Ever wonder where Don The Beachcomber and Trader Vic got the idea for their exotic drinks? We know they both traveled to the Caribbean, where they learned about the Daiquiri and the Planter’s Punch. But they also found inspiration right in their own back yard. In the 1830s, American saloons served a libation called the Sangaree; a hundred years later, one of Don The Beachcomber’s first drinks was called the Beachcomber’s Sangaree. Curacao was the most popular liqueur for topping off 19th-century American drinks; it also happened to be one of Trader Vic’s preferred flavoring agents, and a key ingredient in the Mai Tai. Both Don and Vic used a combination of rum and brandy as a drink base — Don in the Don’s Beach Planter, Vic in the Scorpion and Fog Cutter — a combination that can also be found in several American drink recipes of the Civil War era.
How did Vic and Don know about Sangarees, curacao floats, and rum-and-brandy bases? More to the point, how do we?
The answer to both those questions is Herbert Asbury. With a little luck, you will on occasion experience the thrill of discovering a writer whose interests and sensibilities mirror your own. The Beachbum has had that thrill reading only two historians: Alan Moorehead — who chronicled the European collision with Polynesia, Australia and Africa — and Asbury, a latter-day Virgil who guided his readers through the hellish underworlds of America’s nascent cities. We tumbled to him while browsing in an Anaheim used book store in the early 1990s; the jacket of the out-of-print volume, entitled The Barbary Coast, promised “an unflinching account of the sink-hole of depravity and vice that once made San Francisco’s underworld the most dangerous spot in America.” That’s exactly what the book delivered: In a swiftly paced, “you are there” journalistic style, Asbury resurrected a vanished era with details equally lurid and hilarious. We could smell the smoke and the sweat, taste the gin and the fear, feel the joys and the terrors of a past brought vividly to life; this wasn’t just reading, this was time-traveling. Asbury pulled no punches, and left nothing to the imagination. If he were writing in 2007, that would be no big deal … but The Barbary Coast was published in 1933.
We sought out Asbury’s other books about urban underworlds, all also long out of print: The French Quarter (1936), a salacious history of New Orleans; The Gangs Of New York (1928), even grittier than the Martin Scorsese movie it inspired; and Gem Of The Prairie (1940), which gave the same treatment to Chicago’s gangs.
A pattern emerged. In each of these books, one spectral presence — tonsorially resplendent and bejeweled with diamonds — haunted the pages that dealt with saloons and the rogues who “liquorized” in them. This larger-than-life figure somehow happened to be wherever the 19th-century action was: among the murderous barflies of San Francisco during the Gold Rush … amid the dandies hobnobbing in post-Civil War Manhattan’s opulent watering holes … presiding over a Chicago deadfall packed with pickpockets and pimps … or joining the beaver-hatted carpetbaggers sipping and scheming their way through the saloons of New Orleans.
He haunted those bars not as a customer, but as the bartender. Addressed by his clientele as Gambrinus or The Professor, his given name was Jerry Thomas (pictured above). He specialized in the forerunners of the Tiki Drink, concoctions known to 19th-century Americans as “Fancy Drinks.” Contrary to the myth that back then swells only ordered French champagne (known in Denver as “imported giggle soup”) and cowpokes only drank straight whiskey (variously referred to as Nose Paint, Coffin Varnish or Scorpion Bible, after a dram of which you “woke up feeling as if a cat had kittened in your mouth”), barflies both uncouth and couth availed themselves of a wide range of Fancy Drinks, and no one forced them to draw if they did. As Richard Erdoes wrote in his 1979 book Saloons Of The Old West, “Men who went in for fancy or mixed drinks were said to have an ‘educated thirst.’ Their tastes were respected as long as they were known as regular fellows who had proven themselves at work on horseback or with a pick below ground.”
According to an 1836 menu from the Merchant’s Hotel in New York, Fancy Drinks went by such names as the Franklin Peculiar, the Timberdoodle, and the Radiator Punch. These recipes have been lost to time, but many survived: proto-cocktails called Crustas, Cobblers, Daisies, Shrubs and Scaffas appeared as late as 1947 in Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide, although Vic booted most of them from his 1972 revised edition. “Once they were famous. Today they are passe,” he wrote then. “And you bartenders can forget them, too. If somebody comes in to you and asks for a Sangaree, you can probably figure that he wants to be a big dealer, and he has read about this thing in some book.”
David Wondrich is a big dealer, and he has read about this thing in some book.
That book is America’s first cocktail recipe guide, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, or How To Mix Drinks, written in 1862 by Jerry Thomas himself. Herbert Asbury rescued it from obscurity by re-printing it in 1928; before opening their own bars six years later, Don The Beachcomber and Trader Vic would almost certainly have read that edition. Fifteen years ago, we read it too … but we couldn’t make head or tail of the recipes. Inscrutable ingredients were measured in vague amounts, such as “one-half wineglass tincture of cloves.” What in blazes was “a wineglass”? Four ounces? Eight? And how the hell do you make a tincture of cloves, or find “a few drops essence of gentian,” or “one ounce snake-root,” or “one grain of ambergris,” or “six glasses of dissolved calf’s-foot jelly”? It was all too much for a Bum, so we consigned the book to a shelf of other texts we couldn’t comprehend, like Finnegan’s Wake or The Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People.
Enter Mr. Wondrich, the current drinks columnist for Esquire magazine and author of several cocktail recipe guides. He has done the impossible: After years of research, he’s standardized Thomas’s inscrutable measurements and found modern equivalents for all those archaic ingredients. Not only that, he’s field-tested The Professor’s recipes and presented the best of them in a fascinating new grimoire, Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar.
Imbibe! not only brings Thomas’s repertoire back to life, it also delves into The Professor’s own life and times with a vigor, verve, and eye for the telling detail that would surely have pleased Asbury himself. It will most certainly please anyone with an interest in cocktail archeology, American history, or just a ripping good page-turner of a biography.