Food & Drink

Jerry Thomas, Decoded

Matthew Kelly / Supercall

Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide not only created a backbone for modern mixology. It also contains original recipes for the vast majority of drinks now considered classic cocktails. But with archaic terminology and occasionally obscure ingredients, Thomas’ tome can be quite tricky to decipher 155 years after its release.

While diving deep into the pages of the Bartender’s Guide for our experiments, we have spent a lot of time decoding Mr. Thomas’ antiquated wording. With our cheat sheet, you can solve the riddle to his recipes and recreate his drinks at home (something we definitely recommend you do).  

Gill: An antiquated liquid measurement. In the U.S., a gill is equal to one-half cup or four fluid ounces, while in England a gill (known as an imperial gill) is equal to five fluid ounces.

Drachm: A unit of weight commonly used by apothecaries, a drachm is the equivalent to 60 grains of rice or one-eighth of an ounce. In liquid measurement, a drachm is called a fluid dram, and it’s equal to one-eighth of a fluid ounce. Thomas most commonly calls for fluid drams when measuring out bittering agents.

Do.: Used abundantly in the book, “do.” is essentially an abbreviation for ditto. It signals for the reader to directly quote the preceding measurement or statement.

Isinglass: Distilled from the swim bladders of fish, most commonly sturgeon, isinglass is a type of gelatin used to make jellies, desserts and, in Thomas’ case, proto jello shots. It was also a clarifying agent and continues to be used by breweries and wineries today.

Gomme Arabic (Arabique): Made from the hardened sap of the acacia tree, powdered gomme arabic is used as a food stabilizer and emulsifying agent. It is commonly found in a wide variety of commercial products, such as gummy candies, soft drink syrups and watercolor paints—it is even used in the lickable adhesive on postage stamps. In cocktail syrups, gomme arabic adds viscosity and a rich, velvety mouthfeel.

Sherbert: Not to be confused with the fruity ice cream, sherbert is a mix of citrus and sugar commonly used in punches. It’s similar to oleo saccharum. To make sherbert, grate the zest of a lemon onto a loaf-sugar (see below). Then melt the sugar with boiling water and mix with the zest. After the water has cooled, juice the skinned lemons into the sugar mixture.

Demijohn: Also referred to as a carboy or a jimmyjohn, this glass vessel varies in sizes, ranging from 20 to 60 liters (5 to 16 gallons) and is commonly found in wineries, distilleries and breweries. It can be used to hold distillate, infusions or fermenting liquids (such as wine, mead, cider or beer).

Jelly-bag: Similar to cheesecloth but with a finer mesh, jelly bags are traditionally used to separate whole fruit and fruit pectin from juice when making jelly. Behind the bar, the jelly bag is used to filter infusions and homemade fruit liqueurs or to clarify milk punches. This is one of the best purchases you can make if you are interested in making bitters or liqueurs at home.

Loaf-Sugar: Before granular sugar or sugar cubes were commercially available, processed sugar cane was sold in rock hard, molded cones. To break off pieces, one had to use nippers, which resemble pliers and have a razor sharp edge. The loaves were so hard, bartenders could use the cone to grate lemon zest.

Capillaire: A common syrup in the Bartenders Guide made with curaçao (orange blossom water), gomme arabic, loaf-sugar and maidenhair ferns. Because maidenhair ferns can be poisonous if not dried and processed correctly (and are very hard to procure from a commercial source), the syrup is often made as a rich, gomme-based orange syrup with equal parts gomme syrup and curaçao. It can also be made by simply adding a tablespoon of orange blossom water to about a quart of gomme syrup.

Wine-Glass: A unit of measurement that replaces a jigger with a wine glass. The most common pour is six ounces, or a glass about half-full.

Ratafia: A liqueur made by steeping fresh fruit in neutral spirits. After infusing, the spirit is filtered through a jelly-bag (see above), sweetened with white sugar and bottled. The finished spirit retains the color, aromatics and flavors of the fruit.

Bogart’s Bitters: An all-but-extinct form of aromatic bitters popular in Jerry Thomas’ day, this ingredient was also known as Boker’s bitters. Beloved by Professor Thomas, these bitters appear in numerous recipes in his Bartenders Guide, including his recipe for a Martinez. The recipe for the tincture (found in Robert Haldane’s 1883 book Workshop Receipts, Volume 2 ) is as follows:

40 g quassia bark
40 g calamus root
40 g catechu (a powdered extract of Acacia tree bark)
30 g cardamom pods, crushed
60 g dried orange peel (preferably Seville orange or bitter orange)

Macerate botanicals in a clean glass demijohn for 10 days in two liters of rye whiskey. Shake daily. Filter through a jelly bag or a layer of chef’s muslin into a clean glass demijohn and add 7.5 liters of water. Color with dried mallow (a pink-purple flower) or malva flower petals. Age in glass for at least six months.