- On the occasion of World Bartender Day celebrated on February 24 each year, here are some of the best bartenders you must know about
You’ve had some really cool cocktails at some of your favourite bars, but have you ever thought about where those drinks originated? Who decided that salt and lime go well with tequila, or that whisky is better sour?
On World Bartender Day, we’d like to pay tribute to the heroes behind the bar who have fascinated us with their cocktail creations and whose legacy lives on to this day and beyond.
From the classic stars of the early 20th Century to the unconventional artists of the contemporary era, let us take a look at some of the bartenders throughout history who have moulded this industry into what it is today.
1 – Jerry Thomas
Of course, starting with anyone but Jerry Thomas, the Father of American Mixology, would be a crime, so let us get straight to it.
Jeremiah Jerry P. Thomas is perhaps most famously known for his guide to mixology – The Bon Vivant’s Companion (1862), which was the first cocktail book to ever be published. It included recipes like Fizz, Flip, Sour, Punch, Tom Collins etc and were updated several times throughout his lifetime.
What’s fascinating is that almost 160 years since then, this book is still available for any bartender who wants to take their game up a notch.
If his flashy dressing and ornate jewellery didn’t attract enough attention, Thomas also juggled his artsy bottles and tins and thus showmanship became an important aspect of bartending. Without these theatrics and extravaganza, the immaculately dressed, vested bartender may have never existed.
Signature drink: Blue Blazer
Although this is disputed, the community believes that Thomas, best known as The Professor, developed his signature drink Blue Blazer at the El Dorado gambling saloon in San Francisco. The drink may be just spirit, sugar and water but what makes it truly special is that the whisky is set afire and passed back and forth between two mixing glasses, creating an arc of flame. Fair warning, do not try this at home.
2 – Ada Coleman
Holding the torch for women bartenders in a then-male dominated industry, Ada Coleman is one of the only two women to ever be the head bartender at The Savoy in London. This is where she became known as “Coley” and attracted elite crowds such as the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and the Prince of Wales over a 23-year period as head bartender and earned the title of the most famous barmaid.
Signature Cocktail: Hanky Panky
The name hanky panky, which in England meant at that time ‘magic’, or ‘witchcraft’ is a combination of gin, vermouth and for the first time ever, amaro Fernet Branca. Apparently, it was created for the contemporary actor Sir Charles Hawtrey and is still served in the American Bar at the Savoy today.
Coleman also trained her successor, Harry Craddock who, in turn, immortalised many of her exclusive cocktail recipes in his book – The Savoy Cocktail Book.
3 – Harry Craddock
Harry only moved to The Savoy during the Prohibition Era where he authored and popularised The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), one of the most famous bartending guides to ever come into existence. Apart from the 700+ classic cocktails in his book, Harry Craddock is also known for popularising the dry martini.
Craddock revolutionised the cocktail scene in London with an ingredient he found in American bars -ice. Apparently, he was also notorious for burying his cocktails in shakers or flasks in the hotels he worked at, including The Savoy, and later, at the Dorchester.
Signature Cocktail: The White Lady
White Lady is a classic cocktail and somewhat like a gin sour. It includes Cointreau or triple sec, fresh lime juice and an optional egg white. Some believe the gin can be replaced by crème de menthe.
4 – Ernest Gantt
Ernest Gantt, better known as Don the Beachcomber, was a Texan bootlegger during the American Prohibition Era, and a World War 2 veteran.
He set up a 24-seat cocktail lounge in 1933 inspired by his island-hopping adventures. On the menu, Gantt featured signature concoctions, layered, multi-ingredient cocktails made out of fresh juices, homemade syrups and rums. Wildly successful, the bar was nationalised by the end of World War II, not only kickstarting the tiki movement but an entire subculture of dress, cuisine and cocktailing.
Signature Cocktail: Zombie
His contribution to the world of bartending include inventions like Pearl Driver, Tahitian Rum Punch, Navy Grog etc. The most famous one, however, has to be the Zombie Cocktail.
It is a complicated drink with a lot of exquisite mix of spices, syrups and liqueurs that Ernest kept secret for a lot of years. All these ingredients along with three different types of rums are blended together in a mixer and added to a tiki glass with crushed ice. Today, there are many different versions to this cocktail.
5 – Dale DeGroff
An actor/singer turned barman, Dale DeGroff used his position at the Rainbow Room to restore the power of classic cocktails and fresh ingredients in place of artificial flavours and sour mix.
Over his career of 40 years, he has published two essential bartending books, founded the Museum of American Cocktail, won two James Beard Awards, a Lifetime Award and performed in cruise lines and spirits festivals in over a hundred cities in the US and overseas. He is also responsible for producing the famous Pimento Aromatic Bitters.
After single-handedly being responsible for the renaissance of the cocktail world, he has rightfully earned the title of King Cocktail and is one of the best names in the industry to inspire and train young mixologists.
Signature cocktail: The Ritz Cocktail
Some of the most unique cocktails created by DeGroff include the Foggy Boulevardier, which is a twist on a Boulevardier made with a wine-based cherry liqueur from Italy; and the Alliance, which was originally created for the Trade Board of Peru and is made using pisco.
DeGroff’s other signature cocktails include Gallery Gimlet, Hemingway Daiquiri, Yuzu Margarita and The Ritz Cocktail among others that are available in bars on board Holland America Line ships.
6 – Constante Ribalaigua Vert
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 an incredibly skilled bartender, coming up with new recipes nearly every day.
Apart from using high-quality ingredients, Constante kept up with technology. But what really stood out was the fact that he was a master of proportions – he almost always free poured. That’s how he rightfully rose to fame as the Cocktail King of Cuba.
Signature Cocktail: Floridita Daiquiri
Floridita Daiquiri or Hemingway Daiquiri – named after Constante’s most loyal customer Ernest Hemingway – is made of fresh grapefruit juice. Authentic Cuban gold rum is used and the daiquiri is blended and frozen (or frapped). Hemingway liked his drink without sugar owing to his diabetes and Constante Ribalaigua Vert found just the right way to balance the flavours.
7 – William Schmidt
If he wasn’t known for his theatrical moustache, or old school ingredients, William Schmidt was definitely famous for the creative names he came up with for his recipes in the two books he published over his career. Originally a German immigrant, he went on to be one of the first celebrity bartenders of the USA and was lovingly called Godfather of Modern Mixology. Even 10-ingredient cocktails seemed effortless for William and caught on as a trend soon after.
Rightfully, he charged almost 10 times the price of any other cocktail in the market and believe it or not, people still lined up outside his bar! In his free time, he built pyramids of inverted glasses and filled them with flowers, attracting all the more attention. He soon became popular with the upper classes of society and somewhat of an elite bartender.
Although he authored two books, many of Schmidt’s recipes seem to have been lost. While he is most well-known for his 10-ingredient cocktails, most of his creations were actually said to have been simple equal-parts cocktails.
8 – Victor Bergeron
Victor Bergeron is better known as Trader Vic and the man known to have turned tiki cocktails into a national obsession in the US, thereby popularising it all over the world. Bergeron can also be credited for looking beyond syrups and preserved juices. He championed the cause of using fresh and the best ingredients while making a cocktail with his tiki cocktails always being served using fresh lemon or orange juice.
Signature Cocktail: Mai Tai
Bergeron is known to have come up with many original cocktails but the drink most associated with him has to be the Mai Tai, which even made an appearance in an Elvis Presley called Blue Hawaii. Made using rum, orange curaçao, fresh lime juice and orgeat, Mai Tai reigned supreme in tiki bars for decades since it made its first appearance sometime in the 1940s.
9 – Ryan Chetiyawardana
In the modern times of Instagram blue ticks and all things social media, it is easier than ever for Ryan, otherwise known as Mr Lyan to spread the word about his concept of sustainability in a cocktail bar setting.
In addition to his influential London ventures like White Lyan, Dandelyan, Super Lyan, and Cub, he’s won numerous prizes at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, International Bartender of the Year etc. He is best known for swapping cocktail theatre, ice and citrus for pre-bottled mixes, non-perishable ingredients and freezers.
He has also authored two books and has persistently pushed industry boundaries including introducing zero waste into the bartending conversation.
Signature Cocktail: Jungle Lyon
As you can imagine, Ryan tries to add unique ingredients to classic cocktails. The most famous example is his riff on the Jungle Bird wherein he adds an additional ounce of kefir to a base of rum lime and guava.
10 – Monica Berg
Bartender, entrepreneur and vocalist for change, Monica Berg is a Norwegian bartender based out of London. Apart from owning her own liqueur line – Muyu; co-founding the non-profit P(our) – an education symposium for the bar; and co-creating Back of House, a digital platform used by hospitality workers to anonymously report discrimination, harassment and other social issues; she also co-owns the bar Tayer + Elementary with her partner Alex Kratena.
Here, the cocktails centre around fresh, seasonal ingredients. Berg works with local farmers in the United Kingdom to source ingredients for her cocktails. In 2019, Berg became the first female to win the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award at the World’s 50 Best Bars.
Monica has an ever-changing menu at her bars and all of them are experimental and highly ingredient-driven. She takes inspiration from what she calls “flavour memory” in her cocktails, for example, a specific whey cordial that she makes to garnish gimlet style drinks. Whey provides acidity instead of the usual citrus and brings out her childhood experience of pouring cultured milk into oatmeal.
11 – Sasha Petraske
Sasha is a mixologist who founded the infamous Milk and Honey cocktail bar in New York City in 1999. He stressed the importance of hospitality and service and disciplined his staff into using jiggers and precise ingredients. His “less is more” philosophy resulted in easy, three-ingredient cocktails that could easily be replicated.
Under his reign, drinkers slowly started moving away from candy-coloured Cosmos and towards Prohibition Era classics, artisanal ingredients and old school aesthetics. What’s notable is most of the staff he trained have now gone on to start their own industry-changing endeavours.
Sasha is, interestingly enough, most famous for a “Bartenders Choice” cocktail. Some say this is because he was incapable of printing out a menu card for the customers, but now we know it’s because he loved to observe what people really like and custom made a classic for them. He listened closely to “Something whisky….” or “Gin and fun” …. “Boozy vodka-based.”
Beyond making exceptional drinks, these bartenders have gone one step further and changed cocktail culture for the better, whether by writing essential books like Harry Craddock, reviving speakeasy culture like Sasha Petraske, or bringing green innovations to mixology in the modern-day like Ryan Chetiyawardana.
Reading about these bartenders makes us realize how much there is to learn about the magical world of mixology.
Images taken from social media platforms and Wikipedia