Searching for the Modern-Day Jerry Thomas

Equal parts swagger and hammer—with the "soul of a poet" and the fashion sense of a sailor—Tom Vaught is the modern-day embodiment of the legendary 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas.

Tom Vaught is a bartender. He’s not one of our modern celebrity mixologist-type bartenders. And he doesn’t work in some carefully retro-fied cocktail lounge where drinks are $16 and the art of conversation mostly involves staring at smart phones. Tom works at the Brooklyn Inn, a dark, friendly neighborhood bar that was founded in 1885 and still doesn’t have a cocktail list. Which is fine, since Tom is not now, and never has been, the sort to pinch things with tweezers, measure them out with eyedroppers and strain them multiple times through increasingly fine meshes. There’s nothing wrong with that stuff, but it’s not Tom. Tom is the kind of bartender who can keep five simultaneous conversations going with the folks at the bar; who knows more jokes and better ones than you do with accompanying in-character voices; who spins a yarn and tells a tale and reminds you that you go to a bar for more than alcohol. Tom is old school.

In fact, Tom is really old school. Until last year, he didn’t have an email address or even a computer. (“They’re a fad,” as he used to say.) He’s into trains. You’ll often find him dressed like a sailor on shore-leave—and I don’t mean the Gene Kelly-Frank Sinatra, Bronx-is-up-Battery’s-down type of sailor. I mean the man who has just been paid off in New York after hauling ropes and reefing sails for a lightning-fast 81-day clipper-ship passage from Shanghai via Cape Horn. The kind who is stepping out high, wide and handsome in the duds—ribbon-banded straw skimmer, cravat, white linen trade shirt—he’s kept carefully folded at the bottom of his sea chest for the occasion.

If not that, he’s as likely to be turned out as “someone from an old railroad mining town or the Great Gatsby,” to quote his friend, the journalist Alex Griessmann. When the travel-and-adventure writer Richard Grant invited Tom to join him on a quixotic foray into the Sierra Madre in search of a lost trove of gold coins—it’s a long story—Vaught was, as Grant wrote in his compulsively readable Mexico travelogue God’s Middle Finger, “a little disappointed to hear that we wouldn’t be riding mules.”

Now, this affect might sound more like affectation—silly and pretentious—and in a person without Tom’s presence, it probably would be. But talking to Tom or watching him work behind the bar, you come away with a real sense that he’s an emissary from a different America. A bigger, bolder one. His swagger is not Tom Cruise’s swagger in Cocktail. Barrel-chested and bearded, with a powerful, husky growl of a voice, he seems more likely to be found juggling Bowie knives than bottles, and reciting Kipling than lines about “The Sex on the Beach” and “the schnapps made from peach.” Indeed, as Griessmann says, Tom “has the soul of a poet”—or if not the soul, certainly the diction.

With Tom’s theatrical background, you might think the flamboyance and the rhetoric, the swagger and the hammer, are just extreme examples of the usual dramatic bullshit; that they’re an act. And I suppose they are, but in the same way that Jerry Thomas’s swagger and whatnot was an act.

“I always looked at the bartender,” Vaught told me recently, when pressed to wax philosophical on the topic, “as an ancient profession; not only a soothsayer, but an advisor, a transmitter of information, a promoter of intimate conversation and a finalizer of arguments.” When pressed further (and, truth be told, plied with strong drink, which he absorbs without visible effect), he continued, “the bartender has a quiver of arrows, invisible or present, at his disposal; he can promote romance or strong-arm misbehavior as necessary.” Pausing for a moment, he added in his deepest growl, “of course, I try to be a velvet hammer.” Indeed, it’s usually enough for him to prop his big hands on the bar, lean forward and use that growl to say, “Gentlemen, may I suggest that this is not the place for that,” and the “gentlemen” will cease to do that, whatever that may be.

Okay, so how? Tom Vaught was born in St. Albans, Queens, in 1968. His father was a career Marine with 27 years in the Corps including service in the Korean War and four tours of duty in Vietnam. Tom grew up in Westchester, went to SVA, where he studied film history and art history and was dragged into doing some acting, and then spent a few years as a musician and a roadie, mostly in Colorado.

In 1991, he got his first bartending job at the clubby East Village dive Stella’s, which would later become Lucky Cheng’s. The clientele was an interesting one—the bar often hosted Eulenspiegel Society meetings—and the job was an education in several novel aspects of human behavior, some of them involving, as he recalls, man-sized cloth diapers. But then Tom got his first voice-over gig, and didn’t tend bar again for another decade or so. Instead, his baritone was the voice of MTV and a dozen other things (he can still be heard in Grand Theft Auto, where he gives voice to the lead biker).

Eventually, the voice-over work started to get outsourced or pay-cut or in-housed or whatever happens to cool, well-paying jobs in modern America, and Tom went behind the stick again, this time at WXOU, a lively, neighborhoody bar in the West Village with a great jukebox. This is where I met him. That must have been in 1998 or thereabouts, when Alex Griessmann dragged a few of his friends into this joint where he knew the bartender. In 1998, most bartenders, even in a popular and rather upscale joint like WXOU, were essentially temp workers, and did all they could to make sure that you knew that they weren’t really bartenders. Tom did just the opposite: he owned that bar like a barkeeper in a John Ford western.

In 2004, I sat down to write Imbibe, a sort of biographical-historical bartender’s guide centered on Jerry Thomas, 19th-century America’s most famous bartender, and his drinks. I had Thomas’s books and a good selection of other 19th-century bartender’s manuals to draw on, along with piles of old diaries, travel books, city directories and 10 fat binders full of old newspaper and magazine articles. From all that, I wanted to stitch together a book that would help people make Thomas’s drinks the way he would have. But I didn’t want it to be a dryasdust technical manual. I wanted to try to make Jeremiah P. Thomas—a man who had “seen the elephant,” as they used to say; who started early and stayed up late and did not shrink from any sporting proposition put to him—and the whole colorful world of the saloon come alive.

Fortunately, besides all the ranks of mustachioed dead to draw on, I had a few actual, living people; life models, as it were. For technique and sheer elegance, there was Dale Degroff. For the bartenderly art of holding forth, on any topic, in any detail, there was Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh. Audrey Saunders’s queenly dignity was an inspiration, as was Gary Regan’s quiet courage and very loud humanity and Del Pedro’s peerless hospitality. For my example of flat-out, balls-to-the-wall Jerry Thomasness, however, there was Tom.

With Tom’s theatrical background, you might think the flamboyance and the rhetoric, the swagger and the hammer, are just extreme examples of the usual dramatic bullshit; that they’re an act. And I suppose they are, but in the same way that Jerry Thomas’s swagger and whatnot was an act. When interviewed by the New York Sun in 1882, Thomas had a pair of pet white rats that frolicked on his shoulders and bowler hat throughout the conversation. “Tom” and “Jerry,” they were called.

I know a great number of bartenders. Ones who excel at balancing obscure, pungent ingredients; ones who can stir four individual cocktails at the same time; ones who can perform feats of memory and on-the-fly systems-engineering that seem positively superhuman. But the only one I know who could pull off that white rat business convincingly is Tom Vaught.

Now if I could just persuade him to start making Blue Blazers.

David Wondrich was educated—in between stints as boatyard worker, bass player, process server and a dozen other things—at New York University, where he earned a Doctorate in Comparative Literature in 1997. After a brief career as a Shakespeare professor and a briefer one as a jazz critic for the Village Voice and the New York Times, he fell into a job writing about drinks for Esquire, an occupation he has happily persevered in ever since. Dr. Wondrich is the author of countless newspaper and magazine articles and five books, including the hugely influential Imbibe!(2007), which was the first cocktail book to win a James Beard award, and Punch, which came out in late 2010 to wide acclaim. At present, he is working on the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, a multi-year project.