Friday, May 14, 2010

Too Much Johnson

As in Harry Johnson, 19th century bartender and figure of adulation among the cocktail cult.

Yesterday, I spent a good amount of time tracing Johnson's steps around New York, led by the married drink historians Jared Brown and Anastasia Miller, who are probably cocktaildom's leading tag team, he with the fluting voice of a highly strung English professor and the look of a Civil War general (see a couple pictures below), she with a smoky voice seasoned by thin brown cigarettes and a mane of black Yoko Ono hair. They recently released volume two of there "Spirituous Journey" history of drink, within which there is a chapter devoted to Harry Johnson.

There's our man up top, performing a trick that supposedly won him a cocktail contest in New Orleans in 1869. No one's ever been able to prove there ever was such a competition, as we have only Harry's word for it. There is no record the thing ever took place. Which has always been part of the problem with Johnson. There's a lot of boasting and not much independent proof to back it up.

During the cocktail renaissance, Johnson has spent a lot of time dwelling in the shadows his elder and fellow mixologist of the Gilded Age, Jerry Thomas. A lot of this matter of status is connected to the two men's major claims to fame, which are the cocktail recipe books they published. Thomas gets bragging rights as the first American to publish a cocktail manual, bringing out "The Bar Tender's Guide" in 1862. Johnson's volume, "Harry Johnson's Bartender's Manual," came out in 1881. But Harry forever contended the book was a reprint and expansion of a title he had brought out in San Francisco in 1860, when he was all of 15. Unfortunately for him, no one has ever been able to lay hands on a copy of that opus.

This makes Johnson a bit suspect. But what nobody refutes that that Johnson was a great drink maker. His book is full of wonderful recipes, some of them his own inventions, like the Morning Glory Fizz, the Blackthorn and the Bijou. (The latter is one of my favorite drinks.) It also contained a peerless, and lengthy guide on how to expertly run a bar.

One thing you can say for Johnson that you can't say for Thomas: he left an amazing architectural trail behind him. It's hard to find any piece of property left in New York with any connection to Thomas' glorious career. With Johnson, they're everywhere. Amazingly—and this appears to be new information—Johnson was connected to two of the oldest surviving restaurants in New York: Delmonico's (top picture) and Keen's Steakouse (below).

It makes absolute sense that at least one of the great bartenders of the 19th century would end up working Delmonico's. It was New York's first really important restaurant. Johnson was there from 1878 to maybe 1881, manning the bar and the wine cellar.

As for Keens, Johnson has a nephew named Paul Henkel who helped found and manage Keen's on W. 36th Street in the Herald Square theatre district in the early 1900s. According to Brown and Miller, Johnson helped design Keens' bar. Henkel, president of the New York Society of Restauranteurs, also helped to plead the case to end Prohibition.

Unbelievably, the place where Johnson lived for thirty years from 1900 to 1930, is also extant. It's the Endymion apartment complex on W. 117th near Morningside Park, a swank address then, and still handsome today. 

One thing the tour made clear to me—Harry Johnson was an excellent businessman. Jerry Thomas went bankrupt a couple times in his varied life, but Johnson always had money. He had an art collection worth $2 million, lived in splendor, travelled to Europe constantly and once opened a Broadway theatre on Columbus circle. As a final proof of his affluence, he was buried in Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, the show place for the dead in the Victorian Age.

(Note: About the title of this item. I didn't get too much Harry Johnson on this tour. I just love to make allusions to Orson Welles films.)

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