Bye bye Jerry Thomas: Stepping out from the shadows of bartending classics

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The great names of bartending cast a long shadow. But, says Jane Ryan, the time has come for modern bartenders to cease the hero-worship of Jerry Thomas et al and start looking towards the future of cocktails


Let’s preface this by stating immediately that there’s nothing terribly wrong with Jerry Thomas. Or Harry Johnson.

It’s true that Harry Craddock had some strange ideas on the Fix (cherry brandy anyone?), but he’s not a bad chap either.

That said, we’ve all seen a nervous young bartender thumbing their Bartenders Guide as they prepare to order the most obscure classic they can find. Invariably, humiliation follows and they turn a startling shade of beetroot when they realise the person on the other side of the bar hasn’t heard of it either.

But does knowing the exact 1862 recipe for every classic in the book really make you a good bartender? And, for that matter, does it mean you’ll ever be able
to invent a decent drink?

There was a time when rediscovered classics or classics done well were the height of cocktail culture. This culture began when Sasha Petraske opened Milk & Honey in New York circa 2000 and started serving Jerry Thomas-esque basics.

At that time, cocktails definitely needed a harsh, in-your-face reminder of what a balanced drink looked like. Because as much as the reinvented Cosmo of the 90s was outstandingly delicious, there is no way you could possibly call its peers pinnacles of great cocktail culture. Those drinks were more likely to give you cavities than get you drunk.

Finally, sour mix was shown the door as the use of fresh citrus and good ice enabled classics such as Morning Glory Fizzes and French 75s to reign supreme.

But we’ve now had 18 years of back-to-basics, and perhaps the time has come to admit that we’re not getting anywhere until we start to move beyond the classics that have brought us to where we are today.

‘Comfort food and classic drinks are very similar in how we think about them,’ says P(our) founder Alex Kratena. ‘They’re comforting, often quite rich and the recipes are consistent. They don’t really reflect a time or a place, as they are made exactly the same from the same number of ingredients all around the world.

‘Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge respect for classic dishes and drinks, but when I travel to Mexico the last thing I want to be eating is a club sandwich and drinking a Brooklyn. I think we would prefer to be diving in the ocean of mezcal and tacos.’

So how do we keep pressing on, past the back-to-basics mentality?

‘We’re still, as young bartenders, taught by that [Jerry Thomas] manual, and the first thing you learn is how to make a Manhattan or a Martini to his spec,’ says Max Venning, co-owner of Three Sheets and Bar Three. ‘I honestly think if Jerry Thomas was in the room right now he’d tell us we were mental.

‘He was an innovator because he made drinks that hadn’t been made before, and yet we are still making those drinks the same way,’ he concludes.

As any experienced teacher worth their wage packet will tell you, pure by-rote learning will leave students woefully ill-equipped to answer more than a multiple-choice questionnaire.

‘I’m not saying bartenders shouldn’t know how to make a Tom Collins,’ he continues. ‘I think they should, but more importantly they should know why.’

‘It’s obvious that the intention of the old bartenders was exactly the same as ours,’ says Kratena. ‘But the modern palate and many products are completely different to what we think of when we read those old recipe books. So the aim, in my eyes, of a modern bartender shouldn’t be to recreate a museum but to serve delicious drinks.’

Citing a Manhattan, Venning says it’s more important to know what the whiskey, vermouth and bitters bring to the harmonious creation of the classic than to spout ml pours off by heart. That way you can start to tinker with the structure.

‘Classics training can be important because it teaches the effects of technique – stirring a Martini creates dilution and a colder temperature, for example. I would never say throw the basics out of the window, because I think you only get to the point of being able to create when you understand the basics,’ he says.

Soft focus
At Three Sheets the drinks can often appear as simple concepts thanks to their easy palatability and refined serves, but the team there have made bold steps away from the basic formulae. In fact, not a lot of citrus, or even vermouth, finds its way into the Venning Brothers’ venues.

‘I think that classic recipes can promote an over-reliance on ingredients,’ says Venning. ‘We have acidity in the UK that isn’t citrus. Lemon tastes of lemon and lime tastes of lime, but we tend to forget that and think of it as a balancer. What about a really acidic apple? What about dryness from tannins?’

Interestingly, he points to the soft drinks world as its main focus of inspiration. Situated as Three Sheets is on Kingsland Road in east London, there’s a large Turkish, Vietnamese and West African community surrounding the bar, with speciality shops all stocking soft drinks that are new to many bartenders.

Venning says it’s been eye-opening to look at the different balances and the uses of acidity and sugar in these drinks.

‘The “why” behind the foundations of drink construction is often missing from modern bartender training,’ says Venning, pointing to the in-depth studies into the science of food and adding: ‘I believe we need something similar in the world of cocktails.’

‘In most bar schools,’ echoes Kratena, ‘you start to learn the recipes then recreate the recipes, and actually it’s very hard to memorise them because nobody is teaching you how and why to balance the drinks. Nobody is teaching you why you are doing what you are doing. Knowing the proportions can be good, but understanding a recipe from the culinary point of view is more interesting.’

With new balancers coming into play, spirits increasingly pushing the boundaries of their categories (even if it does outrage us occasionally) and very different inspirations – from sustainability to locality – behind modern drinks, today’s cocktails may look like those from the days of Jerry Thomas, but they often bear no resemblance in terms of taste.

It’s not altogether alienating however. There’s something familiar in the complexity of a Three Sheets cocktail. ‘We’re looking to find things that taste good right now, that are accessible and that hit as wide a demographic as possible. We’re looking to make things that are delicious,’ says Venning.

Moving on
After years of back-to-basics, we now have enough bars recalling the 1860s. You can get a balanced Silver Fizz, a perfectly diluted Manhattan and a damn good Port Stinger in most areas 0f London and many UK cities, from Inverness south. But if something doesn’t change, this industry is going to end up with cities full of cut-and-copy bars.

Instead, we should look to the likes of Venning and Kratena to move the industry forward. How? As they put it by unlocking the kitchen doors, so we can understand various techniques and begin to go mad with the savoury, the dry and the herbaceous. And, perhaps most importantly, by gaining inspiration from outside the classic canon of drinks.

Finally, now is probably the time for bartenders to stop thinking Jerry Thomas was the world’s best bartender. He wasn’t, and there are better drinks than the Blue Blazer being invented today.

There, I said it. Now please don’t stone me with copies of his bartender’s bible.

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