Who Are You, Theodore Proulx?

The Golden Age bartender wrote one of history’s most important drink manuals, yet few have ever heard of him.

Theodore Proulx is the most important Golden Age bartender-author you’ve never heard of. When cocktail history is written and sources are cited, certain figures from the 19th and early 20th century come up regularly, including Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson and Harry Craddock, as well as George Kappeler, William Schmidt, Jacques Straub, Hugo Ensslin, Harry MacElhone, William Boothby and Charles H. Baker, Jr. Proulx is rarely among them.

This omission seems strange when you consider that The Bartender’s Manual, his 1888 book contains the first recipe for an Old-Fashioned found in a cocktail book. And he is tied, with Harry Johnson, for the first cocktail-book appearance of the Martini. (Proulx’s recipe is considerably simpler than Johnson’s, calling for only equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth. Johnson adds dashes of bitters, Curaçao and gum syrup.) Based on those two facts alone, Proulx’s book, which he self-published while working as a bartender at Chapin & Gore, an iconic Chicago saloon, should rank as one of the most important drinks manuals ever.

But Proulx’s obscurity is completely understandable when you consider that few copies of the book exist. The only one I know of is in the possession of Greg Boehm, the owner of Cocktail Kingdom. Boehm has perhaps the largest library of old cocktail books in the world—some 3,000 volumes strong—and if it weren’t for him, we would know nothing at all of Proulx (pronounced “Prew”).

While working on a book about the Old-Fashioned in 2014 and, more recently, another on the history of the Martini (to be published in the fall by Ten Speed Press), I developed a fascination with Proulx’s manual. Each time I revisit it, I am impressed—not just with his recipes, which are succinct and sound, but with his advice on how, as he put it, “to make the occupation of a bartender a ‘science and an art.'”

Many of his words of wisdom could be applied to the bar world of today, with nary a comma altered. For instance:

“You will find some customers,” he wrote, “who appreciate a smile from you, or a ‘How do you do?’ or a remark about the state of weather, while another does not care to be spoken to at all; he wants his drink, is willing to pay for it, and then departs. To discriminate between these different classes, and to treat them accordingly, is judgment.”

Or this:

“Read newspapers, that you may keep well posted on the topics of the day, and be able to answer readily any questions propounded you by your customers.”

Proulx’s unfailing confidence in his own opinion can often lapse into bluntness. But he’s rarely wrong. Case in point:

“Never drink behind the bar with a customer, nor in front of it either if you can by any means avoid it; it looks bad.”

According to Proulx, bartenders became bartenders back in the 1880s much in the way they have ever since: by accident.

“Few bartenders ever entered upon the avocation of their own accord,” he wrote. “They gradually and insensibly, as it were, drift into it through force of circumstances and without previous consideration, graduated perhaps from a position of clerk in the adjoining cigar stand, or perhaps acted as a temporary substitute while the bartender was absent or ill for a day or two; and all of a sudden, as it were, he has emerged, almost without knowing it, into a full-fledged bartender.” No doubt this was the case with Proulx himself.

Most of Proulx’s one hundred or so recipes are brief and direct. With a few important drinks, such as the Champagne Cocktail, Mint Julep and John Collins (“This is, beyond doubt, the best way to make a Collins in the world”), however, he goes into admirably descriptive detail. There are also a couple oddities that speak of his place of training, including the Jim Gore Punch, named after one of the founders of Chapin & Gore, and the Champagne Bowl Punch, which he credits to Harry Stiles, the veteran bartender most closely associated with Chapin & Gore.

My interest in Proulx has led me to look into the man’s past from time to time. In the 1885 Chicago city directory, there is a bartender named Theodore Proulx listed. And, indeed, the name of Theodore Proulx appears in Chicago papers fairly frequently in the 1890s and 1900s. The problem was that the Proulx in the news stories was a lawyer. The articles made no mention of bartending or a book. So, I reasoned, the lawyer could be another man with the same name.

Recently, however, there was a breakthrough. I uncovered a photo of Proulx the lawyer in a 1901 edition of the Chicago Inter Ocean, a local newspaper that operated from 1865 to 1914. It matched up with the illustration of Proulx in The Bartender’s Manual—same almond-shaped, hooded eyes, same aquiline nose, same mustache and hair styling. The photo finally proves that Proulx the barman and Proulx the lawyer were the same guy.

Given that discovery, I can now relate the following details about his life with some certainty. Theodore Proulx was born on August 11, 1861, in Montreal. He moved to Chicago in 1878 and graduated from the Chicago College of Law in 1890. Beginning in 1891, advertisements for his legal services (cheap divorces a specialty!) begin to appear in Chicago newspapers, so it can be assumed that he ended his career at Chapin & Gore shortly before. His wife, the former Mathilda Bussiere, was an operatic singer of some local renown. He rose in prominence as a lawyer until, in 1897, he was appointed assistant city prosecuting attorney by Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison, Jr.

Proulx was also active in the French-Canadian community in Chicago. He held posts in the Le Cercle, the French Democracy of Chicago and the French Choral Society. His work with Le Cercle, a gathering of causeries littéraires within the Alliance Française, got him into hot water when, in 1898, he tried to throw a Thanksgiving Eve “French ball.” The plan was opposed by Mayor Harrison, who revoked his permit. (Advertisements for the event were apparently quite lurid.) Harrison eventually dismissed Proulx from his city post. After that setback, he returned to his private practice.

That Proulx’s time as a bartender at Chapin & Gore never came up in newspaper accounts is not surprising. The man was obviously socially ambitious. Very likely, he wasn’t eager to advertise his lowly past. This passage in Proulx’s manual reveals his feelings on the subject: “It is notorious that society in general looks down upon bartenders as beings of an inferior degree, while the fact is that among them can be found as fine and good men, mentally and morally, as adorn any other profession, not excepting either the pulpit or the bar,” meaning the legal profession.

After 1914, the Proulx trail goes cold; I could not discover how his life ended up, or where and when he died. I’m not sure if he’d be pleased that the only way he is remembered today is as a bartender who jotted down recipes for new drinks like the Old-Fashioned and Martini when he was just 27. But my guess is that he’d at least be happy to see that bartending is again regarded as the science and art he believed it was.