The Keeper of Cocktail Culture

With his library of 3,800 cocktail books and deep knowledge of high-end barware, Greg Boehm is perhaps the cocktail world’s greatest benefactor.

Greg Boehm started his first business around the age of ten, when his parents opened him a personal checking account to teach monetary responsibility. Boehm seized the opportunity to secretly ship fireworks up from the Carolinas in bulk. “I would sell them to all the rich kids in Westchester,” he recalls of his first business endeavor.

After that he became a bookie, running bets on pro football from his school friends and tennis team. “But I got into a little bit of trouble with the people in my little town who were actually running the bets,” he says. (A kid his own age was deployed to tell Boehm to shut it down or else.) Since then he’s sold travel books and maps on the Internet, long before Amazon existed; owned two inline skating retail stores called Cheapskater in New York City; run a children’s book company; and, starting in 2008, almost singlehandedly revived the now-booming economy of high-end barware—along the way amassing the largest known collection of antique cocktail books in the world. Of late, he’s also been diligently building what’s become a small empire of bars scattered across downtown Manhattan.

If you know Boehm’s name, it’s likely because you’re a bartender or a serious cocktail geek. If you don’t, you’ve seen the ubiquitous bar tools his company, Cocktail Kingdom, manufactures and sells worldwide. His beveled Yarai Japanese-crystal mixing glasses and sleek Teardrop barspoons are practically mandatory within any serious bartender’s tool kit. Boehm was also the first person to revive Moscow Mule cups back in 2006, and he invented the very idea of copper barware. However quietly, Boehm’s influence has literally shaped contemporary cocktail culture’s aesthetic and its dissemination around the world. Cocktail historian and writer David Wondrich says if, a century from now, someone were to look back and consider Boehm’s role, “it would be like, this person really defined an era.”

But Boehm didn’t develop a curiosity for cocktail culture through the drinks or tools. He came to it—like any true nerd might—through books. In particular, Salvatore Calabrese’s 1997 Classic Cocktails, released by his family’s company, Sterling Publishing. (His grandfather, who, notably, helped to codify the Guinness Book of World Records, founded the company in 1949; it was sold to Barnes & Noble in 2003.) “I really liked Salvatore’s idea of liquid history. That you could drink cocktails created in a certain year and think about what was happening in that year, it really resonated with me,” says Boehm.

Interest piqued, Boehm began to amass old cocktail books, first through antiquarian booksellers and then on eBay. “I tend to dive in,” Boehm says of his interests. “I learned to ski and went skiing 54 days that winter.” A metalhead, he regularly travels to shows and wears band T-shirts religiously, even beneath button-downs. He is obsessed with Tokyo cocktail culture, recently visiting his 100th cocktail bar there. And in the past four years alone, he’s hit over 2,000 cocktail bars from Marrakesh to Guangzhou to Akureyri, Iceland’s northernmost town. All this born of excitement about a bunch of old books. “He’s a hardcore cocktail nerd,” says Dave Arnold, science and food writer and co-owner of New York’s Existing Conditions, a Greenwich Village bar focused on scientific technique. “Anywhere there’s an interesting cocktail scene, he goes for his own edification as a consumer and for his own interests as a business owner.”

Cocktail Kingdom’s status in American cocktail culture can be traced back to the day Boehm decided to resell a few of his cocktail books on eBay. “The first people who bought them were Audrey Saunders and Eric Lorincz,” he says. Boehm hand-delivered them to both Saunders, who had already opened Pegu Club in New York, and Lorincz, who was at the Purple Bar in London, where Boehm often traveled. Soon afterward, he met Robert Hess as well as Jim Meehan, the latter of whom asked if he could source barware, too. Through his publishing and manufacturing company, Mud Puddle Inc., Boehm brought in jiggers from Japan and a strainer from Germany, but he soon realized the designs could be improved upon and began manufacturing his own.

Without knowing just how big the cocktail revival would become, Boehm saw an opportunity to create a niche market for the most emphatic nerds. At Mud Puddle, he began to produce facsimiles of some of his collection’s most pivotal books, most of which were so old they had passed into public domain. The first few included Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks (1862), Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual (1900) and The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David Embury. For anyone around during that moment, seeing these books presented in their full, precise (and affordable) glory was extremely exciting.

Today, Cocktail Kingdom’s Flatiron headquarters has become a requisite pit stop for bartenders passing through New York—“the bartender’s commissary,” as Wondrich calls it. They come to buy shaker tins and glassware and to browse through Boehm’s vintage cocktail book collection upon request, which now numbers some 3,800 titles.

“It’s kind of hilarious, all these names people use for all this stuff is because I called them that,” says Boehm, pointing out that the Japanese jigger—a name of his own choosing—isn’t actually from Japan. When he decided to manufacture his own, he discovered that an American patent for the style from 1893 already existed. (Like so much of pre-Prohibition cocktail culture, the Japanese kept the American jigger in circulation.) Furthermore, the Leopold jigger is named after Boehm’s great-grandfather, who taught him how to make a Manhattan at the age of six, and the Koriko tins were named after an imaginary anime city imagined by bartender and product developer Don Lee.

It was almost inevitable that Boehm would get sucked into the business of owning bars, too. In the last six years, he’s opened six bars in New York and franchised his Christmas pop-ups Miracle and Sippin’ Santa, which, combined, are projected to have 125 global outposts in 2019. Embodying Boehm’s bold, entrepreneurial spirit, the launching spree began with bartender James Tune at the short-lived, 1970s-themed Golden Cadillac in 2013, which quickly transitioned into Boilermaker, a beer-and-burger joint. Next came Mace (with Nico de Soto) in the former Louis 649 space in Alphabet City, where Boehm was an investor. Last year saw the opening of status-quo-pushing Existing Conditions (with Dave Arnold and Don Lee) and Japanese bar Katana Kitten (with Masa Urishido), followed by the relocation of Mace on E. 12th Street. Recently the Cabinet, a bar focused on tequila, rye and mezcal—“rough spirits,” as Boehm calls them—opened in the former Mace space.

Rather than sharing a particular through line, Boehm sees his bars’ identities as distinct and complementary. But from the outside, it’s clear he’s championing and enabling a group of equally entrepreneurial bartenders to create programs and spaces that reflect their own styles and aesthetics. It’s not that Boehm necessarily prefers to stay out of the limelight; it’s that he enjoys launching businesses and surrounding himself with talented people who can come forward and run them.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Boehm’s way of operating in the cocktail space is his belief in the importance of distributing information—widely and freely. “He was the first collector willing to share,” notes Wondrich. “He wasn’t keeping secrets. Most people will say, ‘I’ll show you this, and keep this back.’” Even today, if Boehm has an extra copy of a rare book or tool, he’ll pass it on to Wondrich. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, whose last two books Boehm has published, credits Cocktail Kingdom with tightening the matrix of the cocktail community. “It’s a mental crossroads. People from the bar world, people from the literary world, the consumer,” says Berry. “He’s lifting all boats.”

Boehm can get protective, but only when he’s working through a theory—say, reconsidering the origin of the Bloody Mary. “I’m not sharing my theory; I’m trying to prove it to myself first,” he says. Or if he knows there’s a copy of some coveted unicorn cocktail book, yet undiscovered, floating around the world. Then he quietly goes about tracking it down, so when it arrives, he can send it into the library for the rest of the world to enjoy.

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