Mr. Boston Must Not Die

Once ubiquitous on every bar shelf, the Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide has gone through a dark age and a partial renaissance. But with sleek, new cocktail book competitors published every year, will it live to see its 100th birthday?

Are you familiar with the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide? If you’re between the ages 20 and 110, the answer is probably “yes.” Some 11 million copies have been printed in 68 editions over eight decades. Even the most down-at-the-heels beer-and-a-shot joint has a copy somewhere, probably next to a dusty bottle of Angostura bitters.

“When I first started bartending 20 years ago, it was under the drawer in every cash register of every bar I worked in,” says Jim Meehan, a founder of PDT in New York and author of the PDT Cocktail Book. “It was the house cocktail recipe book, and that was the case for most bars back then.”

Even society and high-profile tourist bars were not immune to the considerable charms of Mr. Boston. “I remember it from my first bar gig, at the Russian Tea Room in New York,” says bartender and drinks consultant Jonathan Pogash. “The book was right by the cash register. If there was a recipe that we weren’t too sure of, we’d turn our back to the guests and sneak in a look, and try to be sly about it and not embarrass ourselves.”

How exactly did Mr. Boston become the benevolent dictator at cocktail bars across America? And how’s he holding up against the challenge of younger, sleeker competitors?

The original Mr. Boston was born around Repeal, when the Ben Burk distillery was founded in Boston by Irwin “Red” Benjamin and Hyman C. Berkowitz. They produced a line of mass-market liquors under the name Old Mr. Boston. This was not top shelf stuff. In 1951, a fifth of its Rocking Chair Blended Whiskey (“Smooth as Ocean-Rocked Whiskies of Old”) sold for fewer than three dollars, well under than five-year Tom Moore bottled-in-bond bourbon, which cost five.

To capture what modern-day marketers would call “top-of-mind” among bartenders, the distillery published a slim guide to cocktails, which was interspersed with advertising for Old Mr. Boston spirits. It sold for 50 cents, and featured recipes for 120 “cocktails, fizzes, punches, highballs, toddies, and long drinks.” (The frontispiece quoted a line from an Omar Khayam poem: “Drink, for once dead you shall never return,” which is not a popular toast anywhere.)

More upbeat, it depicted a whistling bartender on the cover and declared, “Happy daze are here again,” a nod to the fact that Prohibition was at last over, and the party could resume. If Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tenderʼs Guide and Bon Vivantʼs Companion was the heart of the cocktail old testament, the Old Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide was one of the first books of the new.

They created an appealing persona in Old Mr. Boston himself. He conveyed authority, quality and heritage, never mind that he was sorely lacking in all three. With top hat and muttonchops, he was a sort of human Mr. Peanut, minus the monocle. As Modern Drunkard once put it, “his portly stature, easy-going grin, and the fact he was sometimes pictured casually slumped in a chair suggested he was willing to hook you up with a deal.”

The Old Mr. Boston guide had plenty of company—distillers and mainstream publishers everywhere churned out guides following Prohibition to remind a benighted public how to craft a potable cocktail. Among those published in the 1930s: 100 Cocktails, 100 Famous Cocktails, 300 Drinks & How to Mix ʻem, Official Bartenderʼs Blue Book, How to Mix Drinks, Artistry of Mixing Drinks and Official Mixerʼs Manual.

Old Mr. Boston thrived where others failed, partly because of the appealing persona in Old Mr. Boston himself, who looked out from both liquor labels and the guide’s printed page. He conveyed authority, quality and heritage, never mind that he was sorely lacking in all three. With top hat and muttonchops, he was a sort of human Mr. Peanut, minus the monocle. As Modern Drunkard once put it, “his portly stature, easy-going grin, and the fact he was sometimes pictured casually slumped in a chair suggested he was willing to hook you up with a deal.”

The book’s tidy size and cherry-red cover also aided its longevity. Glowing like a beacon, one could easily find it amid the mahogany gloaming of the backbar. The Boston Globe once called it, “the Little Red Book of America’s permanent cocktail revolution.”

The guide also had a secret weapon in Leo Cotton, who started editing it in 1935, and would continue to do so through 49 editions, until his retirement in 1970. He kept tabs on what people were drinking, added recipes and generally ensured that the book was up-to-date. If a customer asked for a particular drink, a bartender with Old Mr. Boston could probably make it.

“Mr. Boston was like an almanac,” Meehan says, featuring “what was new each year.” As such, each edition is a mini-document of the times. A 1963 edition, for instance, features The Blue Devil (gin, lemon juice, maraschino, blue vegetable dye), as well as a two-page special section on eggnog, for which every single recipe included the same ingredient: “prepared dairy eggnog.”

After Cotton’s retirement, cocktails began a slide into the dark ages. Old Mr. Boston went feral, hiding out in dim bars and the lower shelves of bookstores, awaiting its rediscovery. When the cocktail renaissance blossomed in the late 1990s, Old Mr. Boston was ready for his second act. The book was updated, the “old” was dropped from the name and noted bartenders were recruited to add relevance and luster. Among the editors: Jim Meehan (five editions, with wine and spirits writer Anthony Giglio), and Jonathan Pogash (the 2012 edition with Rick Rogers, celebrating its 75th anniversary, if a few years late).

The most extensive revisions were under Meehan and Giglio. They added some 200 recipes, revamped the chapter sections and expanded the introduction. Pogash also added about 200 new cocktails when updating the 2012 edition.

But that growth—the most recent guide is 336 pages, compared to 40 pages in the original, and 150 pages in the 1963 edition—meant that it was no longer a slim, unobtrusive volume. It is now crowded in among a new generation of craft cocktail books, several of which—like Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book and the Death & Co. Modern Classic Cocktails—jockey to become the drinks bible for a new generation.

In fact, like computer software that keeps adding features of interest to few, Mr. Boston may now be too bloated to survive in a much-altered environment. “The day and age of 1,000 cocktails [in a book] is over, Meehan says. “Death & Co. went nearly 500, PDT went 300, and my next book will have 100.”

The guide’s future is uncertain. Constellation Brands owned the rights until 1999, when they sold the Mr. Boston line of spirits (along with other “value brands”) to Sazerac Co. They commissioned John Wiley & Sons to publish the 2012 anniversary edition, which later sold the publishing rights, although it’s unclear to whom. Nobody I spoke with knew of any plans to republish the book—although Sazerac continues to produce Mr. Boston spirits (rum, gin, vodka, cordials).

So how does Mr. Boston survive to its 100th birthday?

Here’s an idea: Take it back to its roots. Put it on a diet of 120 cocktails. Return to the tradition of color advertising throughout showcasing not just Mr. Boston products, but all of Sazerac Co.’s: Weller, Fleischmann’s Gin, Regan’s Orange Bitters, Eagle Rare, Sazerac Rye.

Make it slim, unobtrusive and inexpensive again—like, say, a volume that could slip under a cash register drawer. Don’t worry about the cool kids at the craft cocktails bars; their bookshelves are already splintering beneath the weight of new tomes. Cede that market to PDT, Death & Co. and other newcomers. Mr. Boston should dive back into the dive bar, his old-time haunt, and again be the bible for a generation that hasn’t yet discovered housemade bitters. Give him a chair to slouch in, and hand him a drink.

Mr. Boston: he can hook you up with a deal. And so he must not die.