The Story of a Legendary Bartender

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Photo by monstershaq2000/Flickr CC

The 1920s were a nostalgic time for drinkers. Prohibition was in full effect and all legal bars were closed, save a few near-beer joints. In the privacy of your own home you could drink a bottle of wine, or there were abundant places you could go and skulk if you needed to quench your thirst, but the country was now legally dry and thus sans bartenders. So, while you could still get a drink, you were out of luck if you wanted to bend the bartender's ear or enjoy a well-made cocktail in any civilized way.

In the District of Columbia alone, 3,000 bartenders were out of a job. This "guild of the resplendent mahogany" was more than the itinerant workers often behind bars today (although that, too, is changing), slinging drinks to get through college or before their band reaches stardom. They were proud, professional journeymen, who took their jobs seriously and poured drinks in a town that likely then and definitely now drinks more per capita than any other city in the United States.

One of these bartenders, Henry William Thomas, was considered among the best in the world. The "Bard of Baltimore," H.L. Mencken, called Thomas a bartender of the "highest skill and most delicate prudence," the latter of which was crucial when serving the members of Congress and the state.

The most important testament to Thomas' craft are his recipes for cocktails, sours, fizzes, cobblers, juleps, smashes, rickeys, flips and punches among others.

Thanks to a friend abroad--Fernando Castellon--and a kindly stranger from Boston, Bob Band, I've recently put my hands on a book about Henry William Thomas: The Life and Letters of Henry William Thomas, Mixologist, privately published by Charles V. Wheeler first in 1926 and again in 1929.

In the introduction, Charles V. Wheeler writes of Thomas, "In many attractive oasis of that arid desert of Pennsylvania avenue and also in neighboring stretches of thirsty ways hath our Henry stood pleasantly competent behind cool stretches of bar and skillfully piloted frost-crested schooners to the port of willing men...."

Thomas tended bar at a handful of the District's great saloons, including world-famous Shoomaker's, but found a home at George Driver's. That was until Prohibition passed, which went into effect early in the District due to the Sheppard Act. Washington, D.C. went dry October 31, 1917.

The book serves as the only published pre-Prohibition recipe book I've come across by a Washington, D.C. bartender who worked in the District. (Although I'd be delighted to find more.) This is a great find!

Wheeler also includes various drinking quotes that Thomas had collected--"thoughts from other great wets" and "imaginary toasts." They should be part of any drinking man's library and range from the profound to the profane, including great writers such as Shakespeare and Milton. Here's one from Robert Burns that seems a fitting tribute to the collection:

Fortune! If thou'll but gie me still

Hale breeks, a scone, an' Whisky gill,

An' roweth o' rhyme to rave at will,

Tak' a' the rest.

The most important testament to Thomas' craft are his recipes for cocktails, sours, fizzes, cobblers, juleps, smashes, rickeys, flips and punches among others. This is what Washington, D.C. was drinking before that fateful day in 1917. Some are of interesting historical import and others sound genuinely delicious. Quite a few offer funny anecdotes and once again confirm the Rickey as D.C.'s native cocktail.

We'll see about getting this great book published. In the meantime, try the Hong Kong. It reminds me of a Perfect Rob Roy or even an Affinity Cocktail:

Hong Kong

• 1 ½ oz. Blended Scotch
    • ¾ oz. French Vermouth
    • ¾ oz. Italian Vermouth
    • 2 dashes Maraschino

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain in to chilled cocktail glass. No garnish is suggested, but I might add a lemon peel.