Thomas created the Martinez on the spot for a traveler who was on her way to a nearby town of the same name. This is at least plausible, since we know that the Martinez’ popularity predated that of the Martini by several decades. It’s also interesting to note that the earliest known Martini recipe in print is almost identical to the recipe for the Martinez. At least in terms of chronology, the tale holds up.

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The earliest known published reference to a Martini appeared in Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Bartender’s Manual, 1888. Photo courtesy of the Jerry Thomas Project

However, Jerry Thomas never included the Martinez or the Martini in any of his books during his lifetime, with the earliest reference to the drink appearing in a book that was published two years after his death in 1885. Furthering confusing matters, the City of Martinez (the drink’s namesake) has long claimed that the drink was invented there, and have gone so far as to erect a plaque to commemorate the occasion.

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Photo courtesy of Read The Plaque

So, while there is a clear connection between the Martinez and the Martini, it looks like we may never know the true lineage of the now wildly popular drink we’ve come to know and love. In the end, perhaps the old truism that nothing is created in a vacuum applies to the Martini as well. Regardless, there is still only one man who we can credit with the popularization of many of our favorite cocktails; and his role in the elevation of the bartender’s role from one of servitude to that of a craftsman, entertainer, even an artist, can’t be overstated. The next time you’re enjoying your favorite cocktail, raise a glass (slowly) to Jerry “The Professor” Thomas, the Father of American Mixology.

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