more writing Home, James! MOTAC CocktailDB

An Introduction to “The Mixicologist”

By 1895, sixteen important bar manuals (one of them a revised edition, two of them British) had been published following the first bartender’s book ever, Jerry Thomas’s Bon Vivant’s Companion, in 1862. That isn’t very many compared to the wealth of guidance we have today, but then knowledge expands as each generation builds on a foundation of previous generations.

Thomas’ book had no foundation on which to build and was thus a compendium of gathered recipes and formulae (including the ten original cocktails) with little or no instruction to guide the hand of the nascent barman. It (and a precursor, the punch-laden Oxford Night Caps) was the beginning and end of the first phase of bartending as a profession enlightened by textbooks. After this period, barkeepers recognized the value of a standard vocabulary. A Brandy Cocktail ordered in New York stood a chance of being a close relative to one ordered on the Barbary Coast.

Haney’s Steward & Barkeeper’s Manual of 1869 would provide the first terse tutelage to the process of tending bar – allowing, even there, that any “system” set in place was at the “caprice” of those in charge. Inauspicious though it was, this was the onset of bartending as we've come to know it, or, if you will, phase two. By the 1880s, the saloon profession’s appetite for instruction was so great that manuals began to appear with greater frequency. The majority of new guidebooks covered the expanding list of recipes, mixing techniques and bar organization. With few exceptions, bar guides were technical training manuals perceived as useful only within the bar business – and known only to it. Yet these modest guides reverberated like a tidal wave, a little trickle flowing slowly from a trough surged into an insuperable force, the ripples of which have not stopped to this day.

Step back a minute to 1862. Fresh fruits, the juices they produced and even the ice that preserved them were largely seasonal. But the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad, extending and speeding shipments nationwide, made them more readily attainable on demand. Before the railroad, cities convenient to shipping ports were the sole reliable beneficiaries of many of the basic ingredients in mixed drinks. Now the rest of America could sample them. Though refrigeration units in bars were still a few years off, all had iceboxes (or ice houses) and virtually every brewery had a refrigerating machine. Imported and domestic liqueurs arrived like damsels from afar. Vermouths, unheard of in 1862, were suddenly so popular that they were considered a craze. These enrichments directly or indirectly broadened the number of cocktails available and these small drinks were swiftly the (literal) toast of a "tipicular" nation. So much changed in such a short span of time that a few years seemed more like a couple of centuries.

On the cusp of a new century, 1895 seems, in retrospect, to signify both tradition and precognition. Heritage intermingled with an already-exploding future. Some streetcars in New York were still drawn by horses. Butch Cassidy was in jail, still a year away from joining forces with the Sundance Kid, and John Wesley Hardin was shot dead in El Paso. But as iconic figures of the past like Hardin and Alexandre Dumas lay dying, Jack Dempsey and J. Edgar Hoover were born. George Selden patented the first gas-powered car that year, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered “X-ray” radiation, and the Lumiere Brothers screened the first movie in Paris.

Against this pastiche, the cocktail and its mixed-drink brethren were definitely precognitive. They were urban beverages at a time when urban life was becoming bearable. Grover Cleveland was President, and Colonel Joe Rickey, namesake of the Gin Rickey, helped put him there. Perhaps the greatest harbinger of the drinking future, like a rumble of thunder on the horizon, the Anti-Saloon League was formed that year.

By the debut of C. F. Lawlor’s The Mixicologist, phase two had become the first golden age of cocktails. This book was one of two influential American bar manuals published in 1895, the other being George Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks. There was one key difference between these books that clearly denotes their day: Kappeler’s book was published in New York, Lawlor’s in Cincinnati. While the Ohio River clearly provided Cincinnati with shipping access, there could have been no competition with the Port of New York when it came to the transport and ready availability of goods. However, the technological progress of the previous 33 years had leveled the playing field enough, at least, for this medium-sized Ohio city to compete with Gotham in cocktail evangelism!

Domestic bar books after Jerry Thomas cribbed his recipes, often almost verbatim. As more and more books were published, the authors cribbed each other. Make no mistake; this was acquisitive plagiarism, capitalism at its most enthusiastic. The Mixicologist was no exception. After all, if you were collecting drink recipes back then, you were at the mercy of a very limited number of resources: newspapers, bartenders and other books (the same reference tools we have today, minus the vast stockpile of previous recipes and instantaneous access to them via the Internet). Almost a hundred years after its unheralded creation, the cocktail was the new wunderkind. It was the most desired and hardest to find drink. Other contemporary mixed drink forms (the daisy, fix, fizz, flip, cobbler and the reinvigorated julep) rode the coattails of the cocktail's popularity. Bartenders got their recipes from the same sources. The cocktail’s manifest destiny had not yet been so thoroughly instilled that bars freely created them willy-nilly as is done presently. Publishers had to get their books noticed by asserting their individuality through nuances...or just not give a damn.

The Mixicologist was written/aggregated by C. F. (Christopher) Lawlor, and he published it too. By all indications, he became quite the big fish in a small pond as a result. Much of the contents came from one or another of Jerry Thomas’s Bon Vivant editions, but examination shows substantial alterations in proportions, ingredients, recipes and commentary. One would be inclined to think of C.F. Lawlor, barman, author, publisher, entrepreneur as a proud man.

Let’s take the title for instance. The term “mixologist” was coined in 1856 by a writer in The Knickerbocker (or) New-York Monthly Magazine, sort of the New Yorker of its day. Mixologist found ready, if usually ironic, use throughout the ongoing years. Not so “mixicologist." It's a word that never occurred before Lawlor’s book and never again after it. It has a certain medical sound: “Sir, the Mixicologist has determined your prescription.” C.F. Lawlor was The Mixicologist.

The book specifies a particular cocktail bitters never to be found in another bar guide: Schroeder’s Cocktail Bitters. While artisans of today labor to find and replicate the great lost bitters of old (Bokers’, Abbott’s, Stoughton’s), no one has ever found an empty Schroeder’s bottle with a label! Unlabeled, dug-up-out-of-old-outhouse-pit Schroeder’s bottles sell for hundreds of dollars. We can only wildly fantasize about the flavors they imparted to The Mixicologist’s cocktails. Did any other author come up with a drink variety called a “Durkee?” Memory fails to produce one. Similarly, “Punch a la Dwyer,” “The Crank’s Drink,” “Whiskey & Glycerine,” the “Big 4 Mint Julep” the “Attorney General” and “Lawlor’s Pousse Café” could possibly be his work. Punch a la Dwyer sounds delicious...if you could just get the two jiggers of 1835 cognac it calls for.

The Mixicologist is the only bar guide ever published to include a punch recipe that utilizes the ingredient ambergris. Before the Endangered Species Act of 1973, ambergris, a waxy secretion of the sperm whale, was among the most important compounds in the manufacture of perfume. In the days of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the whaling industry was primarily hunting for ambergris. Its use in beverages is obscure beyond telling.

Lawlor notes that “to some tastes, a cocktail is much improved by the addition of two or three drops of Absinthe,” a proposal Americans have only just regained the legal means to test. Of interest to the makers of Benedictine (and perhaps men with ED) he advises that the cordial “is known principally as a genital stimulant.”

The Mixicologist is a book of its time. It stared into the impending storm clouds of the increasingly powerful Temperance forces and gave its readers a section of alcohol-free drinks as well as a self-congratulating article on the lifespan of drinkers versus teetotalers. It took a poll to determine which has greater benefits: whiskey or beer (spoiler alert: whiskey wins). Its advice to bartenders was common for the era, by turns pious and sensible, not as wise as that in Harry Johnson’s New & Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual of 1888 nor as dunderheaded as what Herbert Green’s Mixed Drinks: A Manual for Bar Clerks of 1894 opines.

If one final thing sets C.F. Lawlor’s The Mixicologist apart from other bar guides of the era, it’s the great number of period advertisements it contains. These pages are wonderful. One could almost reconstruct downtown Cincinnati circa 1895 from them. They are a window into the lives, aspirations and dreams of its people as the twentieth century crouched just over the rise, ready to change everything.

Written June, 2006