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Bar Prophets 

The book is always there for those who need it, giving affirmation to its followers and direction to those who have lost their way. But too little thought is devoted to the man whose trials and tribulations would shape the course of millions to come.

It is time the world got to know Jerry Thomas (1830-1885), creator of the inaugural Bartender's Bible.

'He's all we have for a patron saint," says David Wondrich, writer and leading spirits authority for Esquire. '[Thomas' 1862 book How To Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant's Companion] was the first bartending guide, and bartending was the first American culinary art. It was the first thing that foreigners who toured America commented on favorably. They said the people are barbarous, the country undeveloped, the cities small and grubby, and the food terrible. But the mint juleps are not bad."

Bartending guides, those handy, black-bound volumes, are as ubiquitous behind American bars as the Good Book is in hotel bedsides. But Wondrich, who will present 'Jerry's Kids: The Life, Drinks and Legacy of Professor Jerry Thomas" on Friday at Tales of the Cocktail, advises mindful drink-mixers to be wary of the recipes contained within.

'You never know the quality of the drinks in them, where they got them from," he says. 'That's always a problem. Many of them have been plundered from other books and haven't really been researched and tested."

In other words, better to go straight to the source, which Wondrich did last year when he wrote Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to 'Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. The book celebrates Thomas' still-novel tack: that the foundation of a properly made drink " the combination of a base liquor with complimentary accents and modifiers, often prepared from scratch " is analogous to a chef making a quality stock before then using it as an ingredient in a dish.

'It came about through this loose talk in a bar," he says. 'I said somebody should put on a tribute (to Thomas), and some people listened to me. To do that, I wanted to write a little booklet that we could give people, and that started me doing more research on Thomas' life."

The 2003 event, held at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, featured eight cocktail authorities (including fellow Tales presenter Ted 'Dr. Cocktail" Haigh) reviving classic Thomas concoctions. Wondrich mixed Arrack Punch, a heady rum grog made with an obscure 116-proof liquor, while Haigh made the Brandy Crusta, a Sidecar-like sipper garnished with a never-ending lemon twist and spiked with homemade bitters.

Those bitters, it seems, came with their own twist. Patterned after Thomas' preferred (but long lost) Boker's variety, the recipe called for Virginia snakeroot, which has been found to cause cancer, among other bodily calamities. 'That was a problem," Wondrich laughs. 'I have a little vial of it sitting on my kitchen counter, and I sort of don't know what to do with it. I've tried them, and I don't have cancer yet, knock wood."

With his book, Wondrich sought to update the popular wisdom on Thomas, as first told by The Gangs of New York author Herbert Asbury in a 1928 reissue of The Bon-Vivant's Companion. 'His account was based on a couple of old newspaper articles, which have since been lost," he says. 'I found a lot of other ones that corrected his [version] and took some of the fun out of it, unfortunately; they took apart some of the myth. But at the same time, they filled it in like a real person."

Imbibe! therefore delves into not just Thomas' recipes, but also extracurricular oddities such as his time spent as a gold prospector and his appreciation for gourds. 'I don't know what to make of that," Wondrich says of the latter. 'That's a poser, a head-scratcher. There was also his relationship to gambling, his possible politics. What being a bartender entailed " that was big."

More than anything, a sense of standards pervades Thomas' original guide, from the quality of ingredients used to the attention to detail paid in mixing them. Wondrich believes the renewed cultural interest in mixology dovetails nicely with that notion.

'Bartenders kind of lost morale in the 20th century," he says. 'Not all of them; there have always been a few great ones here and there. But in general, as a class and a profession, they became customer service representatives with a bottle opener. The whole thing became, mix them as quick and easy as you can and get the tips. And it wasn't before that " it was more of a culinary industry where you were proud of your drinks, and you took pains to do them right and put your own spin on them."

But does Thomas' dated instruction manual still have a place behind today's modern, built-for-speed bars? Yes and no, answers Wondrich.

'It's sort of like the Old Testament," he muses. 'What's its relevance? Everything and, in some ways, nothing. It gives you the whole early way of doing things, and things have moved on since then. But, at the same time, it gives you the general principles. Make your drinks yourself. Use natural ingredients. Squeeze the lemon juice. Mix the sugar. That alone is worth something."

click to enlarge Cocktail and spirit writer David Wondrich mixes a drink. - GREGG GLASER
  • Gregg Glaser
  • Cocktail and spirit writer David Wondrich mixes a drink.
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