It's 1849 and a teenage Jerry Thomas climbs 100 feet to the crow’s nest of the Ann Smith, a merchant marine vessel headed from New Haven, Connecticut to San Francisco. With the open seas roiling beneath him, he looks out and waits to see the new city, which promises him much more than what he has on that ship: gold.
When the ship reaches the shore, Jerry jumps ship, and the restless youth races toward a dream of affluence—a dream shared by many other men. It's the height of The Gold Rush, and Jerry Thomas is a man who seizes opportunities as soon as they hit his radar.
But while bits of gold may show up here and there, the search for lasting wealth was always a longshot. But his time in the navy, and his prior work as a barkeeper in New Haven when he was sixteen, creates a unique path to becoming the most legendary mixologist in American history.
Wrote the first cocktail recipe book
Nearly attempted a Trans-Atlantic hot air balloon flight
Takes credit for creating the Blue Blazer cocktail
Once served the Prince of Wales
Jerry Thomas’ early life holds a lot of question marks. We know he grew up in Sackets Harbor, New York, and had parents named Jeremiah and Mary and a younger brother named George, but that’s the extent of it. Birth certificates weren’t used in the early 1800s, so his early life doesn’t shed much light on his later endeavors.
Sometime during his childhood, his family moved to New Haven, Connecticut. Even though he got started with an apprenticeship in bartending in New Haven, he developed a serious case of wanderlust which he tried to satisfy by running away to Cuba to become a sailor.
As it turned out, sailing didn't hold all the thrills Thomas sought, but it did give him the experience he needed to start his bartending career. You see, like all sailors through the ages, the fellas Thomas served with loved their booze. Rum, of course, was the spirit of choice.
While many ships were dry, not all of them held to the ideals of temperance. The Ann Smith was one such ship.
But honestly, how could they be expected to abstain from drinking when they had to do ungodly hours of hard labor for $12 dollars a month? It was a measly rate even for those times.
With that in mind, we can understand why the Ann Smith contained a less than sober crew.
They were divided into a temperance crowd and a party crowd. Whether the folks abiding by temperance really stuck to it, we'll never know. But we can speculate that a barman like Thomas found a niche with all that rum on board.
One thing's for certain--the drunkenness on board caused some calamity. The teetotaling First Mate went fist to fist with drunken sailors and the captain's son knocked some drinks back with the cabin boy.
The sad part is that the ship's dog was thrown overboard during the debacle. Hell, what did Fido ever do?
But as his time being a sailor ended, Thomas' gold mining excursion in San Francisco began. It can be difficult to track every move of an itinerant bartender from the 1800s, but legend has it that he ended up at the popular saloon, the El Dorado, and allegedly assisted in serving $300 drinks.
Why so pricey? Because they stirred in real gold with the sugar.
Even though the evidence for this is dubious, isn't it fun to imagine the father of mixology getting his start serving up overpriced golden drinks to gambling saloon patrons?
But the intrepid lad at least made it to the Yuba River to dig for gold. He gave up the ghost pretty soon after, though. Gold digging was rough labor, and this burgeoning bartender was more of an epicure than a hard laborer.
Instead, Jerry settled at a saloon in Downieville, California to return to barkeeping--at least for a little while.
For Thomas, gigs lost their luster quickly. Ever the restless sort, he gave up the saloon to start a minstrel band (yes, you read that right). But that fell through after a bout of cholera hit the crew. He came down with it, too, but managed to survive.
You can't say this man wasn't lucky, as he would prove in his next escapade . . .
Despite his habit of flitting from one job or project to the next, Thomas somehow ended up amassing $300,000—the means by which he obtained it are unknown. But we know he used the sum to travel to Mexico.
As you may have guessed by now, Thomas wasn’t the type to keep his life simple and low-key. While in Mexico, he had another brush with death when he roused an angry mob.
This happened when he and his traveling companions decided to have a romp in a cathedral, and the locals didn’t take too kindly to it.
Luckily for the rowdy twenty-one-year-old, he didn’t get into too much trouble because he was protected by the British consul in Mexico City.
After all these adventures, Thomas' career as a celebrity bartender began to take form in 1858, when he accepted a job as principal bartender at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York.
You would think a man so experienced would be in his mid-forties at least by this point, but Jerry was just 28 when he decided to settle down. And the rest of us epicures are lucky he did!
Even before the word
mixology made it into our vernacular, bartenders were skilled showmen and even akin to magicians. They produced personalized and delicious concoctions, and like illusionists who sawed women in half or pulled playing cards from thin air, the bartender gave away no secrets.
In Thomas’ era, a culture that embraced the libertine lifestyle whenever it was affordable stood in opposition to the more uptight, Victorian culture. There was no earnestness among the
Sporting Fraternity, as the fun-loving tribe was called.
They were people who earned money, spent it grandly, went broke, and started the process again. Rather than prudently saving their earnings like proper Victorians, folks of Thomas’ ilk saw money-making and spending as a sport (like their name implies).
This meant that when Jerry moved to a city like New York, where the lifestyle could be better lived, Thomas could thrive both professionally and socially among his fellow sportsmen.
And one of those sportsmen was a professor and patron of his who dangled another shiny new adventure in front of him: a hot air balloon flight.
In the fall of 1859, while he was establishing himself at the Metropolitan Hotel, Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe planned to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon called The City of New York. It was to be launched in, you guessed it, New York.
Thomas was thrilled by the idea of this cool new journey, so he made his plans. He bought a sealskin coat, with boots and pants to match, and a big, formidable knife.
What would he need a knife for? To fight sharks, in case he ended up in the water. Obviously.
Despite being ready to weather the cold and to engage in combat with sharks, the lift-off never happened. The gas company couldn’t provide what they needed to get the air balloon going.
But again, we should all be thankful that Thomas didn’t get too distracted from his pursuits in mixology.
In 1862, Jerry Thomas earned the nickname
The Professor because he did something ground-breaking: he wrote a cocktail book called The Bar-tender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks.
This may sound pretty prosaic by modern standards, but even the seemingly ordinary things in life have origin stories, and Thomas was the first man to record, and thus demystify, the recipes bartenders had been mixing for some time.
With his own invented recipes in the collection, Thomas set himself apart in history as one of the most innovative and influential barmen.
The accessibility of the recipes made mixology an established field. The text defined recipes that are now considered classics, from ciders and punches to toddies and juleps—as well as his still-famous Blue Blazer recipe. The book proved to be both game-changing and timeless.
He was the best candidate to write such a book considering he became a star bartender in his day with the owner of the Metropolitan, Charles Leland, calling Thomas
the best barkeeper I ever saw. According to Leland, the Professor had no rival in the city of New York.
He was so successful that, with his brother George, he opened a bar of his own near the Metropolitan at 622 Broadway. His time at 622 Broadway was quite productive. This was where he began taking careful notes on a variety of drinks that would later end up in his book.
But being less than frugal, Thomas couldn’t keep the bar open for long. His business expenses were as big as his fame, and he bought it all on credit. The bills came due and Jerry couldn’t pay.
Although his business went under, the Bar-tender’s Guide sold widely. Sadly, Thomas didn’t receive royalties from it. Nevertheless, his star power was still luminous, so he ventured back to San Francisco to work for another Leland Brothers bar.
Again, he proved himself to be at the apex of his field. The Evening Bulletin described his mixing of drinks as the most
graceful of any mixologist they’d ever witnessed.
For a time, the Professor’s financial stability allowed him to settle down and become a family man. But he was not a natural businessman and he struggled to keep his businesses up and running.
In the end, he had to stick to running small-end bars that didn’t contain all the extravagances of the Leland Brothers bars or his own bars in New York.
Thomas’ last saloon was opened in 1881 and was situated on 6th Avenue and West 10th St. in New York. His brother left the bar business altogether, leaving Thomas to manage it himself. Left to his own devices, Thomas had to end the venture in 1882.
The Professor was still conjuring big ideas until the end, but in 1885, he dropped dead suddenly in his New York house on 9th Avenue and West 63rd Street.
Despite the lows he had, it can’t be denied that Jerry Thomas made waves like he wanted to—ones strong enough to ripple into modern times.
He left behind a wealth of recipes he collected through his years bartending and his travels, and we’re graced with these tinctures at innumerable cocktail bars nationwide.
The Professor invented several cocktails over the course of his career, including the Tom and Jerry, Lamb’s Wool, and Champarelle. But the Blue Blazer stands out because of its extra flare . . . no pun intended.
Even though the Professor of mixology took the secretive edge away from the craft, Thomas by no means decried showmanship in bartending. In fact, his Blue Blazer recipe contributed to the theatricality that many patrons enjoy about the craft of cocktail making.
The recipe that might be considered the star of How to Mix Drinks is Thomas’ own Blue Blazer, which involves a combo of wineglass scotch and Irish whisky with boiling water. The mix is set on fire, creating a blue blaze that’s streamed from one silver mug to the next.
You didn’t order a Blue Blazer for its flavor, you ordered it to be entertained.
Although it fell out of favor for almost a hundred years, the Blue Blazer would have been a delightful spectacle in its day. One bartender and critic in 1883 dismissed the elixir in a Chicago Tribune interview, stating that it was good only for taverns, not upscale bars.
Presumably he believed that useless tricks wouldn’t work on patrons with refined palettes.
But whether one sees the sapphic inferno as unnecessary theatrics or flavor enhancement and entertainment all in one, the Blue Blazer is an honorable drink that will no doubt appeal to any imbiber who isn’t too snooty to enjoy a good show with their libation.
And as a professor and a showman, Jerry Thomas should be remembered as a man who should itblazed a trail hot and bright enough to sear through history.
Editor’s note: this is strictly informative and we do not recommend making this cocktail at home. Flaming alcohol is very dangerous and should only be handled by trained professionals.
Two silver and plated mugs, with handles and glass bottoms
4 oz scotch whisky (52% abv or higher)
4 oz boiling water
1 teaspoon of powdered sugar
Lemon peel for garnish
Preheat the mugs and warm the whisky
Pour whisky into one mug and boiling water into the other.
Set the whisky on fire and while blazing, pour from each into the other mug.
Being particular to keep the other blazing during the pouring process.
Serve in small bar tumblers. Add lemon skin, pour mixture into glass blazing, and cover with a cup.
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