The Important Role Jerry Thomas Played In The History Of Cocktails

Whether you're walking into a World's 50 Best cocktail joint like Katana Kitten or pulling up a barstool at your favorite neighborhood dive, the influence of Jerry Thomas will be sprinkled all around. When Thomas began bartending at the American Bar in London, his arrival was announced by a snow of paper leaflets dropped from a hot air balloon (via Difford's Guide). He was rumored to have been spotted walking into the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco wearing diamond cufflinks and multiple diamond rings. Suffice it to say — he was a pretty big deal, even in his own day and age.

Born in Sackets Harbor in New York, Thomas cut his teeth bartending in New Haven, Connecticut. The mixologist went on to curate the scene in bars across America and the U.K., including New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Charleston, New York, San Francisco, and eventually London. In addition to his work behind the bar, shares that Thomas had brief stints as a gold miner, a Mason, a volunteer fireman, and a theater performer.

Indeed, one of Thomas' claims to enduring fame was his own theatrical personality. To execute his signature cocktail, the Blue Blazer, you toss a stream of flaming whiskey back and forth between two metal tumblers. But while his showmanship may be famous, it isn't what earned Jerry Thomas the nickname "The Professor" of the cocktail world. The New York Times lauds Thomas as "The Bartender Who Started It All." So, what did he do?

Jerry Thomas wrote one of the earliest guides for making cocktails

In addition to being a killer bartender, Jerry Thomas was also an important author. His intrepid travels taught the globetrotting bartender about the different cocktails folks were enjoying all around the country, which provided the basis for his magnum opus, "The Bartender's Guide: How to Mix Drinks," published in 1862. Per Difford's Guide, it's the earliest surviving cocktail book in history. The book included recipes for classic cocktails such as a smooth Old Fashioned, and it became a universal field guide for industry professionals, states whisky purveyor Chivas

One of the most impressive aspects of Thomas' guide is its timeliness. According to Vine Pair, the word "cocktail" didn't appear in print until 1798, and it didn't receive a definition until 1806 when a New York-based publication called the cocktail "a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water, and bitters."

Since Thomas' time, generations of innovative new mixologists have cropped up who are inspired by his work. The highly decorated Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, has been pioneering new strides in industry sustainability. Punch speculates that New York-based bartender Tom Vaught might be as close to the next Jerry Thomas as the world will ever see. 

But, to compare other great bartenders to Thomas at all is to attest to his greatness and the lasting influence he made on the cocktail world. You might even say his "spirit" lives on. (Pun intended.)