Reading the Tip of the Iceberg: Difficulties in Understanding Pre-prohibition Mixology

I am invariably asked by someone in each of my drinks courses which bars I am satisfied with drinking at.  I sometimes infer that the person asking fears that they will not be able to enjoy their regular bars anymore after having taken the course.

I am a culinary school graduate.  I know a little something about cooking fine food.  But, the restaurant I most often go to is Pann’s restaurant, a family-run diner.  I take my toddler son there.  They bring him a coloring sheet and crayons.  He has scrambled eggs and a sausage patty.  I have an omelette.  We have the sort of good time that makes life more pleasurable.  It would be lamentable if all diners became haute cuisine restaurants.  Of course, such a thing is not possible — and I am glad of it.

Imagine the social crime it would be if every neighborhood dive bar were transformed into a so-called ‘speakeasy’ or ‘mixology’ bar — proud of their hand-cut ice and in-house whiskey from their own, unique barrel.  I don’t mean to imply that such places should not exist.  They should.  But there are many different models of business and culture for bars.  There are also many different ways of enjoying being at a bar.  Someone finding themselves to be the only person not having a good time in a crowded bar should consider that something related to themselves is probably the cause.  It could simply be a bad day.  It might be their own preciousness or pretense.

So, my answer to the question that I started this article with is that I try to find a way to have a good time in any bar that I find myself in.  At least one thing is as true of financially-advantaged, young sophisticates as it is of grizzled, old ‘winos’ — they usually go into a bar in hope of having a better time than if they drank alone.  Perhaps the bar I find myself in uses ‘sour mix’ and soft-drinks from ‘the gun’ in all their mixed drinks.  That’s alright — I look for some liquor that I will be happy to drink ‘neat.’  If I can’t even find that, I will resort to beer.  I look around.  I try to get into the spirit of the place — or maybe just determine to enjoy the spectacle of it.  I might take this as far as to ask the bar-tender for a bottle of their best-selling (not-necessarily their best) bottled beer.

All of the above is true and I will not take back a word of it.  But, when it comes time to teach my courses or write about the art of mixing drinks, my feeling is very different.  I believe that if someone wants to do anything with excellence, and there is (or was) a well-developed tradition around doing that thing, it will be advantageous for that person to acquaint themselves with that tradition.  Why repeat all of the trial and error of the generations that wove the tradition?  Save your trials and errors for accomplishing new things!  Once the tradition and its principles are understood, one may decide either to follow, or not, any part of the tradition with reason (hopefully) rather than ignorance.  That is why I teach mixology according to the American tradition that developed for at least two centuries before prohibition in 1920.   When my mixological teaching varies in even the slightest way (that I am aware of) from that tradition, I always try to point out what that point of the variance is, and why I vary from tradition in it.

The biggest difficulty in learning the old tradition of American mixology is that it completely died out.  Prohibition and the speakeasy (and the new type of customer that found bars appealing only after they were illegal) decimated the old American tradition of mixology.  It was then completely erased by the masses of people not-trained in the old tradition that were hired almost all at once as bar-tenders for post-repeal service.  There was no living succession of bar-tenders following that old tradition into our time.  All living people who have ever tended bar professionally, including myself, first learned about making drinks from people who learned it from people who learned it from people, and so-on, back to those masses of post-repeal bar-tenders.  As for the old mixology, all that we have is the written tip of the iceberg of that once-living tradition.  We have their books.

In some circles, it has become fashionable, or otherwise desirable, to seek out that old tradition.  But because the seekers can have only post-repeal mixology as their formative experience, always understanding what is to be read in a pre-1910 drink book can be difficult in ways not even apparent to them.  I could point out an endless parade of the contemporary results of this phenomenon (such as one notable program’s silly drink names “Old-fashioned Old-fashioned” and “New-fashioned Old-fashioned” — more traditionally named the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail and the Barney Cocktail).  But the examples are so many, and so ubiquitous, that I wouldn’t really know where to begin.  I will begin with an earlier example, the translation of a text from the older, American mixological tradition into a couple of books by an author in the 1930’s who clearly mis-understood and mis-read his source material at many points.

At some time during prohibition, Albert Stevens Crockett came to be in possession of a book of mixed drinks compiled by Joseph Taylor while working as a bar-tender at the Waldorf Hotel bar.  Taylor worked there from 1894 until prohibition went into effect in 1920.  Crockett seems to have mostly intended to write about life in the Waldorf Hotel bar before prohibition.  It was probably as part of his research that he came to hold Taylor’s book.  He decided to include the recipes in his own book, Old Waldorf Bar Days, published in 1931, while prohibition was still in effect.

It certainly didn’t help Crockett that the recipes were in Taylor’s hand-writing, and undoubtedly in a brevity intended to be understood by himself and his fellow Waldorf bar-tenders.  Crockett would have yet been able to understand the original intent of Taylor’s instructions if he had been familiar with the mixology of Taylor’s time.  But, he wasn’t.  Crockett probably had his first experience of mixed drinks in speakeasies during prohibition.  That explains his seeming amazement at the large number of types of mixed drinks that the recipes were presented in.  He states that he asked a number of his friends, “how many kinds of mixed drinks would you say there are?”  He indicates that no one he asked got anywhere near the right answer.  Even Crockett was apparently overwhelmed.  He acknowledges that in his representation of Taylor’s recipes, “they have been decoded, rearranged and more or less classified.”  It is important to understand that he did all of his decoding, rearranging and classifying according to his own, 1930’s, understanding of mixed drinks — most of which he, of course, considered ‘cocktails’ in a very loose sense.

Joseph Taylor (a.k.a. Dan the Barboy) began learning his profession in the 1890’s.  He was intimately familiar with the cocktail simply as one specific type of mixed drink.  He had no reason when he wrote his recipes for true cocktails to suspect that a wider audience not familiar at all with the traditional cocktail would be ever be reading the recipes.  He surely wrote in some sort of shorthand that would make sense to anyone else with a similar education of, and experience in, mixed drinks.  In that circle, in that time, a simple cocktail was understood to be a jigger (2 fl-oz.) of liquor with some bitters and gum syrup, stirred through ice to chill and dilute, and then strained into a goblet and probably garnished with a twisted strip of lemon zest.  If the old-fashioned method of making the cocktail were preferred, a lump of dry sugar would be started with, from which cocktail water would be compounded by dissolving it with the bitters and a little water before the ice and liquor would be added.  For the former, strained version, I am very confident that Taylor did not write out “gum syrup.”  I am nearly certain the he just wrote the word “gum.”  Here is why:

Brandy Cocktail

This is the entry in the over-crammed section of recipes that Crockett calls ‘cocktails’ in his 1931 book, Old Waldorf Bar Days.  This drink is supposed to be the Brandy Cocktail — a true cocktail in this case.  But, to traditional, American mixology, the above recipe makes no sense.  That is until one sees the recipe in many books actually published for wider audience before prohibition.  Here are some examples from contemporaries of Joseph Taylor:

Brandy Cocktails

They all have the bitters and the brandy, but instead of a dash of gin, they have dashes of gum syrup or ‘plain’ syrup.  It is clearly evident that Taylor wrote by hand, “One dash gum” never imagining that ‘gum’ would ever be confused by bar-men with anything other than ‘gum syrup.’  Note that though Taylor uses only half the amount of gum syrup in his Brandy Cocktail when compared to the others, the balance between the bitters and gum syrup remains the same in all of the above recipes — one dash gum syrup per dash of bitters.

It is evident that Taylor’s assumption of ‘gum’ for ‘gum syrup’ went right over Crockett’s head — aided perhaps by poor penmanship and old, worn, stained pages.  Crockett believed that the word on the page was ‘gin’ and forever preserved it with that mis-reading.

There is one happy conclusion here.  We do not have Taylor’s original book.  Perhaps Crockett’s descendants may still possess it, neglected and falling apart, far from access by others, but it probably is long gone.  Since Taylor’s original text is not available, it has been considered possible that Crockett composed the recipes himself for his 1931 book.  I consider Crockett’s mistakes of translation and transcription throughout the book to be conclusive evidence that he actually had the book that he said he had.  It is hard to imagine him understanding the old mixology enough to get things almost right, but then make intentional and glaring errors that would suggest nothing more than his own ignorance.

Another example of this sort of thing is the drink that Crockett calls the “Columbia Skill.”  The same drink is found in many pre-prohibition drink books under the name “Columbia Skin.”  I believe that Crockett just didn’t see that the two upright strokes in the letter ‘n’ were connected in Taylor’s handwriting and mistook it for a double-letter-l.  Unfortunately, Crockett seems to have dragged Johnny Solon, also a former bar-man at the Waldorf, into the morass of his confusion.  Crockett states that he asked Solon for explanations of some of the drink names he found in Taylor’s book.  He gives an explanation related to the skill of the Columbia rowing team that he says he got from Solon.  I can only imagine that the aging Solon, probably happy and proud to be consulted, gave what he thought to be the most sensible answer in this case when presented with Crockett’s mistaken drink name.  How many bar-tenders like admitting that there is something they do not know — especially in connection with a famous bar they worked at?  The fact is that the supposed ‘Columbia Skill’ is the same as the widely-published Columbia Skin, and that Crockett’s ‘Columbia Skill’ name for it never appeared anywhere before his own book.

I assume that some old bar-tenders who had been taught before 1910 were still alive in 1931.  I do not know why none of them ever corrected Crockett for his mistakes that would have been obvious to them.  Perhaps most of them had moved on in life and weren’t really interested in reading all the latest books on drink.  Perhaps most people fail to read with a truly critical eye.  Perhaps few people are interested in going about correcting strangers’ books.

I want to plainly state that I believe Crockett intended nothing more than to faithfully transmit Taylor’s book into terms that lay-people of his own time would understand.  He only seems to have distorted that text where he thought he already understood what it was saying to him.  Conversely, there are instances where he preserves bits of information that he surely had no context for understanding.  Such is the case where he leaves Taylor’s instruction of “no bitters” in some of the recipes.  Though he did remove the “no bitters” instruction from all but one of the recipes for his 1935 book, The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, he seems to have left them all in in his earlier, 1931 book.  To Crockett, in the 1930’s, a recipe stating “no bitters’ would have meant the same thing as a recipe that did not mention bitters at all.  That is because the word ‘cocktail’ had a lot less specific meaning to him.  But, as I have stated, to Taylor, a cocktail was a specific type of drink that followed a common form.  One of the aspects of that form was the inclusion of bitters.  Taylor apparently had recipes for drinks in the cocktails section of his book that were exactly like true cocktails, except that they were meant to contain no bitters.  It would make sense that Taylor would want to ward off the inclusion of bitters in drinks that were cocktails in every other way.  Here are those drinks from the 1931 book:

Taylor No Bitters

All but the Thanksgiving would have the “no bitters” instruction removed from them for Crockett’s 1935 book.  Luckily, I have a copy of his 1931 book.

Looking at this with understanding, one might even suspect that there were recipes in the cocktails section of Taylor’s book that indicated no specific bitters, but that would have a choice of bitters added by the bar-tender, anyway.  For that reason, I have often added bitters (with a disclaimer, of course) to otherwise-cocktail-like recipes in my own book that I have taken from the Taylor/Crockett material (according to the 1931 book) where there is no instruction of “no bitters.”

Other glaring errors that Crockett makes include confusing dashes of gum for dashes of gin in other recipes and mistakenly creating a “Bishop Poker” cocktail out of the Bishop Potter Cocktail, and so on.

I will stop picking on Crockett here.  I am sure that his intentions were honest — but he did clearly distort the original text in many places.

I will finish this with one of my favorite examples of how the modern eye can easily mis-read the old tradition.  In his 1908 book, The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, William Boothby bothered to describe, a little, the nature and desired characteristics of the true cocktail.  Most pre-prohibition drink sources fail to do such — probably because they considered it very basic information.  If the traditions dies, such assumed-but-unwritten data often becomes the submerged mass of the iceberg that later generations never see.  Here is one sentence from Boothby’s description:

Boothby Cocktail Description 001

How easy it is for modern readers to mis-understand that sentence.  Believing that the word ‘cocktail’ means only ‘mixed drink,’ they assume that the meaning is nothing more than that by mixing liquor with other things, the liquor will seem less harsh.  But that is not what Boothby meant at all.  Then nature of a true cocktail is supposed to be very close to that of the liquor itself, having only been slightly diluted and sweetened, and with the inclusion of bitters, the aroma of which blocks the olfactory system from noticing the harshness of the ethanol.  Before the word ‘cocktail’ referred to this type of drink, it was used to describe horses that, while being of mixed breeding, performed almost as well as thoroughbred or purebred horses.  The true cocktail is similar, and may have been named such, in that it performs and seems to be mostly like the thoroughbred or purebred liquor it is made of — only a bit sweeter and without the burn of the alcohol.  That is what Boothby was writing about, as is made clear by the rest of the passage.

Boothby Cocktail Description

His books contain many punches and other sorts of drinks that are not cocktails that contain exactly the sort of ingredients that he frowns upon in true cocktails.  In the above passage, know that he isn’t talking about all those other kinds of drinks — even though they be called cocktails today.

The ease with which moderns can look at texts from the period of classic, American mixology and mis-read (or ignore) important truths is probably a contributing factor to the reality that makes me answer, “Almost none,” when a student asks me which bars today can be relied upon to faithfully follow the old tradition.  A very few bars have captured worthwhile facets of the old tradition, and can employ them without pretense.  I enjoy them.  Many more hock their hooch under the bold suggestion that they serve drinks according to some ‘correct,’ ‘old’ way.  Some are sincerely trying — but without beginning to understand their ignorance.

This brings me to the one type of bar that I have trouble having a good time in.  Any bar that promises me old tradition, but leaves me wondering whether pretense or ignorance (or both) is the cause of the shortfall, is nothing but a frustration to me.  I don’t patronize “bar creatures” unless I am professionally bound to.  I would rather go have a bottle of beer at a dive bar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s