Most people have never heard of Jerry Thomas, the 19th century mixologist and America’s first celebrity bartender. During the years just before and after the Civil War, “Professor” Jerry Thomas, as he was known, revolutionized the drinking scene in the United States by being the first bartender who bothered to write down his recipes. For this, the Professor is often called the father of the modern cocktail. I mean, the man is an American hero. I honestly don’t understand why schoolchildren don’t learn about him in history class.
Luckily for you, several Columbus bars are keeping the Professor’s spirit alive through both cocktails crafted with the Professor’s original recipes and modern variations skillfully made with high-quality ingredients. The following are four of my favorite Columbus cocktail bars. But consider yourself warned: after trying a few Jerry Thomas-style beverages, you’ll never want to order another half-price-Long-Island-from-a-mix ever again.
The Professor would recommend: Ramos Gin Fizz
Henry Ramos was a contemporary of Jerry Thomas who owned a bar in New Orleans that became famous for its Gin Fizz, hence the name of the drink. The fizz comes from egg whites and cream, vigorously shaken until the mixture takes on the consistency of an alcoholic milkshake. It’s so difficult to shake egg whites into a froth that Ramos hired special “shaker boys” who did it for him. As far as I can tell, Knead follows Ramos’ original recipe—egg whites, cream, gin, citrus juice and orange blossom water—to the letter, but minus the shaker boys.
Though more of a restaurant than a bar, Knead takes their drinks as seriously as they take their food. Other classic cocktails at Knead include the Sazerac, a whiskey cocktail that also originated in New Orleans; the Negroni, an early-twentieth-century Italian apertif; and the Sidecar, a drink supposedly invented at the Ritz Hotel in London during World War I.
The Professor would recommend: the Hot Totti
Sidebar’s Hot Totti is what Jerry Thomas called a Whiskey Skin: a variation of his Hot Toddy plus a lemon peel (the “skin” part of the drink). Sidebar uses Old Grand Dad whiskey, Demerara sugar, hot water, lemon and a bit of honey. If that sounds like an alcoholic version of the tea your mom used to give you when you had a sore throat as a kid, it’s not a coincidence. In the 1750s, when apparently everyone in America was drunk all the time always, a Hot Toddy was rumored to cure any physical ailment.
The Hot Totti isn’t Sidebar’s only drink with alleged medicinal properties. They also serve Mint Juleps, which they make with Wild Turkey, Demerara, Angostura bitters and mint. Juleps were wildly popular in the Professor’s day, and it’s no wonder why—in addition to their general deliciousness, juleps are also named after an old word for “medicine.”
The Professor would recommend: the Whiskey Smash
Mouton is one of the premiere names in Columbus when it comes to cocktails, and their Whiskey Smash is no exception. Jerry Thomas was slightly dismissive of the smash as the unloved stepchild of the julep—my words, not his—but the smash nevertheless exceeded even the julep in popularity in the mid-19th century. Smashes can also be made with gin or brandy, but Mouton opts for bourbon whiskey, along with simple syrup, lemon juice and mint. It’s simple, refreshing and delicious.
The ever-changing drink menu at Mouton includes an impressive selection of classic cocktails, as well as more than a few modern drinks crafted with the same artistry and superb ingredients as the classics. One of Mouton’s more modern drinks is the Last Word, a Prohibition-era cocktail made with gin, chartreuse, lime juice and, impressively, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. It’s a drink that’s worth ordering just for the gourmet cherry at the bottom of the glass.
Curio at Harvest
The Professor would recommend: the Classic Daquiri
If you’ve never been to Curio, stop whatever you’re doing right now—reading this article, presumably—and head over there immediately. While their drink selection is small, each one is so expertly made that Curio is, arguably, the final word on cocktails in Columbus. This tiny speakeasy is full of atmospheric charm and you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. Their three classic cocktails are the Rob Roy, a drink invented in 1894 at the Waldorf in New York City; the Old Fashioned, originally invented in Kentucky; and the Classic Daquiri, a 20th century concoction imported from Cuba that is elegant in its simplicity of rum, lime and simple syrup.
The seven modern, original-recipe drinks at Curio are also well worth the $10 they’ll set you back. The recipes feature fresh ingredients, unusual combinations (I’m thinking particularly of the ginger-kale juice in the Waylon Margarita) and homemade syrup.
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If you’re interested in learning more about Professor Jerry Thomas and the history of the American cocktail—or if you just want to try out a few classic recipes on your own—I highly recommend David Wondrich’s book Imbibe!, which has been an invaluable guide in setting up my own home bar. I used both Wondrich and a good dose of Wikipedia for the historical information in this article.