Gettin’ Jerry With It, Part I: The Smash

Whack any whiskey-sodden booze geek with a cocktail manual and the first name that’ll dribble out of his or her mouth is “Jerry Thomas.”

For those who have better things to do with their time than hang out with cocktail nerds, Thomas is the patron saint of bartenders–a man of legendary talent and prodigious skill, popularly known as “The Professor,” who plied his craft behind the mahogany of bars throughout the world. In the preface to his landmark How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion, first published in 1862 (whack the geek again–”First cocktail guide ever published (that anybody knows of, anyway)…”), Thomas is said to have

travelled Europe and America in search of all that is recondite in this branch of the spirit art. [ed. note--I like that, "spirit art."] He has been the Jupiter Olympus of the bar at the Metropolitan Hotel in this city [New York]. He was the presiding deity at the Planter’s House, St. Louis. He has been the proprietor of one of the most recherche saloons in New Orleans as well as in New York. His very name is synonymous in the lexicon of mixed drinks, with all that is rare and original. To the “Wine Press,” edited by F.S. Cozzens, Esq., we are indebted for the composition of several valuable punches, and among them we may particularize the celebrated “Nuremburgh,” and the equally famous “Philadelphia Fish House” punch. The rest we owe to the inspiration of Jerry Thomas himself, and as he is as inexorable as the Medes and Persians in his principle that no excellent drink can be made out of any thing but excellent materials, we conceive that we are safe in asserting that whatever may be prepared after his instructions will be able to speak eloquently for itself.

Those must have been some drinks, right? Well, let’s see.

True, Thomas has enjoyed much fame as of late–two years ago, David Wondrich and Slow Food New York organized a big celebratory bash to honor Thomas at a time when classic cocktails were becoming all the rage (see William Grimes’ writeup of the event in the NYTimes). And his groundbreaking drinks guide has recently been republished. But how do the drinks hold up? How many people are really stepping into bars nowadays and asking for (and getting served) Brandy Sangarees, Rum Flips and Sherry Cobblers?

Prompted in part by William Hamilton’s occasionally excellent (and occasionally ho-hum) “Shaken and Stirred” column that appears in the NY Times every other Sunday, I’ve decided to sample a range of Thomas’ libations, as the mood strikes me. To start it off, let’s look into the Whiskey Smash.

This isn’t one of Thomas’ blockbuster concoctions. As he notes in the guide, “This beverage is simply a julep on a small plan,” and his recipe couldn’t be easier:

  • 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 wine-glass of whiskey (2 ounces)

Fill small bar glass two-thirds full of shaved ice, and use two sprigs of mint, the same as in the recipe for mint julep.

In other words–put some mint in a glass; add the sugar and water, and muddle lightly; add the whiskey, and fill with shaved ice. Thomas also offers variations made with Brandy and Gin, and Edward Spencer’s The Flowing Bowl (from 1898 or thereabouts) lists a Champagne Smash and a Santa Cruz Smash, made with white rum. (While I haven’t come across a recipe calling for aged Jamaican rum, I made a tasty smash with Appleton V/X).

The smash is a nice tipple–not as complicated as a mint julep, which can be a royal pain to make, and fresher on the palate than your run-of-the-mill Old Fashioned. But while it’s a nice occasional sipper, I don’t see it becoming part of my regular arsenal.

But–back to William Hamilton for a moment. Recently he mentioned how Bobby Flay’s new Bar Americain in New York features the whiskey smash, but this recipe has a couple of differences (both of which are so basic that the Professor would likely have approved):

1) While muddling the mint in the water and sugar, add a couple of lemon wedges, and smush to get some of the juice as well as the lemon oil.
2) After adding the bourbon, give a splash of club soda. Purists may recoil, but the bubbles help lighten up a drink that threatens heaviness.

(Flay’s recipe also calls for simple syrup, which is much easier to work with than granulated sugar; for my smash, I went old school and made a batch of 2:1 rich demerara syrup–tip of the hat to David Wondrich for the suggestion, via his latest book.)

With these changes, the smash is worth putting into the rotation, especially for summer evenings when the fresh mint is always around and a minty, lemony, deep and robust drink is desired.

Oh, and back to my question: how many people are ordering these nowadays? Too damn few.

5 Responses to Gettin’ Jerry With It, Part I: The Smash

  1. The reason you use sugar instead of simple syrup is that it acts as an abrasive to let out the flavor from the lemon peel. In a julep the simple syrup works fine.

  2. Just had a whiskey smash last week at Commander’s in New Orleans. It was wonderful, which is why I’m seeking the recipe.

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