Harry Johnson

by Gaz Regan · Saturday, March 10th, 2012 · gaz regan's library

I can’t remember exactly when this book fell into my hands, but it was probably in about 2005 or 2006 when I got an email from a stranger asking if I knew how much the book was worth-I think that he said something about finding it in his father’s attic.

I wrote back to him offering him an incredible amount of cash for it. Okay, I said that we’d cough up $200 for the book, sight unseen, and I said I’d send a check and that he could wait for the check to clear before sending the book. You could probably get more for it on e-Bay, I told him, but this is one-stop shopping.

The guy wrote back saying that he’d think about it, but when we didn’t hear from him for a while we thought we’d lost the book. Then, a few months later, he wrote to say that he’d done some research and decided to accept my offer, so, for $200 I got a paperback 1900 copy of Johnson’s legendary book-it’s not in the best condition, but it’s not in tatters, either. There’s a photograph of old Harry facing the title page-quite a moustache the guy had.

“In submitting this manual to the public, I crave indulgence for making a few remarks in regard to myself,” writes Johnson in the preface, and he goes on to tell his life story, saying that he learned his profession in San Francisco, and he had since had 40 years’ experience. This edition of his book was published in 1900, so he’s saying that he was already a trained bartender in 1860.

Johnson goes on to say that he left California and in 1868, “I opened, in Chicago, what was generally recognized to be the largest and finest establishment of the kind in this country.” The place burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, though, and Johnson claimed to have been 100 Gs out of pocket and “compelled to start life anew.”

After Chicago Johnson worked at a “leading hotel” in Boston, then made his way to New York where he worked for “one of the well-known hostelries of the Metropolis until enabled to begin a business of my own, which has since been pre-eminently successful.”

Next comes Johnson’s claim to have beaten Jerry Thomas to the punch when it came to writing the bar book. “There was published by me, in San Francisco, the first Bartender’s Manual ever issued in the United States. This publication was a virtual necessity-the result of a constant demand for such a treatise by those everywhere engaged in the hotel, bar and restaurant business.” 10,000 copies were printed, he says, and they all sold within six weeks.

In 1869, Johnson goes on to claim, he beat “five of the most popular and scientific bartenders of the day . . . in a tourney of skill, at New Orleans,” and he continues in this vein, boasting of his travels in Europe “for the sole purpose of learning the methods of preparing the many different kinds of mixed drinks,” and stating that he “also made-for many years past-a profession of teaching the art of attending a bar to any one [sic] expressing an inclination to learn.”

What I love about this book is the advice that Johnson gives to bartenders about how to behave at a job interview (apparently spitting doesn’t go down too well), and various other statements of his that serve to tell us lots of aspects of tending bar back then that we might not know if it wasn’t for this book. Who knew, for instance, that slimy ice was a problem for bartenders?

Spitting Prohibited
“I cannot avoid, very well, offering a few more remarks regarding the conduct and appearance of the bartender, although I have touched upon the subject quite frequently in this book. I wish to impress on the mind of each man behind the bar, that he should look and act as neatly as possible. Bartenders should not, as some have done, have a toothpick in their mouth, clean their fingernails while on duty, smoke, spit on the floor, or have other disgusting habits.”

A Question of Ice
“Of late years, artificial ice has taken to some extent-largely in the Southern part of the United States-the place of the natural product, which I consider a very beneficial change, for the reason that the artificial cake comes in the same regular size, therefore, easier to pack and place away, more convenient and more wholesome, as it does not contain any impurities. Again, it does not produce as much slime as the natural ice and, therefore, when used behind the bar for mixing drinks, as well as in the restaurant for drinking water, it is preferable, and there is no difficulty in keeping it clear.”
My very favorite quote is the one on page 45 that starts out “The greatest accomplishment of a bartender lies in his ability to exactly suit his customer. . .” This is where Johnson shows us that he was, indeed, a great bartender.

The Greatest Accomplishment
“The greatest accomplishment of a bartender lies in his ability to exactly suit his customer. This is done by inquiring what kind of drink the customer desires, and how he wishes it prepared. This is especially necessary with cocktails, juleps, ‘sours,’ and punches. The bartender must also inquire whether the drink is to be made stiff, strong, or medium, and then must use his best judgment in preparing it; but, at all times, he must make a special point to study the tastes of his customers and, strictly heeding their wishes, mix all drinks according to their desires and tastes. In following this rule, the barkeeper will soon gain the esteem and respect of his patrons.”

A Man in Our Line
“A man in our line, to be successful, must be quick, prompt, courteous, able, a good student of human nature, a good dresser, clean, and possessing several more virtues.”

The Bartender’s Duty
“It is proper, when a person steps up to the bar, for a bartender to set before him a glass if ice-water, and, then, in a courteous manner, find out what he may desire.. If mixed drinks should be called for, it is the bartender’s duty to mix and prepare them above the counter, and allow the customers to see the operation; they should be prepared in such a neat, quick, and scientific way as to draw attention.”

A Good Many People
“A good many people, I am sorry to say, are laboring under the erroneous impression that there is no such thing as a gentleman in the liquor business.”

11 Responses to “Harry Johnson”

  1. Steven Dean Lauria says:

    Wonderful read! Gives credence to the long, colorful and storied history of being a bartender. I wish that the historty of bars, bartending and bartenders would be taught academically in colleges. Pernod Ricard USA is going a pretty good job with accurate lecture, study material and exam. Guided practice in the advanced course counts for much, too. You, too, Gaz, must be complimented for your fine attention to historical detail, writing and deftness at mixology. In this except from the book, I wonder what Harry Johnson meant by “slimy” ice…and I wonder what was meant by “artificial” ice (in the 19th century!). Thank you, Gaz!

  2. Dear all, i am a food-journalist in Kaliningrad, the former Koenigsberg, where Harry Johnson probably was born 1845. I am working on an article about his life and there are even very less notices or sources. So I d be very very grateful for any advice considering Harry Johnson, his life, his family and children, maybe his memorabilia etc. Thank You!

    • gaz regan says:

      Svetlana: Your best bet is to contact Jared Brown and Anisttia Miller at http://www.mixellany.com.
      These guys have done much research On Harry J and I’m sure they’ll be happy to help

    • Morning Svetlana,

      We wrote an entire history of Harry Johnson’s life in our book Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Book 2, including his birth and death details, the name of the vessel his family sailed on to immigrate to the US. We conducted a private tour for 50 influential bartenders in 2010, taking them to the places where Harry worked and lived in New York. And we are conducting a session at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans about what he contributed to the bartending profession in terms of a philosophy of service and solid business management. Please email me at jaredbrown1@mac.com if you wish to discuss details.

      Harry must be honoured for his contribution to the profession!

      Kind regards,

  3. Kate says:

    Thank you, Gaz, for all knowledge you share us)

  4. Gaz Regan says:

    Cheers, Kate! Thanks for taking time to post that.

  5. Pablo Toledo says:

    I wonder how many writers and how many books are gonna talk about Mr. Gary Regan in 100 years time…

    Great read for those who didn’t have the opportunity to read the book yet. A real piece, from one of the oldest real bartenders.

  6. Gaz Regan says:

    Thanks Pablo! If they write about me in 100 years time I hope they don’t mention that night in Barcelona . . . 🙂

  7. […] nearly forgotten classic was supposedly invented by Harry Johnson in the late 1800s, and is listed in his seminal work, the Bartenders Manual, a tome which […]

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