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Bartender Thomas as colorful as Old West’s outlaws

Rare is the Hollywood western that doesn’t include the stock character of bartender. A dour presence, he quietly polishes glasses, pushes straight whiskey and ducks behind the mahogany when the fighting starts.

But this vision of the frontier saloon-keeper sells them short: Some of the most colorful characters of the Old West were the anything-but-dour men behind the bars.

Drinks historian David Wondrich sets the record straight in his new book, “Imbibe!,” a tribute to the legendary 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas.

Wondrich quotes one amazed observer of rough and rowdy California that the saloons had “purer liquors, better segars, finer tobacco . . . and prettier courtezans” than anyplace in the country: “California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable in America.”

Presiding over the best bad things were the “professors” of the bar – flamboyant fellows with brocaded waistcoats and flashing diamonds who mixed fantastically elaborate concoctions.

They were admired as men of property and professional accomplishment.

The most illustrious of the lot was Thomas. As a young man he traveled to California after gold was discovered there in 1849 and soon realized the handiest veins of gold were to be found in the pockets of the miners, who would pay princely sums for those best bad things.

Thomas returned East after a few years with a small fortune earned mixing drinks for the Forty-Niners, and soon opened what would become one of the most popular bars in New York.

He covered the walls with original artwork, including a large collection of Thomas Nast cartoons, and mixed fabulous drinks while keeping up an entertaining banter.

During his life, Thomas was profiled in various newspapers, and upon his death in 1885, he was fondly eulogized by the New York Times.

But for all his celebrity, Thomas would likely have been forgotten if not for his groundbreaking “Bar-Tender’s Guide.”

“Thomas did something no American bartender had ever done before,” Wondrich writes.

He “put the unruly mass of formulae that every skilled mixologist carried around in his head down on paper.”

The book, also known as “How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” became the core canon of every bartender’s education, with its exhaustive categories of punches, flips, fixes, cobblers, juleps and, yes, cocktails.

Because Thomas was the first to write most American drink recipes down, he was mistakenly credited with having invented many of them (it was a mistake that Thomas did his best to encourage).

But Wondrich is able to identify with confidence only one cocktail as having originated with the Professor himself – the Japanese Cocktail, a mix of brandy, orgeat (almond syrup) and bitters in 1860 to commemorate the ballyhooed and bibulous visit of the first Japanese embassy to America.

Thomas created the Japanese Cocktail – brandy, orgeat (almond syrup) and bitters – in 1860 to commemorate the ballyhooed and bibulous visit of the first Japanese embassy to America.

Japan sent some 170 diplomats, bureaucrats, samurai and servants to the States, ostensibly to get the president’s signature on an English-language copy of a treaty. Of the many amenities the ambassadors experienced, none was embraced with quite as much enthusiasm as drink. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Japanese didn’t miss their sake, as they were quick to “exchange it for Champagne and other wines, and rum, whisky and brandy.” One of the envoys, Fukuzawa Yukichi, recounted in his memoirs how startled they had been upon first being served sparkling wine: “When a bottle was opened, it exploded with a frightening noise.” Even stranger to them was the ice that was served in the glasses to chill the champagne. “Some were frightened by the floating objects and spat them out; some were loudly crunching on the cubes.” They didn’t realize it was just ice, wrote Yukichi, because “we didn’t know they could have ice in such warm spring weather.”

While staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington, the younger ambassadors would “slip into a room to enjoy a julep.” A reporter for the Boston Journal complained that it was hard to gather news because “as they imbibe and become loquacious they forget their English and grow communicative in unintelligible Japanese.” Even so, Champagne quickly became the legation’s drink of choice, and rather expensive Champagne at that. When New York threw a grand ball in the ambassadors’ honor, the wine bill alone was more than $20,000 – or about half a million in today’s dollars. The New York Times griped that the crowd had been “ankle-deep in Champagne,” and grumbled that giving the Japanese a taste for Champagne had only benefited “French commerce.”

At least Jerry Thomas was doing his part to instruct the Japanese legation in the signature American art of mixing drinks. When in New York, the legation stayed at the Metropolitan hotel, just a few blocks from Thomas’s saloon. Chances are an ambassador or two tried the drink created in their honor.

The Japanese Cocktail – with its use of the rather exotic-tasting orgeat (pronounced or-ZHAH) – pushed open the possibilities of cocktails, helping what was then a narrow category of quaffs begin its evolution from a simple thing of liquor, sugar and bitters into the very definition of the American mixed drink. Though the Japanese Cocktail didn’t survive Prohibition, it’s worth reviving. And it’s easy to make – though if you want to mix it up in a fashion befitting the Professor himself, you might want to get a set of diamond cuff links.

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Japanese Cocktail
2 ounces cognac

1/4 ounce orgeat (almond syrup)

2 dashes Angostura bitters

1 slice lemon peel

Muddle lemon peel in orgeat and bitters in the bottom of a short tumbler. Add cognac and ice, stir, and serve. Or, shake all with ice and strain into a stemmed cocktail glass.

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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