Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Jerry Thomas Project The Brandy Cocktail

Oh Julie and Julia, taking the blogosphere to a whole new level. I was quite sure that you couldn’t turn a child’s action figure into a feature film but the colossal hit Transformers proved why I am still standing behind a bar and not working for a big studio in L.A. So I certainly could never have guessed that you could turn a blog about epicurean cooking into what is one of this summer’s most talked about movies. But it inspired me to make all of Jerry Thomas’s cocktails and put it on my blog. Jerry Thomas isn’t a name you hear often, even in the upper echelon mixology world. It’s too bad most of us don’t know more about him as he is considered the father of American mixology and published the first cocktail recipe book, Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide. Not only was he a master at mixing drinks, he also had a show of flare with flashy clothing and some juggling tricks.

So for the next couple of months, I will make all of Jerry Thomas’s cocktails from the book Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide that was published in 1887. These cocktail recipes are all pre-prohibition and were certainly created long before the spirits market started spiraling into what after spending two days at a liquor convention will convince you has gotten completely out of control. There were certainly no TY KU’s (which is a spirit distilled from sake and yuzu that comes in a glowing green bottle) or vodkas with caffeine and guarana. I have to wonder with the plethora of vodkas on the market, who is thinking that they can out-market Absolut or Grey Goose. The people not buying one of the five major labels who decide to buy a small batch spirit are unfortunately few and already there are hundreds of choices. Not that I want to discourage the small batch distilleries, but I feel a bit overwhelmed by one spirit after another that has very similar flavor profile and slightly more or less attractive packaging.

I’ve decided to make the drinks in order of the book. The first drink is a Brandy Cocktail. Obviously, Thomas didn’t have the menagerie of glassware we are accustomed to today either. He specifies either a large, medium, or bar glass. He also doesn’t use ounces, just the measurement of wine glass.

The first drink is a Brandy Cocktail which calls for a small bar glass. As he later specifies to shake and strain it into a cocktail glass (what many call a martini glass), that is the glass I went with. He calls for 3 to 4 dashes of gum syrup, which he doesn’t give a recipe for, but I used simple syrup which we make using equal parts sugar to water. He then calls for 2 dashes of bitters (Boker’s or Angostura) and as I don’t have Boker’s bitters – I used Angostura. I have desperately tried to make Boker’s bitters but unfortunately, I have not found anywhere that sells catechu or tincture of cochineal (although it sounds like this might have only been used for color and I don’t know if it affected the taste of the bitters or not but as the recipe calls for such a large quantity I do believe that it must affect the flavor),.

Thomas calls for a wine glass of brandy, which we use Riedel stemware at my bar (a 30 ounce glass) so I decided to not use an entire wine glass. I was a bit afraid to add the 1 or 2 dashes of Curacao, as I only have blue and I thought it might turn the drink some nasty color. But the few dashes did very little to the hue and actually added some depth to the amber color of the brandy.

The drink was a lot tastier than I thought it would be. I assumed that it would be a bit too sweet with the simple syrup and the Curacao, but it was more like a brandy Manhattan with nice vanilla undertones.

Nice job Mr. Thomas.

Here’s a recipe for Boker’s bitters. Send me a sample if you find all of the ingredients to make them. (you might want to decrease this recipe - or else you are going to have six lifetimes of Boker’s bitters)

4 liters of whiskey
3 ounces of quassia
3 ounces of catechu
3 ounces of calamus
2 ounces of cardamom
40 ounces of tincture of cochineal
5 ounces of burnt sugar
24 liters of water


  1. At some point you might want to do more speculation about how bartending
    equipment has changed since Jerry Thomas wrote his book. I figured the
    electric blender was the only new development, but it appears that much has

    And that inspires a thought -- maybe you could have an "old-fashioned" night
    at your bar and serve only 1920 drinks.

  2. I skipped the colorant in my Boker's recipe. In mine (off of Art of Drink), it was Malva flowers which are difficult although not impossible to source.

    Cochineal is possible to source. I know that Drink here in Boston has/had some for coloring their tonic water away from the bark-brown hue it turned out as. Otherwise, the cochineal adds nothing to the mix. Campari in the US removed cochineal and used a red dye instead (the FDA would require them to put on the label "contains bug parts" or similar and they went with an artificial dye for the US market instead).

    The bitters (without the colorant) will turn out a nice brown color and when diluted in the drink, do not contribute to the color much.

  3. Years ago, I got curious about our traditional measures.

    If two cups make pint, and 2 pints make a quart, what do 2 quarts make? It
    should be something more interesting than "half a gallon," and so I poked
    around until I found the word "pottle" for a half-gallon.

    In the process of writing that piece (sort of an anti-metric essay, arguing
    that we already had many perfectly good units measure that we should use
    more), I figured out this scale which includes some archaic measures:

    2 tablespoons = 1 fluid ounce
    2 fluid ounces = 1 wineglass (2 oz.)
    2 wineglasses = 1 gill (4 oz.)
    2 gills = 1 cup (8 oz.)
    2 cups = 1 pint (16 oz.)
    etc. to the gallon

    This might help if you're fighting with old measures. My grandmother
    Quillen sometimes spoke of gills when cooking, but I never heard her use
    pottle or wineglass.