Professor Jerry Thomas – First Celebrity Bartender

22nd August 2017

Whilst the English may have pioneered the notion of mixing drinks, it was in America during the nineteenth century that creativity really started to blossom and the gilded age of mixed drinks began.

However, at that time, there was no particular all-encompassing term which encapsulated all forms of mixed drinks. They were simply that: ‘drinks’. But what our American counterparts did do, underneath that umbrella term, was formalise a variety of different categories, each of which described a very particular style of drink, the particular ingredients of a drink, or the method used for making a drink.

And the person who was first responsible for codifying all of these drinks was Professor Jerry Thomas who, in 1862, published the very first Bartenders Guide, known variously as How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. We really can’t under-estimate the importance of Jerry Thomas and his work, as this book laid down the principles for formulating mixed drinks of all categories, and established the bartender as a creative professional.

It’s worthwhile taking a look at him. Like Davy Crockett or Buffalo Bill Cody, Thomas was the sort of self-invented, semi-mythical figure that America seemed to spawn in great numbers during its rude adolescence. He was an inventor; a show-man – “The Jupiter Olympus of the Bar”, as he liked to call himself. A devotee of bare-knuckle prize fights, a flashy dresser, an art collector, a gold prospector, a minstrel show impresario, and a restless traveller usually carrying a fat wad of bank notes and a gold Parisian watch. Playa!

Through his travels, he picked up on the latest developments in the bartending art, inventing new cocktails and building a serious following for his particular blend of craftsmanship and showmanship, epitomised in his signature drink, the Blue Blazer, a pyrotechnic showpiece in which an arc of flame passed back and forth between two mixing glasses.

Working at the Occidental Hotel in New York, Thomas was earning $100 a week, more than the vice president of the United States, and when he died, in 1885, newspapers all over the country observed his passing in substantial obituaries.

A hell of a guy, and undoubtedly the man who made bartending a respected profession.

Words and drinks geekery by Conor Brady.

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