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"Professor" Jerry Thomas.
"Professor" Jerry Thomas.
Courtesy of David Wondrich.

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Five Unheralded Pioneers of the American Bar Who Pre-Date "Professor" Jerry Thomas

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Before Jerry Thomas there lived these five American bar pioneers.


In 1862, Jerry Thomas famously published the first bartender’s guide. Sailor, Forty-Niner, artist, theatrical impresario, diamond-flashing sport-about-town—indeed, sport-about-America—and, of course, master mixologist, "the Professor," as he is known, was the most famous bartender of his day and an establishing bar figure for the future. But he wasn’t America’s first celebrity bartender, nor did he invent that art.

Unfortunately, the men—and, it’s important to recognize, women—who came before him; the ones who built the institution of the American bar as we have come to know it, with its individually-made iced drinks built on demand; its shaking and stirring and artful pouring and garnishing, have long been cast into shadow by the brilliance of Thomas’ star. But that doesn’t mean that they were entirely unheralded, or that their achievements are forever lost. Here, based upon the research I conducted for the revised second edition of Imbibe!, my tribute to Jerry Thomas and his drinks, are thumbnail sketches of five true pioneers of the American bar. If any of them had written a book, we would all be drinking differently now.

C

ato Alexander ran the sportiest roadhouse in America for well over thirty years, supervising both the kitchen and the bar, in the process winning a reputation, to quote Tyrone Power (the Irish actor, not his descendant the movie star), as "foremost amongst cullers of mint . . . for julep" and "second to no man as a compounder of cock-tail"—the two foundational drinks of the American school of drinking. Indeed, he was the first man to become famous for making them, and a host of other drinks besides.

Thomas Bros Saloon, New York, 1860

Alexander was born in New York in 1780. During his youth he worked at an inn there, and frequently waited on George Washington, helping him on and off his horse—something he would talk about for the rest of his days. That was when he was a slave. In 1799, he was one of the few who gained freedom when New York passed its deeply compromised "Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery." After that he kept working in hotels and inns for another decade or so and then opened his own place, out in the country at the four-mile marker on Harlem Road. (Today, that’s on 54th St., just east of 2nd Avenue.) The location was a shrewd one: Cato’s Tavern was a ten-minute gallop out of New York City, then occupying just the southern tip of Manhattan, and it soon became the natural resort of all the city’s fast young men. They would race their carriages up there, drink his famous gin cocktails, brandy juleps and punches, eat his famous game and curried oysters, and then race on back (sometimes with disastrous results). For the next thirty years, Cato’s was one of the most fashionable resorts in America. "Who has not heard of Cato Alexander?" one New York newspaper wrote in 1835. "Not to know Cato’s is not to know the world."

Dark-complected, broad-shouldered and sturdy, Alexander was both hospitable and dignified, and, though illiterate, was, as New York historian Benson Lossing wrote, "greatly respected by all who came in contact with him." Or almost all: from time to time he had to deal with drunken gangs of racist thugs attempting to break up his establishment, but he appears to have been tough enough to survive them and even stand them off. What he couldn’t stand off was his own clientele: "some of his customers," as Lossing noted, "borrowed considerable sums of money from him and forgot to refund." Indeed, one of his obituaries reported that, according to Alexander, "he lost $100,000 in these friendly loans to the ‘fast men’ of his day." His business could not withstand that—few indeed at the time could have—and finally, in the mid-1840s, he was forced to close. Alexander’s last act was to keep a humble oyster-and-beefsteak saloon at 556 Broadway, down in the heart of the city. "I have not so splendid a restaurant as I could wish," he told a reporter. But he still provided, as the reporter noted, "the best of everything." That was in the early 1850s, and it only lasted a year. He died in poverty in 1858, aged 77.

Cato's Tavern sourced from Stage-coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle.

If New Yorkers knew Cato, everyone knew Orsamus Willard. A true Yankee, "Willard of the City Hotel," as he became known (he never used his first name), enjoyed for over a quarter-century a transatlantic reputation as the world’s premiere mixer of American drinks. "The name of this remarkable personage," the British traveler Charles Augustus Murray wrote in 1839, "is familiar to every American, and to every foreigner who has visited the States."

Orsamus Willard ...enjoyed for over a quarter-century a transatlantic reputation as the world’s premiere mixer of American drinks.

Willard was born in 1792 in the farming community of Harvard, Massachusetts, some 60 miles west-northwest of Boston. In 1813, after a poorly-paid stint as a schoolteacher in nearby Lunenburg, he took himself down to New York and found a job as office boy at the City Hotel, on Broadway just above Trinity Church. It was the city’s, and the country’s, finest hotel. Within a couple of years, Willard was presiding over the hotel’s bar, a job for which he was ideally suited. He was genial and hard-working, which were common enough things, but also ambidextrous and possessed of a photographic memory, which were not. He never forgot a customer’s name or preferences, would do anything for a guest, and was often checking in guests (at the time, hotel clerk and bartender were one and the same job) and answering queries about anything under the sun, all the while busily mixing drinks with both hands.

About those drinks. In 1817, as Willard later told the story, a Virginian came into his bar, then mostly famous for its Whiskey Punch by the glass, and showed him the latest thing in mixology: an iced Mint Julep. (The drink, a Virginia staple since before the Revolution, had been traditionally made without ice, but in 1817 the mighty American ice industry was leaping out of its starting blocks and suddenly cheap ice in summer was an American reality.) Willard was impressed and made the drink his own.

It caught on. A dozen years later, another British traveler observed that the hotel’s "bar manager"—Willard—"by his acknowledged skill in mixing mint julep, & c., is said to be a most valuable appendage to the concern." So valuable, in fact, that the hotel’s manager, Chester Jennings, had years before made him a partner in the business. Willard didn’t just make Juleps, of course, although (as Murray noted) in making them he "was allowed to be the first master of this art in the known world." His Gin Cocktail, Apple Toddy and "Extra-Extra Peach Brandy Punch" all had their adherents as well.

In 1836, Willard and Jennings retired, and Willard went home to Harvard where he set himself up as a gentleman farmer. In 1843, however, their successor at the hotel failed and they were lured back. The New York Dramatic Mirror sent a man to look in:

All was right with the world: Willard was in his place behind the bar, a little fatter than of old and somewhat gray with cabbage-growing, but his wonderful memory of names and faces seemed in full vigour; and, what with the tone of voice, the dexterity of furnishing drinks, the off-hand welcome to every comer-in, and the mechanical answering of questions and calling to servants, he seemed to have begun precisely where he left off, and his little episode of farming must seem to him scarcely better than a dream.

In 1848, however, Willard went back to living the dream, returning to Massachusetts to raise prize cows and many children. The "Napoleon of Bar-Keepers," as he had been known, died in 1876 and is buried on a peaceful hillside not far from his house, which had room numbers on every door, just like the City Hotel.

The Raines Law Room's modern day Sherry Cobbler by Nick Solares.

Martha King, also a New Yorker, was born in 1802 and raised in the trade. Her father, David, kept a popular porter-house at the corner of Wall St., just a block from the City Hotel. In 1808, give or take a year or two, David King hired a young man recently arrived from across the pond. William Niblo was Irish, or Scottish, or Scotch-Irish; nobody was ever sure. He was also enterprising, and after spending a few years working for King he struck off on his own to open the Bank Coffee-House on Pine St., just a few blocks to the east. In 1819, Martha married him. William was a charming and genial host with a great many ideas, many of them good. Martha, however, was not only as experienced in the trade as he was, she also had a brain made by Pitney-Bowes, the firm, commanding dignity of a bird colonel and the hands of Audrey Saunders.

Niblo's Garden from The New York Public Library.

In 1828, with Martha’s strong support, William opened Niblo’s Garden in what is today Soho but what was then a leafy suburb outside of town. The walled garden offered seating in cool, shaded bowers, country breezes, fountains, soft lantern-light among the trees, music and refreshments. In charge of dispensing those refreshments, from behind the large bar at one end of the garden, was Martha King Niblo. As the British traveler John Brougham wrote in 1842, she "mixed all the drinks—and knew how," going on to add that "a sherry cobbler from her dainty hand was something specially inviting and created an involuntary relish for that seductive and not altogether innocent beverage." The Sherry Cobbler was the sensation of the late 1830s, a simple mix of wine, sugar, ice and slices of citrus or citrus peel, lanced with a straw. It first appears in print in New York in 1837, but the drink may be older than that. If indeed, as one New York paper noted, "many of the fanciful admixtures which have since become notorious were first passed over the bar at Niblo’s Garden," it’s quite possible that the Cobbler was one of them, and that Mrs. Niblo was, if not its creator, at least its midwife. Sadly, she died in 1851. William Niblo never remarried, and visited her mausoleum in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery every day for the rest of his life.

Another Yankee like Willard, Peter Bent Brigham was born in Vermont in 1807 and was living on his own in Boston by 1825. After scuffling for a few years as a grocer’s clerk and a streetcorner lobster-vendor, in 1828 he opened a little oyster shop in part of the city’s Concert Hall, a block-sized building at the very heart of downtown. By 1836, he had saved the enormous sum of $15,000 and took the lease on the whole building. In 1842, he opened a new "Oyster Saloon" (indeed he popularized the term) on the ground floor of the Concert Hall, "fitted up in a style of splendour unequalled in the Union," as his advertisements claimed. Here there were not only oysters of all kinds, brought in from as far as New York, but also "other Refreshments," which were served both in the large "gentlemen’s gorgeous and neat saloon" (as one patron called it) and the smaller "Ladies’ Saloon" around the corner.

About these "refreshments." Before Brigham’s Oyster Saloon, American bartending at its fanciest really only stretched to a dozen or so drinks. Cocktail (spirits, sugar, bitters, water or ice), Julep (spirits, sugar, mint, ice), Sling (spirits, sugar, water), Hailstorm (the same, with ice), Toddy (the same, but with hot water), Apple Toddy (the same, but with a baked apple muddled in), Flip (hot ale, rum, sugar and eggs), Egg Nog (spirits, sugar, milk, eggs) a couple of Punches (spirits, sugar, citrus and water or ice), Cobbler (see above), and one or two miscellaneous drinks that popped up from time to time. Then Brigham introduced his new drinks list. At least eighteen mixed drinks, including six different kinds of punch, plus such oddities as "Tippe na Pecco," "Tip and Ty," "Fiscal Agent" and "Wormwood Floater." When Charles Jewett, a prominent Prohibitionist, criticized the list in print, Brigham responded by adding a "Jewett’s Fancy." By the end of 1843, the list had stretched to encompass eleven kinds of Julep (including such elaborations as "Capped Julep" and "Race Horse Julep"), five Cobblers and seventeen "Fancy Drinks."

American drinking would never be the same. By the end of 1843 the national media, such as it was, had discovered the list and introduced it into the echo chamber, or the nineteenth-century version of it, as an example of the decadence of American mores. At east, that was the intention. What actually happened is that any other bar with pretensions to swank quickly introduced its own list of Fancy Drinks. No longer could you discern what was in a drink by hearing its name. It’s only a few steps from "Moral Suasion" to "Zombie," "Cosmopolitan" or "Penicillin." We don’t know if Brigham himself was responsible for the mixology at his bar. Not until the 1870s would journalists pry into the actual workings of a bar as a matter of course. But he was certainly a hands-on manager, attending to every detail of his business, and a ceaseless fighter against Prohibitionism, so it’s inconceivable that he was not at the least involved in naming the drinks, several of which were direct hits against the drys. By the time Brigham sold the Concert Hall in 1869, he was deeply invested in local real estate, which made him a fortune. He left it to charity, endowing a hospital. Today, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital is one of the most famous and respected in America.

... Santini’s gifts as a mixologist were strong enough for Jerry Thomas to include three of his recipes in his 1862 book, the only contemporary saloonkeeper to whom he accorded that honor ...

Joseph Santini was an Italian, born in 1818 or thereabouts. So much we know. But was he a Swiss Italian, a Corsican Italian, a Sardinian Italian or some other sort of Italian? What sources there are all suggest different things. His descendants say he was from the Austrian city of Trieste. Passenger records indicate that he sailed from there but came from Switzerland, which his easy fluency in French supports—although that also supports the assertion one newspaper made upon his death that he was Corsican. In any case, our first glimpse of him is in New Orleans in 1841, when he was head barkeeper for Philippe Alvarez, a fellow Italian (despite his Franco-Spanish name) who managed the French Quarter's splendid bar at the St. Louis Hotel. In 1842, he opened his own hotel on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, complete with a bar "furnished with the choicest Liquors." (He also kept his job at the St Louis at least through the end of 1843, when the Gazette de Baton Rouge found him behind the bar there.)

The hotel was just practice. His next enterprise, the "Jewel of the South," a saloon he opened in February, 1855, on Gravier St. across from the famous St. Charles Hotel, was anything but. One of the most elaborate such establishments in the country, the Jewel would become a New Orleans icon and set the tone for fancy drinking in the South. We don’t know, at this remove, how much time Santini actually spent behind the Jewel's bar. He may have mostly given direction while his head bartenders, first Joseph Stella and then George Ittmann, took charge of the actual mixing.

In any case, Santini’s gifts as a mixologist were strong enough for Jerry Thomas to include three of his recipes in his 1862 book, the only contemporary saloonkeeper to whom he accorded that honor (among them was the nectareous and immortal Brandy Crusta, an epicurean variation on the simple Cocktail). That, coupled with the claim in the book’s introduction that connects Thomas with "one of the most recherché saloons in New Orleans," suggests that Thomas had perhaps collected the recipes firsthand, working behind the stick at the Jewel. In any case, Santini did not need Thomas’s aegis to achieve lasting success. A far better businessman, Santini got comfortably rich, invested his money wisely and, in 1868, signed his saloon over to the "attentive and scientific mixologist" Ittmann. He continued to run a retail and wholesale liquor business, but for the most part he devoted himself to Masonic affairs, in which he had been intimately versed for much of his life, and to philanthropy, for which he was widely celebrated. He died in 1874, while traveling in the French Pyrenees. His drinks, at least, live on. Indeed, there is no better liquid representation of Creole New Orleans than a well-made Brandy Crusta.

Image 1, Jerry Thomas at Thomas Bros Saloon, New York, 1860 courtesy of David Wondrich; Image 3, Orsamus Willard's gravestone courtesy of David Wondrich; Image 6, a Sherry Cobbler from Imbibe!; Image 7,  Peter Bent Brigham; Image 8, a Brandy Crusta from Imbibe!

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