Settle down, cocktailians. The question isn’t, “Who is Jerry Thomas?” as in the pioneering American bartender and New York (State) native deemed the father of modern mixology and worshiped by mustachioed, suspenders-sporting drink slingers everywhere. The question is, “Who is Jerry Thomas?” as in the guy (or gal) who mans said bartender’s Facebook page, boasting 1,422 friends and counting.
Fork in the Road tracked down “Thomas” to discuss (anonymously, via e-mail) the last 200 years or so of drinking, the whole bartender/mixologist debate, and the fine art of getting drunk.
You probably wish to remain anonymous, but I have to ask: Who are you?
I will say that I am a Northeast bartender. I started this all in fun and it kinda took off on its own. I have received messages from as far away as Asia and all over Europe, as well as a great response here in the States. I am a huge fan of Julia and follow along with Beard on FB, so one day I put in a search for JT. Nothing came up. So I just figured well, why not.
Why did you choose Jerry Thomas?
Let me begin my explanation with a question: Do you or your readers know who Chuck Williams is? Chuck Williams founded the Williams-Sonoma company and authored some great cookbooks. I would bet a bottle of Henri IV Cognac that some of our “famous chefs,” these TV chefs, wouldn’t even know who he is. Without Mr. Williams, we might not have Julia Child and James Beard. That realization started me thinking, what type of legacy does Jerry Thomas have? Here we are in the middle of this cocktail renaissance, but are people really learning where the art of the cocktail comes from? Is the new breed into the culinary aspect of it, or are they just memorizing ingredients?
What do you make of this cocktail Renaissance?
It’s wonderful, and it’s here to stay for good. I like the fact that this began as a grassroots effort. When people look back at the same three usual suspects: (Dale) DeGroff, Gaz (a.k.a. Gary Regan) or (David) Wondrich, they have been pounding that drum pretty loudly for many years, and finally it was heard. Now, look what they have started. Although, if I ever see Rachael Ray adding EVOO to a new take on a Sazerac, she will worship Bourdain as a saint compared to [what I would say of her]. You can tick off the cook, that’s fine: two minutes later, he forgets. A barman, on the other hand, never forgets.
What’s been the biggest change in bars since Thomas’ era?
In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the action stayed mainly in the downtown areas. Sure, you had a local pub or tavern, and maybe a great neighborhood bistro that was known strictly by word of mouth, but that was it. In the 90s, the old local dark taverns opened their windows and installed recess lights to complement the dirty martinis and buffalo chicken nachos. Now, people are putting the “pub” back into public house. On the more creative menus, charcuterie, pork, and oysters stand alongside cask ales, good wine and bourbon. With the improvement in food and drink choices and quality, service has improved as well. Customers and staff are having fun, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
What’s the worst drinking trend you’ve seen in the last couple decades?
From the customer perspective, power drinking. If you happen to be very happy imbibing, wonderful, but drinking yourself into a stupor almost as a sport is painfully unattractive. Just as there is an art to preparing a fine cocktail, there is a true art to getting drunk. From the marketing perspective, flavored vodkas, gimmicky promotions, and mindless juice-based drinks that are billed as martinis.
Are you much of a foodie?
Sad to say, [but one thing I don’t agree with is] the idea that “foodies” are driving the industry. Look, I love that we are using fresh ingredients and turning the clock back. Let’s not be pretentious, though; let’s not scare customers. If I lined up 10 people, maybe four would know what a bottle of Barolo is, and maybe two of those four would know what grapes are in it. People like being taught. People, in general, like hearing the history of a cocktail or a recipe or a even about a crazy winemaker. When you look around the bar or dining room, and everyone looks the same, how are you making money? What happened to the idea of a “pub-lic house,” where the construction worker, the venture capitalist, and school teacher are all getting along?
What is your favorite drink?
Honestly, a shot of Fernet and a Miller High Life. Still, I love a good Brandy Crusta (brandy, Cointreau, lemon juice, maraschino, bitters). I also love the idea and history of the Jack Rose (applejack, lime juice, grenadine), with a tweak here a tweak there. It’s a great drink. The Martinez (gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino, bitters), with the right ice, becomes very sexy when it is being stirred.
Bartenders have done so much to research the classics. What do you think is the future of mixology?
The classics, I hope, will stay classic and the new breed will build on them. Bartenders would not be honoring me (as in, Jerry Thomas) and the many other legacies by not developing new ideas. That said, we don’t want robots, nor do we want 10 ounces of fruit juice with two ounces of rum served in an eight-ounce glass.
Do you like the term mixologist?
This is a great question. “Mixologist” is kinda like the term “barista.” It is such a pretentious name. You’re a bartender. If you mix drinks, pour beer, tell a funny story, give quarters for the meter, take a bet, bury a dead body, open a bottle of wine, you’re a bartender. Sorry to all of the “mixologists” out there, but you’re bartenders. There is no shame in that title. Bartenders are gods. People go to a bar to see the bartenders. I have never heard anyone say, “let’s go see who the new mixologist is.” It’s silly.
What are some of your favorite places to drink in New York?
In no particular order: Pegu Club, Flatiron Lounge, PDT, McSorley’s, Milk and Honey, Death and Co., Pastis, and P.J Clarke’s. They are all are great. Anyone in New York or heading down there should also check out: Fort Defiance, Rye House, Employees Only, and Apotheke.
What American city has the best cocktail scene?
New York, without a doubt. Boston is gaining speed, big time. Portland can boast some great joints, and Seattle is a fun town. Of course, you have to mention L.A. and San Francisco and a special nod to New Orleans, where the cocktail renaissance happened about 200 years ago and hasn’t stopped.
Finally, the most important question of all, do you think there are cocktails in heaven (and that Jerry Thomas is drinking one there now)?
I am reminded of an old baseball joke that I will change up:
Two old slingers, best friends for years, both live to their early 90s, when one of them suddenly falls deathly ill. His friend comes to visit him on his deathbed. While they’re reminiscing about their long friendship, the dying man’s friend asks, “Listen, when you die, do me a favor. I want to know if there are cocktails in heaven.”
The dying man says, “We’ve been friends for years. This I’ll do for you.” Then he dies.
A couple days later, his surviving friend is sleeping when he hears his friend’s voice. The voice says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there’s cocktails in heaven.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“You’re working on Wednesday.”
On a more personal note, heaven to me is being behind the stick with a full bar, holding court.