Jerry Thomas, Father of the American Bar

With cocktails, classics in particular, what matters most is that it was prepared with love, care, and attention to detail– using only the finest ingredients; and a bit of flair never hurts. When the perfectly balanced drink crosses one’s lips, imparting a feeling of warmth from a cold liquid, one might wonder, “who invented cocktails?!?”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that for several hundred years the occult practice of mixing spirits together with various plants, fruits and the like into a cup was strictly an oral tradition. Like magicians or the alchemists of yore, those who knew how to mix booze 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 the American Bar.

jerry thomas2

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.

At that time, 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. Soon would begin a chaotic period of great experimentation.  Those that were at the forefront were making great money and bartending was a major profession, especially for those on the cutting edge.

In his frequent travels, Jerry often came across new 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 the world spreading the gospel of mixology to bartenders and drinkers far and wide.

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 in major cities 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 a whiskey cocktail on fire, and pouring the blazing drink back and forth between two mugs, creating a ribbon of flame.

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 recipes ever to be published. Eventually, The Professor came back to New York City, opening perhaps his most storied saloon, at the site of what is now Restoration Hardware. Influencers of 19th Century New York imbibed and caroused with Thomas Nast caricatures adorning the walls.

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

One of the Professor’s most widely regarded recipes was that of the Martinez, which is often credited as the predecessor to the Martini.  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.

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

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.  It’s also interesting to note that the earliest known Martini recipe in print is very similar to the recipe for the Martinez.  In terms of chronology, the tale holds up.

Martini Harry Johnson
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

The City of Martinez (the drink’s namesake) has long claimed that the drink was invented there and they’ve gone so far as to erect a plaque to commemorate the occasion.  The connection between the Martinez and the Martini is clear.

martini plaque
Photo courtesy of Read The Plaque

There is still only one man whom we can credit with the popularization of this and many other of our favorite cocktails; and his role in the elevation of the bartending craft. The next time you’re enjoying a Martini, take a moment to raise your glass to Jerry “The Professor” Thomas: adventurer, speculator, art collector, impresario, and the Father of the American Bar.

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