New York City (1860s)
Time-travel in a glass, this one. So much so, when you sip it you can almost picture the hazy gaslamp-lit sidewalks and almost smell the horseshit-strewn cobblestone streets. Almost, I said.
New York City in the 1860s was a thick, bubbling, funky melting pot of cultures: Irish, Italian, German, Caribbean, British, Dutch, and beyond. Politically corrupt Tammany Hall ran the show. Manhattan became heavily militarized and fortified against a Confederate attack that never came. And Central Park was an under-construction showcase of wilderness in the middle of the world’s greatest city. This close-quarters assimilation was (and still is) responsible for the cocktail as we now know it: American whiskey mixed with Italian or French vermouth, British gin mixed with fresh-squeezed citrus (originally cultivated in southeast Asia), and the rise of exotic local liqueurs imported from across Europe.
It was in this landscape that Jerry Thomas worked his magic. I can’t cover his influence any better than David Wondrich’s excellent book Imbibe!, but here’s the short version: Thomas was the original rockstar bartender, traveling the country from coast to coast showing off his skills. And a showoff he was: One of his signature drinks, the Blue Blazer, involves tossing flaming Scotch whisky from one metal tankard to another – maybe the original Vegas flair-style bartender. Hell, the guy had a statue of himself in his bar on Broadway and 21st. Jerry loved Jerry.
But his lasting legacy outweighs his ego, thankfully: Thomas wrote the world’s first cocktail book. How to Mix Drinks (or The Bon Vivant’s Companion), published in 1862, was his enforcing of order on a chaotic world in transition: Colonial drinks like Punches, Eggnogs, Juleps, Shrubs, Smashes, and Cobblers were cataloged along with newfangled 19th-century trends like Cocktails (at the time, simply any spirit with sugar, water, and bitters) and Sours. The book is still in print today and offers a fascinating view of Civil War-era drinkmaking culture: Just before the vermouth craze of the 1870s, just before the Industrial Revolution. He did a good thing, getting all this stuff down for posterity before he died of a stroke at age 55, twenty-three years later. Apparently, he was a victim of the changing times: he died deeply in debt and unemployed. His family made exactly squat from his book.
This cocktail, what he called an “Improved Holland Gin Cocktail,” would’ve been popular in his heyday, and is indeed documented in his book. It uses a spirit popular at the time and only recently revived: genever, the Dutch predecessor of British gin (say it “jenn-EE-ver”). Made in Holland of distilled maltwine (corn, rye, wheat, and other grains) and flavored with juniper, genever was originally made as a medicinal drink of crushed juniper berries distilled with brandy. As wine grapes became scarce, malty beer mash was substituted to keep the product rolling – and to great effect. In this way, genever is kind of a weird cousin to both whiskey and gin – similar to both, but like neither. The British enjoyed genever so much, they sought a way to replicate it back home, modifying the base and formula to suit their palates – first as the Old Tom style of gin, then London Dry. The Bols company has recently revived genever as a contemporary product, unavailable since Prohibition (thank you, Bols!).
Where a standard “cocktail” back in the day would’ve been spirit, sugar, water / ice, and bitters, Jerry Thomas specified a category of “Improved” cocktails with a touch of absinthe and Maraschino liqueur. Any spirit can be used in these Improved cocktails – try rum, bourbon, or brandy… but there’s something strange and perfect about the way genever plays with these other flavors.
A couple notes: You’ll be serving this up, like a Martini – stirred (even though Jerry said to shake, we know better now). You can use a cocktail glass or a small rocks glass. I like the latter – it feels right since it’s an offshoot of the Old Fashioned and cousin to the Sazerac. Also – if you have a demerara syrup on hand, you’ll get a more authentic idea of the drink’s history. But regular old simple syrup will certainly work. And if you’re lucky to have Berg & Hauck’s formulation of “Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter” bitters in your arsenal, now is the time to get them out.
A toast to Jerry Thomas, the original.
Hardware: Jigger, Barspoon, Mixing glass, Hawthorne strainer, Vegetable peeler or sharp knife
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Rocks glass or cocktail glass
Spirits: Genever (recommended: Bols)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Absinthe (recommended: Pernod, St. George, Herbsaint), Maraschino liqueur (recommended: Luxardo), Demerara syrup or simple syrup
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Bitters (recommended: Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter, Angostura), Lemon twist
Using a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, cut a strip of lemon peel to make:
1 lemon twist
Don’t include too much of the bitter white pith, if any.
In a mixing glass about one-third full with ice cubes and cracked ice, add:
2 dashes bitters
1/4 oz demerara or turbinado syrup (2:1)
1 barspoon maraschino
1/2 barspoon absinthe
2 oz genever
Stir briskly to blend and chill. Holding the twist with the outside facing down over a rocks (or cocktail) glass, pinch to express lemon oil into the glass and brush lightly around the glass exterior. Reserve the twist for a garnish.
Double-strain the drink (to catch small bits of ice) into the prepared, chilled glass. Garnish with the lemon zest either resting atop the glass or dropped in.