El Dorado’s Jerry Thomas Mystery Explained

[Re-print of the original article published on December 30, 2010 under the title: “El Dorado’s Jerry Thomas Mystery Solved?”]

Guillermo L. Toro-Lira

Author in ResearchGate

It is widely believed that “Professor” Jerry Thomas started his bartending career in the El Dorado gambling house in San Francisco, after he had been lured to California by the Gold Rush of 1849. Also, that he had invented his Blue Blazer concoction there.

However, Thomas himself never mentioned that he had ever worked in that place and neither renowned cocktail historian David Wondrich — author of Imbibe! — nor this writer have been able to find any contemporary historical evidence that Thomas ever worked at El Dorado during 1849, much less that he had invented the Blue Blazer there.

So where did this story originate from?

After some digging, the source was retraced to the writings of American author Herbert Asbury, who in 1928 wrote the Introduction for a reprint of Thomas’ 1862 masterpiece The Bon Vivant’s Companion, or, How to Mix Drinks.

Asbury presented the story in 1933 in his historical novel: The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of San Francisco Underworld. When describing El Dorado saloon, Asbury cited Bayard Taylor (El Dorado or Adventures in the Path of Empire, 1850) and Frank Soulé’s (The Annals of San Francisco, 1855) as his historical sources.

Asbury referred to both Taylor’s and Soulé’s accounts (neither mentions Jerry Thomas) and an illustration in Soulé’s book (shown above) when he wrote the following:

Originally El Dorado was a canvas tent, but the tent was soon replaced by a square room of rough boards, with a few small private booths partitioned off with muslim… At one end was a raised platform draped with bunting, flags, and colored steamers, from which an orchestra blared without cessation. At the other end was the bar, behind which were large mirrors of fine cut glass.

At the end of that sentence Asbury inserts the following footnote:

At El Dorado, in 1849, began the career of America’s greatest bartender — Professor Jerry Thomas, inventor of the Blue Blazer

It is telling that when describing the bar area, Asbury points out that Thomas was its bartender and that he invented the Blue Blazer there.

A close examination of Soulé’s illustration might reveal the reason for Asbury’s historical inference that has confounded cocktail historians for so long.

A bartender in El Dorado mixing a drink (on mid-right section of 1855 Soule’s illustration).

Tending at the bar is a man shown mixing a drink with a posture closely resembling the preparation of Thomas’ famed Blue Blazer.

Jerry Thomas preparing his famous Blue Blazer.

Asbury, surely not being acquainted with the pre-cocktail-shaker era, might have assumed that the man depicted in Soule’s illustration was Jerry Thomas preparing a Blue Blazer — while in reality it shows a typical bartender mixing a drink using the standard method of the day.

The illustration was prepared in 1854 by the New York firm of Whitney, Jocelyn & Annin — a popular commission engravers of the time — and more than likely inspired by verbal accounts of Soulé and others.