Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hunting for Jerry Thomas' Bar-Tenders Guide



Steep the thin yellow shavings of lemon peel in the whisky, which should be of the best quality; the sugar should be dissolved in boiling water.  As it requires genius to make whisky punch, it would be impertinent to give proportions.

*  *  *

We began this endeavor, you and I, after grabbing a copy of Jerry Thomas' book from my shelf.  Do you remember the book?  I know there's been some drinking between now and then, but really, it has just been a few days.

Still foggy?

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
To refresh.  Professor Jerry Thomas was a colossus of the 19th Century, striding behind and presiding over the most famous bars in the U. S. of A.  Today's slow-fooders would appreciate the Professor because he was interested in creating drinks using only the freshest, only the best ingredients.  And local was always better.  So he was a giant, ahead of his time, grew wealthy behind his bars, attended to Kings - but his concoctions still would be lost to us except for one amazing thing - the Professor wrote it all down.  And then in 1862 it was published.  The first bartending guide in the United States.  I have a facsimile of the book, reprinted a few years ago.  It's just brill - copied word for word as if by a monk transcribing a gospel.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
Such a splendid trove of treasures.  I mean, check out Recipe #5, above.  The Professor was fond of punches, he was, so he includes the Scotch Whisky Punch - and while he lists the wonderfully spare ingredients, he has the cheek to not list the proportions.  If you didn't have the genius to figure it out, woe was you.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."
But then I think, 1862?  What was the Professor thinking, devoting a book to the devil's drink, in all it's forms?  Weren't there other issues to focus on in '62?  Like our Civil War?

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
Of course, the Professor was in New York during the war years.  That meant Tammany Hall, with its Overlord, the corpulent Tweed.  We flatter ourselves with our righteous pillorying of the Madoff's of our time, as if their corruption was somehow novel and our indignation somehow exalting.  But there was Ponzi before him, and Tweed before them both, and Tweed's thievery wasn't even disguised.  There were no schemes involved, just good old fashioned American theft.

Whoops, sorry, little help?  Lend me your hand?  Fell off my soapbox.

*dustdust*  Ok, back now.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
So yes, it was 1862 when the Professor's book was published, just a few months after Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic was also seen for the first time on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly.  And while the bloodshed continued (we are rightfully horrified when three soldiers die by a roadside bomb in Iraq; picture then the horror of hearing that eleven thousand men died in the two-day Battle of Seven Pines; that battle led to Robert E. Lee assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginny during June, the same month the Professor's book was first advertised in Harper's Weekly) so while blood continued to be splashed over newspapers, maybe The Bar-Tenders Guide was the tonic the country needed to get them through parts of that hot summer.  More battles would be waged.  Years more.  Half a million lives lost.  Maybe...

...maybe the Professor's fortunes, linked so strongly to that little book, maybe they rose only because it was something so superfluous.  A celebration of the American cocktail?  Really?  But another American war rages while a pretty bauble like Avatar reaps rewards all out of proportion to its worth.  And while we are fortunate enough to still have the option to buy the Atlantic or Harper's, it's instead People and Us Weekly that are purchased more frequently.

Lord, how much longer do you think we'll be able to buy the Atlantic?  Or Harper's?

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.
*stumble ouch*


Sorry, soapbox again.


Really, all I meant to say was, wow, what a cool little book.  And also, well, here's a little something I know you know about me.  My book problem.  And it's not so little.  When a book calls, it's impossible for me to turn away.  So when we grabbed the Professor's book from my shelf, you commented on what a pretty copy it was.  And it is.  Hesperus, in London, did a fine job.  And at only £9.99, a bargain.  But still.  It's a copy, and you know how I feel about copies.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Our God is marching on.
I don't know why I need first editions, but I do.  Just like you need that thing.  You remember, you were talking about it again just a month ago - but I didn't understand.  Couldn't get the attraction.  You remember, right?  You can feel the allure right now.  Just bringing it to mind makes you realize how much you want it.  To own it.  That thing you desire - whatever your thing happens to be.  Mine's books -you know that.

What you don't know is this - New Year's Day, I found one for sale online.  A stunning edition of the Professor's book.  Published in 1887, two years after he died, it was the last updated edition of his book ever produced.  Such a glorious little beauty.  So I bid on the book.  And for a heartbeat, I had the high hand.  But just for that moment.  So I bid again.  And again.  Each time, with the auction's end coming ever closer, I could feel the thin volume in my fingers.  Could see it in yours.  Imagined the highs we could reach, you and I, if we held an original of the Professor's book.  Bid, damnit, bid again.

And we did, and we did, but in the end - we lost.  The quarry escaped.  Jerry Thomas' Bar-Tenders Guide, published by Dick and Fitzgerald, sold for $307.88.

We should have bid in London.  £190.46?  We could have offered that.  Doesn't sound so dire in pounds.

So anyway.  That's really what I wanted to tell you.  That I caught sight of the Guide on the very day after we agreed to go on this journey together with the Guide as our guide.  I don't believe in coincidences, and I know you don't, either.  And yet - it eluded us.  Such is life.  We'll still make do, yes?  Make some more delectable drinks, even if we refer to a copy.

But, you know, eyes and ears open, ok?  That rustling sound you hear might be another original edition creeping along.





So let's get ready to pounce.


  1. In a time of war, nearly any pretty art that is not profound but receives praise could be seen as reaping disproportionate rewards. And, Avatar has a not-so-subtle anti-war theme. In light of that, I'm thinking what you're really saying is that you weren't that crazy about Avatar?

    Well, that and you almost picked up an original edition of the Guide.

    P.S., Is that really the entire Guide recipe for scotch whiskey punch?

  2. Ah, Geeze, now I have to relinquish Writer Secret #8. Don't tell anyone, ok?

    Writer Secret #8: Sometimes we write things, knowing they will get a reaction, just to get a reaction.

    Is this lazy? Yes, it can be. Philip Roth's latest book, The Humbling, has some really bad - almost offensively bad - sex scenes. But the funny thing is, people were talking about Mr. Roth again. Fuming about Roth again. And I won't posit that his fumbling sex was intended to stir the pot, but, um, maybe?

    So when I wanted to take a shot at our current Pop Culture, I aimed for this week's biggest target. Mr. Literal - I often wear his hat when it suits me - could argue that Avatar cost a few hundred million dollars to make, and since it's already collected more than a billion, it has received disproportionate rewards and that isn't necessarily a knock, just an observation.

    Mainly, I was trying to say that even in times of war, we still watch movies, listen to music, and go to parties. I was just struck by the fact that this cool little book by the Professor, this lovely Guide that has me enthralled, come out during the worst conflict we've ever faced. And in spite of that, it earned a following for itself, riches for its author, and is still in print almost 150 years later.

    I do wonder if Avatar will be watched in 2150. I can't make a reasoned argument about that because I still haven't seen it.


    Yes, yes, I dissed it without having seen it. But that gets into Writer Secret #37.

    And yes, that is the recipe in full. When they begin a post, I'll include them word for word.

  3. Yes, it's interesting how art, profound, frivolous, practical or other, can thrive in times of adversity - the Guide is indeed a good example - hard to imagine living in the U.S. in the time of the Civil War. Re. the recipe being reproduced in its entirety in one sentence without giving proportions (and instead offering the curious reader a jest about impertinence almost as long as the recipe) ... my observation is that I think the Professor would have been a fun drinking buddy!

  4. Nick P., may I just say that Janine I WENT TO SEE Avatar last weekend on what we thought was YOUR RECOMMENDATION! (Perhaps I misheard your enthusiasm at New Year's Eve as a personal endorsement.) But anyway. I wanted to let you know we are reading, and that so far you are far exceeding the literary performance of that Julie person from that movie about Julia somebody. Is there a correlation between the length of the blog posting and the number of drinks consumed?

  5. Brad! Um, ok, I had a few drinks at Harry and Natasha's, but I'm pretty sure it was Nick K who enthused about Avatar. I mean, sure, I have perhaps opined on books that I haven't read, restaurants I've not frequented, the occasional album I haven't heard, but Avatar? Criminy, if I led you there, all due apologies! Unless you had a fabulous time, in which case, you can thank me anytime.

    And while there should be a correlation between drinks consumed and length of blog, I'm trying to write well after the drinking part. If that changes, I'm sure it will be readily evident.