Pioneers of the American Bar
When you hear the words entertainer and bartender, what images do you conjure? A salacious smile, maybe some whirls and twirls of libation bottles ala Tom Cruise and Cocktail, but definitely a tasty refreshing beverage at the end, right?
Did you ever stop to think where all that flare and showmanship originated?
Jeremiah P. Thomas, Jerry, is considered the father of American mixology. He was born in 1830 in New York, first learned his craft in Connecticut, andthen honed it in California before returning to New York where he opened his first saloon, beneath P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. After a time he went on the road for several years, working as the head bartender at hotels and saloons in Missouri, Illinois, California, South Carolina and Louisiana. At one point he toured Europe, carrying along a set of solid-silver bar tools.
In 1862 he finished penning the first edition of The Bartenders Guide—
This drink recipe book is probably the most famous bartenders’ and cocktail book of all times, and it was the first real cocktail book ever published in the United States. This is a nostalgic and delicious homage to a drinking era that is gone but not forgotten.
In addition to writing the cocktail book, his creativity and showmanship laid the foundation for a bartender to be seen as a creative professional. He was nicknamed “Professor” Jerry Thomas. His technique was elaborate while he mixed cocktails, sometimes juggling the bottles, cups, and mixers. He often wore flashy jewelry and had bar tools and cups embellished with precious stones and metals. Jerry passed in December of 1885.
Before Jerry Thomas, came the ‘Napoleon of bar keeps’—Orsamus Willard. Willard, as he was often called, was born around 1791/2 in Massachusetts. At nineteen he began working in the cage-style lobby bar of The City Hotel in New York. Ambidextrous and a jack-of-all-trades, Willard worked his way up from errand boy to eventually partner with Chester Jennings. He was known for having a photographic memory and for never forgetting a name or face, making his hospitality some of the best around. His mint julep was ‘legendary,’ he created a craze for Peach Brandy Punch, and his Apple Toddy made the newspapers. Willard spent his final days in retirement on his farm, where he passed at the age of eighty-four.
Other notable pioneers . . .
Cato Alexander (c. 1830s)
He began life as a slave in South Carolina but became the first ‘celebrity’ African-American mixologist. Once he’d mastered the skill of cooking he was able to earn, and save, money as a chef. He used that money to first buy his freedom, then move to New York where he opened a small tavern, Cato’s, which he ran for forty-eight years. Cato’s was the place to go if you were in town and looking for a laid back good time. Good music, good company, and certainly not least, good drinks could be found a plenty. Though famous for his punches—New York Brandy Punch, Virginia Egg Nog, and South Carolina Milk-Punch—patrons also enjoyed his Mint julep and Gin Toddy.
William and Martha King Niblo
Her brother-in-law owned a hotel at Broadway and Cedar in New York City. Her husband was the proprietor of the Bank Coffee House and later, the famed Niblo’s Garden. Besides the restaurant business, her family had their hands in horse and carriage ventures and theatre. But her connection to the trade didn’t begin when she married William Niblo. She was born into it in 1802.
David King, her father, kept a popular porter-house at the corner of Wall Street, about a block from the City Hotel (where Willard would later work). When she was approximately six years old, give or take a year or two, Mr. King hired a man who’d recently arrived from ‘across the pond.’
Enterprising and determined, William Niblo apprenticed under Mr. King until, in 1815, he felt confident enough to venture out on his own and opened the Bank Street Coffee House. Three years later he took Martha’s hand in marriage. With her by his side as partner and driving force, together they took on the entrepreneurial world of New York. William was charming and a gracious host with lots of ideas, many of them good. Martha was in charge of the refreshments and quickly became known for her version of a Sherry Cobbler.