My cocktail-geek buddies and I used to laugh at William Schmidt. Of course, this was 10 or 12 years ago, when there weren’t all that many of us, and we were still pretty naïve about the forms a serious cocktail could assume. If you made your Martini with gin and your Manhattan with bitters, then you were a serious bartender. And if, on top of that, you knew how to make a Sazerac and three or four drinks from The Savoy Cocktail Book, well then you were one of the leading mixologists of our age.
So to page through Schmidt’s 1891 book, The Flowing Bowl, was like reading a cookbook from ancient Rome. There were splashes of crème de roses, Calisaya, tonic phosphate and all kinds of other oddball things we’d never find. And plenty of recipes with 10 ingredients, and others that required you to stencil on a nutmeg garnish. And the names! Nothing simple like “Aviation” for him; think instead “The Broker’s Thought” and “Absinthe aux Dieux.” Fancy. Throw in Schmidt’s massive mustache and inflated sense of importance (after all, he dubbed himself “The Only William”) and—well, we chuckled.
Fast forward to 2011. Bartenders all over the country are making 10-ingredient drinks with funny names, exhuming obscure liqueurs and growing mustaches. Who’da thunk it? The Only William: godfather of modern mixology.
If we look a little more deeply into Schmidt’s life, though, it doesn’t seem quite so odd. A German immigrant who sailed over a couple years after the Civil War, he worked in Chicago for a time and then came to New York. There, in a ramshackle bar next to the Brooklyn Bridge, a reporter from The New York Sun discovered him. For the next 16 years, he was the most famous bartender in America. Any man lucky enough to try one of his elaborate, carefully thought-out concoctions walked away convinced. Schmidt may have been a bit odd, but he was the first bartender to gain renown for inventing his own drinks: the first “bar chef.”
However you feel about that, his achievement stands.
The Pleasant Surprise
Contributed by William Schmidt
- 1.5 inch strip Lemon peel
- 1 tsp Superfine sugar
- 1 oz Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac
- 1 oz Sandeman Character Medium Dry Amontillado Sherry
- 1 oz Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port
- Garnish: Freshly grated nutmeg
- Glass: Old Fashioned
Add the lemon peel and sugar to an Old Fashioned glass. Add a splash of seltzer and muddle lightly. Fill the glass with finely cracked ice and add the remaining ingredients. Stir until the glass frosts and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
David Wondrich wrote the introduction for the recently released reproduction of The Flowing Bowl and is also author of the books Punch and the James Beard Award-winning Imbibe! He is a Liquor.com advisor.