For centuries people have been mixing potions, initially in a quest for medicinal elixirs, and later to produce exotic drinks. Punch was introduced from India to England in the early seventeenth century. The term, of uncertain etymology, was first recorded in 1632.
Punches were made with a wine or brandy base until, by the mid-seventeenth century, Jamaican rum was applied to give the drink a thump. The use of lemons, limes, and oranges became a lucrative part of the West Indian and Portuguese trade.
For a while punch ruled majestically and enjoyed political prestige as it was the chosen drink of members of the Whig party (the Tories stuck to claret). The entourage of William III of Orange reveled in the drink.
By the mid-nineteenth century the taste for punch had diminished, but the skill of mixing drinks came into focus once again.
Built in the 1750s, Gore House was a grand Georgian mansion on the road that is now called Kensington Gore (the location of the Albert Hall). Between 1808 and 1821, it was the home of William Wilberforce from where he led the movement for the abolition of the slave trade.
From 1836, the property was occupied by Marguerite, Countess of Blessington and her partner, the artist Alfred-Guillaume-Gabriel, Count D’Orsay. They turned the property into a meeting place for artist and socialites until in 1849 they fled their creditors for D’Orsay’s gambling debts.
In December 1850, celebrity chef Alexis Soyer took a lease of the mansion. Raised in Meaux-en-Brie (known for its cheese), he was working in the kitchen of the French Foreign Office when the 1830 Revolution broke out. He subsequently made his way to England and became “chef de cuisine” at the gentlemen’s Reform Club on the south side of Pall Mall. When Queen Victoria was crowned on June 28, 1838, he prepared a breakfast for 2,000 people at the Club.
In spite of his flirtation with the upper classes, there was another side to Soyer’s personality. In April of 1847, during the Irish Potato famine, he opened a kitchen in Dublin. His “famine soup” was served to thousands of starving citizens.
During the Crimean War, Soyer joined British troops to improve army cooking. Together with Florence Nightingale, he oversaw the provisioning of military hospitals and designed a field stove a variant of which was still in use through the Falklands and Gulf Wars. After his return to London, Alexis published an account of his stay in Crimea, entitled Soyer’s Culinary Campaign (1857).
Commercial Europe presented itself in a series of international spectaculars. First defined in the setting of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the 1851 London International Exhibition was master- minded by Prince Albert and Henry Cole. Known as the Great Exhibition, its promoters were convinced that the undertaking would enhance peaceful relations between nations.
Organizers of the Exhibition decided that catering should be organized on a “fast food” basis by concentrating on quick turnaround and low prices. The contract was handed to Schweppe’s firm of mineral water producers (German immigrant Johann Jacob Schweppe had settled in London in 1792), selling over two million Bath buns (sweet rolls) and over a million bottles of carbonated water.
When Soyer learned that catering arrangements for the exhibition did not include hot meals or fine wines, he was horrified. At enormous expense, he turned Grove House into a huge restaurant and named it “Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations.” He offered his clients high-class dining and a range of exotic drinks.
Among the Symposium’s different settings was the Washington Refreshment Room for the “dispensation of every sort of American Beverage.” The menu provided for forty different concoctions, including Hailstorms, Mint Juleps, and Brandy Smashes. In 1851, he offered Queen Victoria a specially created Soyer au Champagne (brandy added to champagne with dashes of maraschino and Curaçao, as well as ice cream).
His undertaking failed financially, but Soyer did change the market for mixed drinks. In his memoirs he relates having interviewed an eccentric American applicant to head the bar. The man declared himself capable of “compounding four [drinks] at a time, swallowing a flash of lightning, smoking a cigar, singing Yankee Doodle, washing up the glasses, and performing the overture to the Huguenots on the banjo simultaneously.”
The interviewee was not selected for the job and his identity has not been established, but it seemed that American bartenders in London added an element of showmanship to the serious business of boozing. And no one more so than Jeremiah (Jerry) Thomas.
When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, he loved to listen to the “clinking sound of hammers breaking lumps of ice” before bits filled the glass.
By the mid-nineteenth century London’s exploding population demanded a massive food supply. Preserving fish, meat, and fresh vegetables proved a problem as there was no mechanical refrigeration. Large wells were created in order to store cargoes of ice blocks shipped in from Scandinavia.
American bartenders – the word itself is an Americanism introduced around that time – convinced wary London drinkers that ice was safe to consume (the fear of cholera and other epidemic diseases ran deep). They soon appreciated the added enjoyment in taste.
In 1859, New York-born bartender Jerry Thomas made a tour of Britain to show off his expertise. His appearance at Chelsea’s Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure park located on the Thames just north of Battersea Bridge, was spectacular. Opened in 1845, the park offered a range of amusements, featuring restaurants, music, dance, and balloon ascents.
Thomas was a master of mixology. He had joined the Californian Gold Rush, working as a bartender, gold prospector, and minstrel show manager. He then worked in hotels and saloons in San Francisco (where he developed Blue Blazer, his signature drink at the El Dorado gambling saloon), New Orleans, and elsewhere, all the way perfecting his creative performance and flashy techniques, whilst selecting flamboyant outfits and jewellery accordingly.
Central to Cremorne Gardens was a Bowling Saloon reflecting the increasing curiosity of Londoners in everything American. A genius of publicity, Jerry’s running of the Saloon was advertised in a shower of leaflets dropped from a hot air balloon. Londoners were promised to experience “genuine iced American beverages, prepared by a genuine Yankee professor.”
Jerry Thomas’s Ladies’ Blush cocktail became the signature drink of Leo Engel’s American bar at the Criterion restaurant, Piccadilly Circus, one of London’s earliest permanent cocktail bars. An expat of New York, Engel published American & Other Drinks in 1878 in which he saluted Americans for their ingenious inventions that have “greatly added to the comfort of the human race.” New York took hold of London, but Soyer still made his presence felt.
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Upon returning to New York, Jerry worked at the Metropolitan Hotel. In 1866 he opened a bar on Broadway between 21st and 22nd Streets. He is said to have been one of the first to display the drawings and caricatures of Thomas Nast.
He also put a self-aggrandizing painting on the wall and joined up as a (comparatively light-weight) member of the Fat Man’s Association of New York at a time that obesity was considered a sign of social well-being and economic comfort.
In 1862, he published a Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks, or A Bon Vivant’s Companion, the first American book to contain cocktail recipes. Regularly updated, the 1876 edition included the first written instructions to mix a Tom Collins. Soon after he was acknowledged as the “Professor of American mixology.” He paid homage to Soyer by including six of the latter’s original recipes in his list, including Soyer au Champagne, Punch Jelly, and Gin Punch.
Mixed drinks rapidly gained popularity in the United States during the 1860s. American visitors to London around the middle of the century – and many of them had visited the Great Exhibition – brought back recipes of concoctions they had sipped in London’s “Yankee Bars.” They were re-introduced into Europe as genuine American drinks.
In 1869, William Terrington published the first British cocktail manual entitled Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks. By then Alexis Soyer was long dead and forgotten, and Jerry Thomas had been forced to sell his bar and art collection after losing a fortune speculating on Wall Street. It took some time before tipple historians acknowledged both men as cocktail-pioneers.
The etymology of the word cocktail in the meantime remains a bone of contention between British and American linguists.
Illustrations, from above: Soyer (with flamboyant hat) in Crimea presenting his field stoves; Soyer’s ‘Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations’ at Gore House, Kensington; Jerry Thomas mixing a Blue Blazer; Jerry Thomas poster; Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks; Second edition of Leo Engel’s cocktail manual; First annual ball of the Fat Men’s Association on 20 December 1869 at Irving Hall, Manhattan.