The People Who Taught Me

I am sometimes asked by a student which bars I worked in taught me to think of drinks with typological intimacy (instead of memorizing individual recipes).

The truth is that I have never worked for anyone else at any type of bar where anyone else was thinking about that.

Others did teach me, though.  The people who taught me the most were all long dead before I encountered their books.  Here is a list of them, the titles and publication years of their books — with notes on what I found most useful and what I found to be most troubling.  I will list them in order of how valuable, instructive, and important to my own education and work they have been.

#1 – George Kappeler – Modern American Drinks (1895).  Like most pre-prohibition sources, George Kappeler never explains his mixology in his book.  I suspect that it was thought to be commonly understood.  By carefully reading the Kappeler’s drinks and their family names, one can begin to understand the mind and mixology of the author.  Interesting specifics of Kappeler’s book are the clear the difference between the julep and the smash, regular ‘soft’ slings and cocktails versus old-fashioned ones, and fancy versus plain drinks.  Like all other pre-1914 sources that give the drink, Kappeler calls it the New Orleans Fizz and shows no awareness that it was called “Ramos.”  Kappeler’s one weakness, in my opinion, was that he seems to have joined the crowd that ignored that fact that soda water in earlier daisies was only a small amount used to dissolve a little sugar.  His daisies all seem to consider the soda water to be the defining feature, and dump way too much of it in.  One of the only things that Kappeler explains outside of the recipes in his book is that the jigger is two fluid-ounces, being the total amount of liquor in liquor-based mixed drinks.  Reading the recipes of any bar-book of Kappeler’s era will lead to the same conclusion, but it is nice to have it stated explicitly.  If all drinks contain a jigger of total liquor, the cocktail goblet that holds the Whiskey Cocktail will equally-well hold the Manhattan Cocktail.  That aspect of traditional American mixology left bar-tenders’ minds free to focus on what to do with a jigger of liquor to turn it onto any type of drink, rather than just memorizing sets of measurements.

#2 – William Boothby – American Bar-tender (1891) and The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them (1908).  William Boothby is one of the trinity of pre-prohibition sources on American drinks that I find to be most instructive.  His 1891 book is of general interest.  Comparing it with his 1908 book, one can trace not only his own continuing refinement, but also which types of drinks waxed or waned between 1891 and 1908.  His 1908 book is a masterpiece of mixology and includes the oldest-known recipes for the Sazerac, Gibson and Bronx.  Each of those recipes are also startlingly strong evidence that they did not begin as the drinks that most bar-tenders assume.  By setting aside modern assumptions about the history of those drinks, one can actually learn things that are not normally learned about traditional American mixology.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, Boothby implies that soda water is the defining feature in daisies.  Never mind the 1934 book that was published by the “Boothby World Drinks Company” a few years after Boothby’s death.  I believe that he left his estate in debt and that his ‘trademark’ became the property of his debtors.  The 1934 book might have had little more than that to do with William Boothby.

#3 – Joseph Taylor.  Joseph Taylor seems to have worked at the Waldorf Hotel bar from 1894 until the Volstead Act went into effect in January of 1920.  During that time he compiled a book of drinks used there.  The great sadness of this source is that Albert Crockett was the one that transcribed and published the drinks in two different books, Old Waldorf Days (1931) and The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book (1935).  Crockett describes finding all the “cocktails” [sic]  split into different categories that did not make much sense to him, or anyone else he asked.  He jammed them all together alphabetically.  Crockett was to what might have otherwise been the most complete record of traditional American mixology what Heinrich Schliemann was to the archaeological site of Troy.  Obviously having learned about drinks in speakeasies, Crockett clearly did not understand the older tradition, the material, or even Taylor’s handwriting.  He routinely mis-transcribed “dash of gum” (meaning gum syrup) for “dash of gin.”  I am sure that he also failed to notice that the two upright strokes in the ‘n’ in Columbia Skin were connected and became the only book ever (at his time) to list a drink called “Columbia Skill.”  Likewise is probable with the “Bishop Potter” becoming the alleged “Bishop Poker.”  I also find Crockett’s attempts to connect the drink names to important and notable people to be annoying and obviously incorrect in may cases.  What’s possibly even more disturbing is the amount of editing and redaction that is obvious when comparing Taylor’s drinks in Crockett’s 1931 and 1935 books.  It proves that Crockett was very willing to re-phrase or omit any of Taylor’s words that did not make sense to him.  But, underneath Crockett’s vandalism, strong traces of pre-prohibition mixology come through, and with a fuller repertoire of individual drinks than any other pre-prohibition source.  There are interesting drinks in this material.  For example, there seems to have been a gin sour made with fresh lime juice before the name Gimlet was applied to it — the Saint Peter Sour.  Also, stirring dry gin (with no vermouth or bitters) through ice, straining it into a cocktail goblet and garnishing it with an olive creates a drink that existed long before anyone felt the need to call it some sort of super-dry ‘Martini.’  Alcoholics like Richard Nixon and Winston Churchill may have called their vermouth-less drink the ‘Martini,’ but it was called the Paul Bunyan in the Waldorf bar before prohibition.  As expected, there is no Ramos Gin Fizz in Taylor’s recipes, but there is a New Orleans Fizz that is the same drink.  The fact that Taylor never meant to publish his book is strong evidence that the New Orleans Fizz was not an alternate name meant to keep Henry Ramos from filing lawsuit.  I really do believe that at some time after 1910, Henry Ramos invented the story that he invented the drink.  Taylor’s book, even through Crockett’s distortions, is valuable.  I recommend that everyone should read and understand Kappeler and Boothby first, before reading the Taylor/Crockett material.  Once the foundation of understanding of traditional American mixology is laid, Crockett’s distortions become obvious — and what Taylor’s original handwriting and intent probably were.

#4 – Harry Johnson – The New and Improved Bartender’s Manual (1882) and The New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual (1888).  Johnson’s books each present the drinks without any apparent order at all, but valuable information can be gained by patiently reading and making the connections.  Johnson gave the oldest-known recipes for daisies, and they are all sours made fancy with liqueur (just like the old Margarita served ‘up,’ the name of which means ‘daisy’ in Spanish).  Daisies like the Margarita, Sidecar, Cosmopolitan, and many others, are so important to the current bar that this factor alone makes Johnson important.

#5 – William Schmidt – The Flowing Bowl (1892).   Schmidt’s book is strange in some ways.  He gives many recipes for drinks that seem to exist nowhere else in the literature of the day.  Many of them are over-wrought with so many ingredients that they fail, in my opinion.  However, he did explicitly state that a daisy is the same as a sour, but with the addition of liqueur.  That alone would make his book valuable.  He also gives the earliest recipe I have ever found for what I call a blossom – a succulant where the succulent (not sour) juice modifies the alcoholic base, is shaken, strained and served ‘up’ in a goblet.

#6 – Richard Cook – Oxford Night Caps (1827).  Richard Cook taught me about things about sherbet, milk punches and possets.  I was especially satisfied to read in his book that egg possets were also called flips.  I had already come to consider the flip an egg version of the posset, but it was nice to find such an explicit, historic precedent for it.  Richard Cook also documents early British, wine-based cups.

#7 – Jerry Thomas – How to Mix Drinks (1862).  I would really like to have left Jerry Thomas out of this list.  He did write the first American book on mixing drinks.  In that, Jerry Thomas illustrated that the first is not always the best.  To me, his mixology seems flawed when compared to later giants like George Kappeler, William Boothby and Joseph Taylor.  Thomas also strikes me as having been quite a ‘bar creature’ (the old bar-tender’s epithet for someone who covers their weaknesses or ignorance behind the bar with flair, arrogance and bluster).  But, Jerry Thomas did at least provide a document for the existence of certain drinks by the year 1862.  His book is much better for that than for actually understanding and making great drinks.  Jerry Thomas’ intellectual property seems to have become the property of Dick & Fitzgerald after his death.  They published the Jerry Thomas’ Bar-tender’s Guide in 1887, and it seems that they greatly improved his original book.  At one point the text reads “We…” in explanation of recipes.  They did not repeat Thomas’ ridiculous explanation of the smash as a “julep on a small plan.”  They also seem to have understood the essence of the word ‘fancy’ in American mixology much better than Thomas.  They published the first recipe for a fancy cocktail that was not garnished in a fancy way at all — instead being only fancy in composition by using liqueur to both sweeten and add extra flavor.  In some ways the Dick & Fitzgerald book with Jerry Thomas’ name in the title (but not in any author credit) is the book that Thomas might have written if his grasp of American mixology had been a little stronger.

4 thoughts on “The People Who Taught Me

  1. I picked up a copy of Modern American Drinks and note that in his preface, Kappeler seems to classify “Absinthes” as a category of mixed drinks along with Cocktails, Cups, Crustas, Cobblers, Coolers and etc. As absinthe is a type of liquor, I would have assumed it to simply be a potential ingredient for Cocktails, Cups and so on, the same way rum or whiskey might be used in multiple categories. Was absinthe also considered its own category of mixed drink, or was it just special or popular enough at the time that he purposely mentioned it in his introduction?

    1. George Kappeler wrote during a period of excitement over the use of absinthe. That period seems to have begun in the 1880’s. In the 1880’s it was common to find a dashes of absinthe added to recipes for Manhattan and Martini Cocktails. It was probably during the 1880’s or 1890’s that the absinthe accent was added to the Sazerac Cocktail. The absinthe drinks section in books from Kappeler’s time was just a reflection of the fad of absinthe at the time. I think that it would be like finding a special section of Saint Germain drinks in a book from the period of about 2007 to 2011.

      1. Interestingly, Boothby treats absinthe the same way in American Bar-Tender. I get it, being a fan of the beverage. Absinthe doesn’t readily fit typical categories as do most other spirits. And even though many other spirits are intended to be consumed straight or neat, absinthe never was. It is an extract, a concentrate. At the least, it requires the addition of water to really properly consume it, unlike whiskey, brandy, rum, etc. where all one must do, at a minimum, to consume them is to pour them out of the bottle (or not!). If you look at the listings in the “Absinthes” section of Boothby’s book you will see that the recipes (excepting the absinthe cocktail) are all various methods of substantially diluting the absinthe, with some of them sweetened, or offering that as an option. Obviously, these guys were aware of this intended method of consumption, since the heyday of absinthe’s popularity was approximately 1870-1910.

        I think the inclusion of absinthe as its own category actually had less to do with any faddish nature (these guys, of course, had no way of knowing it would come to an end), than it did with thier understanding of its unique nature; that it is a concentrated drink that requires specific preparation.

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 )

Connecting to %s