The mere mixing and serving of drinks does not alone fix a barman’s value. The average drinking man wants to be served promptly and with consideration. Don’t let any man go away dissatisfied.
— Charley Mahoney, The Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide, 1905
The guys at Cocktail Kingdom have kept busy lately. After publishing late last year the first re-print of Charles Baker’s Southern American Gentleman’s Companion and an almost-exact replica of the original 1862 edition of Jerry Thomas Bar Tender’s Guide, they’re releasing this February two more reprints back to back.
“Finest Saloon in the World”
The first release this month, a little paperback regarded by Gary Gaz Regan as his “most treasured book”, is such a rare title that only a handful of copies are known to exist. Charley Mahoney’s Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide, published in 1905 by the National Police Gazette, is a time-capsule, a unique insight into what it meant to be tending the bar in the early 1900’s in what might arguably have been the best saloon in the world, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich.
“THE HOFFMAN HOUSE HOTEL maintained New York City’s best bar at a time when New York had nothing but great bars.
Located at Broadway and 22nd Street, across from the très swank Madison Square (the park, not the hockey venue), it pulled in a strictly A-list clientage until it got hauled down and replaced with an office building. That was in 1915.”
– David Wondrich, Killer Cocktails, 2005
New York City expanded considerably in the years that followed the Civil War, and Madison Park, was then a quiet upscale residential neighbourhood, became in the mid-1860’s the centre of the action as brown stones gave way to grand hotels. The Hoffman House sat at the corner of Broadway and 24th, a block north of Fifth Avenue Hotel and three blocks north from Jerry Thomas’ saloon (Broadway and 21st). Across the square, the Met Life Building would soon rise up from the ground to become the world’s tallest. Most American hotels at the time provided their guests with three meals a day, but the Hoffman, innovating with their “European plan”, only charged for the room and encouraged travelers to dine at their leisure and try different eateries, such as the newest Delmonico’s, a short block away. Regardless, many guests chose to stay at the Hoffman so they could visit its famous saloon.
Harry Craddock and the Nudies
Today, the Hoffman House is mostly remembered in the industry as the bar where Harry Craddock learned the trade in his early years, many years before he famously ran the American Bar at the Savoy. However, back in the days, the place was famous for its nude paintings! Former bartender William Mulhall wrote of the bar it could have passed for a “magnificent art gallery, [the hotel’s] crowning attraction”. The saloon was lavishly decorated with sculptures and paintings, but the most prominent was the 9-foot tall Nymphs and Satyr, “an inspiring display of mythological nudities”, that played no small part into making the Hoffman House the most popular bar on Broadway. Ladies were even allowed inside one day a week, accompanied, of course, and most certainly under disapproving looks and whispers of “what has the world come to”. Patrons were sporting men, celebrities and Tammany Hall affiliates, and the menu included a famous collection of old Monongahela rye and even a 50 years-old Hennessy at $1 a pour, the highest price for booze anywhere in the US — a night stay at the Hoffman started at $1.50.
The book’s subtitle, “How to open a saloon and make it pay”, is a testament to bar manager Charley Mahoney’s business acumen. More than anyone else in New York at the time, Mahoney understood the value in maintaining the balance between refined and accessible. While nearby Fifth Avenue Hotel would turn away anyone that looked suspiciously middle-class, the Hoffman welcomed everyone with money to spend, under the watchful eye of bouncer Billy Edwards, a former English bare-knuckle prizefighter intimidating enough he could keep a room quiet and orderly just by standing there. Guests knew better than to mess with the man — it’s said he only ever had to throw someone out once. Nudies, a celebrity bouncer and fine drinks: Mahoney took great care to nurture the bar’s image of a place the everyman wanted go to on a splurge, with a little help from his friend, Richard Fox, owner and editor of the National Police Gazette.
The Police Gazette was at the time the leading sporting magazine in the country: it catered to workingmen with stories about outlaws, gossip, scandals, politics and sports, in a tabloid format heavily illustrated with risqué photos of scantily clad burlesque performers and gruesome crime scenes. Unsurprisingly, the magazine’s biggest subscribers were saloons and barber shops were men could browse it without someone of the opposite sex rolling their eyes at them; in return, the Police Gazette often featured these establishments in its pages thanks to numerous barber and bartender skill competitions organized by Richard Fox, and Mahoney made sure the Hoffman House was mentioned regularly.
Old adds printed in the last few pages of Mahoney’s Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide give a sense of the how many books the Police Gazette published: boxing, wrestling, how to make money on horse races, dogfighting — that was before SPCA ruined it for everyone. It’s quite telling the bar manual the magazine released wasn’t just a generic guide like anything else that came off their press, but instead featured prominently the Hoffman House. In the first half of the book, Mahoney shares his wisdom about bartending and much of it still resonates today, especially when it comes to service. Recipes take up the second half, and here the scope of the book widens: a few Hoffman House drinks, but many more recipes are award-winning drinks from Police Gazette competitions all over the US, illustrated with photos of American saloons and bartenders. Cocktails and punches dominate, but there are plenty of recipes for highballs, fizzes, sangaree, flips and scaffas; among the most famous are the Modern Cocktail, Hoffman House Cocktail, the Elk Fizz and the Police Gazette Cocktail.
What happened to the Hoffman House?
Business crawled further uptown, along with newer, bigger hotels. The hotel went bankrupt in 1910, but stayed open until 1915, when it got sold to a developer looking to build an office building. The lights went out for the last time at the legendary saloon on March 15th 1915, and demolition began a month later. The offensive Nymphs and Satyr remained hidden away from the public until the mid-1940’s.
Cocktail Kingdom’s facsimile, based on the 1912 edition, comes with a new introduction penned by Jim Meehan and is published as a paperback, just like the original. If you’re the kind of person who owns Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson’s volumes, the Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide is a gem of a little book, 240 pages of history packed with unique drinks waiting to be unearthed.
by Peter F. Sindar, of St. Paul, Minn., winning drink of the 1901 Police Gazette bartender medal
1½ oz straight rye whiskey
1 oz ruby port
½ oz lemon juice
1 teaspoon [2:1] rich simple syrup
1 egg white
Dry shake the first 5 ingredients, then shake well with ice and strain into an Old Fashioned glass. Add a splash of soda (2 oz) and garnish with a small piece of pineapple. *Measurements adjusted to ounces