While you’re making a drink or looking at a bar menu, do you ever find yourself wondering where a classic cocktail recipe came from? We certainly do. And we love reading about cocktails almost as much as we love drinking them. (Thankfully, both are crucial parts of our job!)
Fortunately, the history of many recipes are well established and can often be traced back to a number of pioneering and creative bartenders, from Jerry Thomas and his seminal 1862 recipe book The Bon Vivant’s Companion to modern-day bartending legend and Liquor.com advisory board member Dale DeGroff, who has been instrumental in kicking off the modern cocktail era.
But they’re not alone. Check out our list of nine of the most influential bartenders in history—you might be surprised to find out who invented your favorite cocktail. Cheers!
Jerry Thomas was not only the most famous bartender of his day, but his 1862 guide to mixology, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, was also the first cocktail book ever published. The book is so useful that it’s still in print today and includes dozens of recipes. Up until his death in 1885 at age 55, Thomas worked at bars all across the US and Europe.
We may be in the midst of a modern golden age of cocktails, but the original so-called “golden age of mixology” took place between the Civil War and Prohibition. One of its stars was “Cocktail” Bill Boothby, who worked his way up to become one of the greatest West Coast barmen of the time, presiding over San Francisco’s Palace Hotel bar. By the time he died in 1930, he’d published multiple editions of his The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, which, in a rare move for the time, attributed many recipes to local bartenders, saving them from obscurity.
(Photo courtesy Cocktail Kingdom)
While you don’t often hear about the role women played in the history of spirits and cocktails—until recent years, of course—this list wouldn’t be complete without Ada Coleman. She first started working at London’s Claridge’s Hotel in 1899, but soon moved on to the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar, where she became known as “Coley.” She eventually became head bartender at the Savoy and is known for inventing the now-famous Hanky Panky cocktail for contemporary actor Sir Charles Hawtrey. She also helped train her famous successor, Harry Craddock, who would go on to include many of Coleman's recipes in his The Savoy Cocktail Book.
Tiki drinks are undeniably back. We’re not talking about the neon-colored frozen concoctions that will give you a toothache but instead carefully constructed classic faux-Polynesian cocktails that were a sensation in the 1940s and ‘50s. Arguably, the father of tiki movement was Ernest Gantt—better known as “Don the Beachcomber” or Donn Beach—who set up shop in LA after the repeal of Prohibition. It didn’t take long for his style of bartending to catch on, inspiring dozens of imitators.
While Don the Beachcomber may have invented tiki cocktails, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron made these drinks a national obsession. At his original tropical bar in Oakland, Calif., (which led to an international chain), Bergeron served all kinds of concoctions, from his signature Mai Tai to the Painkiller. His secret? He only used the best ingredients, writing in 1948, “for the life of me, I can’t see why any bar uses anything but pure fresh lemon or orange juice.”
It’s rare to find a bartender who doesn’t drink, but that was exactly the case for Constante Ribalaigua Vert, owner of Cuba’s famed El Floridita bar. He was one of the greatest mixologists of the mid-20th century, serving everyone from Ernest Hemingway and Spencer Tracy to everyday tourists. He was devoted to his patrons and was an incredibly skilled bartender, coming up with dozens of original concoctions. And, thankfully for us, he left behind very detailed instructions on how to recreate some of his greatest recipes.
Find out more about Constante Ribalaigua Vert here and get the recipe for his Longines Cocktail.
(Photograph by Peter Moruzzi from Havana Before Castro by Peter Moruzzi. Reprinted with permission by Gibbs Smith.)
With his impressive mustache and his 10-ingredient drinks, William Schmidt wouldn’t be out of place at a modern-day craft-cocktail bar. But the German immigrant worked in a run-down New York watering hole in the late 19th century. Get a taste of his work by fixing his cognac-, sherry- and-port-based elixir The Pleasant Surprise.
Charles H. Baker was not your traditional mixologist. In fact, he wasn’t a bartender at all. He started out as an industrial merchant, tried to become an interior decorator and then ended up traveling the world having adventures. In 1939, at the age of 43, he published his first book of recipes and stories from his globe-trotting experiences, The Gentleman’s Companion. (An example story: Baker was stranded in a lifeboat off the coast of Borneo, only to be rescued and comforted with a Colonial Cooler cocktail.) So whether you’re looking for a good yarn or want to try an “exotic” recipe, be sure to check out his tome—there was even a follow-up book focusing on South America, published in 1951!
(Photo courtesy Cask)
All drinkers should enjoy a cocktail from Liquor.com advisory board member Dale DeGroff at least once in their lifetimes—he is known as King Cocktail for a reason. Aside from training many of the world’s top bartenders, penning two excellent bar books and winning countless awards—including the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award and a 2009 James Beard Award—Degroff has helped redefine modern bartending. His enthusiasm for classic recipes and fresh ingredients was undoubtedly a starting point for today’s cocktail craze. So next time you’re in the mood for a great cocktail, try fixing one of his recipes!