Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
"JERRY THOMAS DEAD - New York's Famous Old Barkeeper a Victim of Apoplexy"
On December 15, 1885, the front page of the New York paper, The World, announced the death of the man many consider the founding father of modern bartending: Jerry "The Professor" Thomas.
The original cocktail showman, Jeremiah P. Thomas was the godfather of flair bartending, the spiritual ancestor of Tom Cruise in Cocktail, the author of the world's first surviving cocktail book, and a New York icon, too.
Thomas was a genius for publicity. His appearance at the new American Bar at the Cremorne pleasure gardens in London was preceded by leaflets dropped from a hot air balloon. He may (or may not) have spent as much as $5,000 on a custom bar kit for the event.
During the high times, The Professor literally dripped with diamonds - a mesmerized visitor to San Francisco's Occidental Hotel noted Thomas's diamond cufflinks, stick pins and rings (plural).
During the low times? He had to auction his possessions at one point, apparently after an investment went bad. A bar tab of his went unpaid for three weeks. And his family made no money from any of the editions of his cocktail book.
Born in 1830, in the little town of Sacketts' Harbor, upstate New York, Thomas began bartending in the town of New Haven, before gold fever brought him to San Francisco as crew on the bark Ann Smith.
He worked around California in a range of positions during the late 1840s and early 1850s - though exhaustive researches have found no evidence that he ever staked a claim to gold.
A compulsive wanderer, Thomas seems to have worked in Saint Louis, New Orleans, Chicago and Charleston, as well as New York and San Francisco, collecting recipes from all across the US as he travelled.
By later life he had a famous collection of gourds, and of artworks, some featuring himself in dramatic poses. He was a member of the Fat Men's Association in New York, and a vigorous attendee at prize fights. He ran his own saloons with varying success.
Did Thomas create the Tom & Jerry cocktail? Sadly, no.
His signature drink, undoubtedly, and the one that expresses his flamboyant personality to the utmost, is the Blue Blazer, a flaming stream of blazing whiskey poured between two metal tumblers.
Yet it seems to have been less his drinks than his personal charisma and flamboyant, dramatic style that made him, as The World put it, "an acknowledged favorite behind the bar".
Or, in the words of Dale DeGroff, one of few contemporary bartenders who can actually make the Blue Blazer, "Great drinks are back. But one aspect of the bartending profession is still unrivaled to this day: the theatre that Jerry Thomas brought to cocktail bars in the middle of the 19th century."