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Five Unheralded Early Pioneers of the American Bar

on 08/05/15 at 12:05 pm

Booze News

Cato’s Tavern

“In 1862, Jerry Thomas famously published the first bartender’s guide. Sailor, Forty-Niner, artist, theatrical impresario, diamond-flashing sport-about-town—indeed, sport-about-America—and, of course, master mixologist, “the Professor,” as he is known, was the most famous bartender of his day and an establishing bar figure for the future. But he wasn’t America’s first celebrity bartender, nor did he invent that art.

Unfortunately, the men—and, it’s important to recognize, women—who came before him; the ones who built the institution of the American bar as we have come to know it, with its individually-made iced drinks built on demand; its shaking and stirring and artful pouring and garnishing, have long been cast into shadow by the brilliance of Thomas’ star. But that doesn’t mean that they were entirely unheralded, or that their achievements are forever lost. Here, based upon the research I conducted for the revised second edition of Imbibe!, my tribute to Jerry Thomas and his drinks, are thumbnail sketches of five true pioneers of the American bar. If any of them had written a book, we would all be drinking differently now.

Cato Alexander ran the sportiest roadhouse in America for well over thirty years, supervising both the kitchen and the bar, in the process winning a reputation, to quote Tyrone Power (the Irish actor, not his descendant the movie star), as “foremost amongst cullers of mint . . . for julep” and “second to no man as a compounder of cock-tail”—the two foundational drinks of the American school of drinking. Indeed, he was the first man to become famous for making them, and a host of other drinks besides.

Alexander was born in New York in 1780. During his youth he worked at an inn there, and frequently waited on George Washington, helping him on and off his horse—something he would talk about for the rest of his days. That was when he was a slave. In 1799, he was one of the few who gained freedom when New York passed its deeply compromised “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” After that he kept working in hotels and inns for another decade or so and then opened his own place, out in the country at the four-mile marker on Harlem Road. (Today, that’s on 54th St., just east of 2nd Avenue.) The location was a shrewd one: Cato’s Tavern was a ten-minute gallop out of New York City, then occupying just the southern tip of Manhattan, and it soon became the natural resort of all the city’s fast young men. They would race their carriages up there, drink his famous gin cocktails, brandy juleps and punches, eat his famous game and curried oysters, and then race on back (sometimes with disastrous results). For the next thirty years, Cato’s was one of the most fashionable resorts in America. “Who has not heard of Cato Alexander?” one New York newspaper wrote in 1835. “Not to know Cato’s is not to know the world.”