A Tribute to Jerry Thomas

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One interesting fact about nature is that there are hundreds of near-Earth asteroids hurtling through space right now as we sit here and play on our computers. What is of particular concern, though, is that if one of those asteroids had landed on the Teardrop Lounge on Saturday, Murray Stenson would have had to teach the entire Pacific Northwest how to tend bar again.

On Saturday, the Oregon Bartenders Guild presented A Tribute to Jerry Thomas at the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, featuring David Wondrich, author of Imbibe! and contributing editor for Esquire Magazine.

Charles Munat and David Wondrich

And for four hours, one room contained some of the greatest minds and hands in Pacific Northwest bartending, mixology and cocktail writing: Paul Clarke (Cocktail Chronicles), Jamie Boudreau (Vessel, Spirits and Cocktails), Daniel Shoemaker and Ted Charak (Teardrop Lounge), Kevin Ludwig (Beaker and Flask), Charles and Ted Munat (Le Mixeur), Craig Hermann (Northwest Tiki), Blair Reynolds (Trader Tiki), Charlie Hodge (Clyde Common), Matt Mount (House Spirits), Neil Kopplin (Carlyle), and David Shenaut and Alyson Dykes (Teardrop Lounge).

I was there too, representing Southern Oregon, making drinks, taking notes, and filling my camera with photos.

Our guests arrived at noon and were greeted with a Rocky Mountain Punch, a light, zesty concoction of Jamaican rum, champagne, maraschino liqueur, sugar and lemons. While the ingredient list might seem bizarre considering the era and originating locale, Wondrich assured the crowd that saloon supplies were a priority well above schools and healthcare in the great American frontier. I think the crowd came to understand their appreciation for this decadent, yet perfectly-balanced drink.

Daniel Shoemaker and I originally bonded over two things: our interest in making rare and lost ingredients, and our adoration the Japanese Cocktail. So we collaborated on just that for the first official cocktail of the event. David spoke about the fact that the Japanese is probably one of the few drinks in Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide that he actually invented, possibly as a tribute to the Japanese delegation’s visit to New York in June of 1860. I’ve had many Japanese Cocktails in the past, but was looking forward to trying one with such exquisite ingredients as we had on hand.

Housemade orgeat

Daniel was able to procure two bottles of Dudognon, a beautiful and rare 15 year-old Grande Champagne cognac, and he provided a house-made orgeat made from blanched almonds touched with sugar and orange blossom water.

bokersbitters.jpg

I spent the two weeks leading up to the event recreating Boker’s Bitters based on a recipe by Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh. Boker’s was used extensively in cocktails during Jerry Thomas’ era, but sadly hasn’t been made since then. Thanks to the good research and estimations and approximations by others, we now have a recipe that we believe comes close. I used a base of Wild Turkey 101-proof rye, and added quassia chips, cardamom, orange peel, black catechu and malva flowers (for color) and steeped the mixture for ten days before filtering it and watering it down for use as decanter-style bitters.

Photo by Kevin Ludwig

The result was a Japanese with a depth and sophistication that I’d never been able to experience with my Monin or Torani orgeats and two dashes of Angostura. The touch of orange blossom in the orgeat, the distinct lack of sweetness in the Boker’s, I think I – finally – fully understand this drink.

Next, David talked about one of his personal favorites, the Improved Whiskey Cocktail. Made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, absinthe, simple syrup, maraschino and bitters, I didn’t get a chance to listen to his entire speech for the sound of my shaker rustling ice cubes in my ear. However, the nose, texture and palate of this drink as it stands up next to, say, a proper Old-Fashioned is sublime.

Charlie Hodge and David Wondrich

After a well-earned break with a Stone Fence, made sissy-style with non-alcoholic cider in place of hard cider, I was confronted every couple of minutes by a guest examining their drink with a look of genuine surprise. “This is so much more than the sum of its parts!” was the most astute comment I received, and I was in complete agreement.

Buffalo Trace

Alyson Dykes was greeted by the well-lubricated crowd with the enthusiasm of a prison work crew that hadn’t seen a female in months, but she quickly tamed them with the Buck and Breck, a brilliant selection and a wonderful drink comprised of Remy-Martin VSOP cognac, a dash of absinthe, two dashes Angostura and a top-up of Oregon’s own Argyle brut sparkling wine, all together in a sugar-frosted champagne coupe. Genius.

Frosted champagne coupes

Kevin Ludwig came in and presented the penultimate drink of the day, the Coffee Cocktail, which Wondrich surmises came from New Orleans (I’ll buy that). Despite its name, the Coffee Cocktail contains no bitters and no coffee, but rather a bizarre blend of cognac, port wine, sugar, and a whole egg. And despite the recipe, Kevin’s version contained no port, but instead a wonderful Rancho de Philo California “triple cream” sherry that stood in perfectly for the port.

Mr. Wondrich closed the event with a demonstration of the Blue Blazer, and as everyone piled into the darkened hallway to watch, I found myself not thinking about the flammability of the curtains or wondering if David had consumed as many drinks as I had, but rather thinking about Jerry Thomas and imagining that this little group of Pacific Northwest cocktail enthusiasts, his stalwart followers, would make the old man proud.

jessica.jpg

Later that evening, there was much jocularity and celebration of the day’s event. And as we crossed from place to place, I realized that while in the thick of things I had forgotten to give thanks for being given the opportunity to help execute – and consume – some of the best drinks made in Portland that day.

And as much as I enjoyed the look of horror on Paul Clarke’s face after being served a Sazerac, shaken and strained into a warm cocktail glass, pale orange with a single drop of Peychaud’s and garnished with a limp, dribbly lemon peel, I came to understand the power of the event we had just come from and had the unnerving realization that not everyone was familiar with Jerry Thomas or David Wondrich. It was enough to make me exclaim, “Hey, Paul, you’re not going to actually drink that, are you!?”

David told the crowd on Saturday that his goal when embarking on this path of his was to be able to walk into any bar in America and be able, once again, to get a good drink. And after hopping around a mid-sized American city on a Saturday night, it looks like we’ve only just begun.

33 Replies to “A Tribute to Jerry Thomas”

  • John Claude says:

    Slogging your way up from the bottom is the only way to do it. I love it when people think bartending is some sort of entry level position.

  • Chas. Munat says:

    #18/JD – You’ve just showed why bartending schools are inevitably a complete waste of time and money.

    Rye was probably the original whiskey in the Manhattan. Bitters is a key part of the drink. And lots of people drink rye.

    For a more thorough exegesis, try this link: http://www.barmixmaster.com/2005/10/manhattan.html

    It is particularly funny that you added your comments to a blog about Jerry Thomas. According to Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide (1887), a Manhattan is made with:

    1 pony rye whiskey
    1 wine glass vermouth
    orange bitters

    If you think that’s dated, then check Joy of Mixology (2003) where Regan states: “Most important, however, is that there *must* be bitters of some kind in a Manhattan.”

    Tell your “friend” to ask for his money back.

  • JD says:

    I think he really just went so that he could get a license or something. I’m not sure exactly how Ohio’s bartending laws work.

    All they learned about was crappy drinks that use sour mix and well liquor. He knew nothing of the Negroni or Sidecar.

  • John Claude says:

    License classes don’t teach you how to make drinks. They teach you the applicable laws and regulations of said state. That and they generally take no longer than 4 – 6 hours.

    Not trying to be snooty about it, but he really will have no idea about bartending from those classes.

  • Jeff Frane says:

    The wise bartender of 40 years ago told me that the most critical skill for a bartender was dealing with customers and providing great service. My own experience on the other side of the bar bears him out.

  • Lance J. Mayhew says:

    Sissy -style Stone Fence huh? Hater.

    Great recap.

  • I hate everyone in the world right now…..

    sure wish i could have been there…. sounds like a blast! ah well, just got my tickets to NOLA and will have to make do waiting for that event…. pretty sure i’ll get a decent sazerac there. at least i’d hope so….

  • Matt says:

    Jeff,

    Damn sorry I missed it.
    Hope you saved some Rittenhouse for me – I’m in serious need of a decent Manhattan this weekend. And I hate NY.

    Looking forward to it –

    – Lost in UO Law School

  • ND says:

    Great article, thank you! I hate to sound like a bartending school dropout, but how exactly do you make that Improved Whiskey Cocktail?

  • Cole Danehower says:

    Last Saturday’s Jerry Thomas tribute was really quite Wondrichful! As a relative neophyte in the realm I learned a great deal, and have since added the Improved Whiskey Cocktail to my limited at-home repertoire . . . and the Japanese is next up.

    As for Portland Sazeracs (perhaps my favorite cocktail) I haven’t had a really good, classical one . . . or at least one that beats what I’m doing in my own kitchen (my bar). Of course, I haven’t yet been everywhere (I’m heading to Clyde Common next week to taste Charlie’s). The two times I ordered it at The Heathman, I felt it was way to sweet . . . but it depends on who is making it. I disliked their Manhattan the first time I had one (too sweet, again), but the last time my wife and I agreed that it was killer.

    Now, I NEED to get down to Eugene specifically to sample your skills, Jeffrey!! I’m looking forward to it!!

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