Back during the long First Golden Age of the cocktail, between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Prohibition, bartending was a respected profession, if not necessarily a respectable one. That is to say, if you were successful at it, you wouldn’t win any civic awards, and church ladies would sniff when you walked by, but regular working men would consider you to be a figure of substance, a pillar of the neighborhood. This meant that many professional barmen set out to be just that, apprenticing at an early age, climbing their way up from barback to bartender to head bartender to saloonkeeper. Neither the legendary Harry Johnson nor William “The Only William” Schmidt ever knew another job.
Others, however, took a more crooked path. Take William Thomas Boothby, the San Francisco bartender who was, in the years before Prohibition, the dean of West Coast mixologists. Born in the city to Forty-Niner parents in 1862, Boothby proved himself at a young age to have a great deal of that useful quality, hustle. Among his early occupations were vaudeville jig-dancer, real estate agent, tailor, patent-medicine salesman, “restaurant & bakery” co-proprietor (with his mother, who seems to have been rather an estimable character) and, finally, bartender. That was all by the time he was 30. Oh, and in 1891, when he was 29, he even went so far as to publish a bartending guide, one of the first from the West Coast.
Admittedly, this little book, Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender, didn’t have much to distinguish it from its East Coast competitors. But in 1891, when he published it, Boothby hadn’t been tending bar all that long, his experience limited to a brief stint at the Silver Palace on Geary Street in San Francisco and stretches at a couple out-of-town resorts. When he published a second edition, in 1900, he had another decade of mixology (plus running a restaurant, ticket-scalping and no doubt a dozen other hustles) under his belt. He had also had earned the right to be known as The Honorable William T. Boothby, having served a year in the state legislature.
None of that, however, had much effect on the book, which was printed from the same plates as the first edition, but with an article attached to the front (pirated from the December 18, 1898 issue of the New York Herald) on the world’s drinks and a brief typewritten appendix offering a few more drinks. By then, Boothby was working at the venerable Parker House bar, which had his picture—complete with the hind legs and tail of a rooster—painted on the outside wall.
Then came the earthquake and fire of 1906, carrying off much of the old city, along with the printing plates for Boothby’s book. That meant that the 1908 third edition (pictured above) was entirely new, and incorporated all that Boothby had learned. It abounded in novel cocktails and—a rarity—gave credit for many of the recipes, rescuing a slew of the era’s bartenders from obscurity. In 1914 (by which point he had ascended to the post of head bartender at the Palace Hotel bar, the finest in the city), Boothby added another appendix of new drinks, many with provenance, including the original recipe for the Sazerac, obtained from the late owner of the Sazerac bar in New Orleans. This edition of The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, as he now called it, is not only the last repository of West Coast bartending before Prohibition but also one of the foundational texts for the recent revival of the craft.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Boothby kept right on tending bar after Prohibition rolled around, getting arrested in 1922 for violating the Volstead Act. We don’t know what he did after that, but when he died in 1930 an enormous crowd of bartenders attended his funeral. One likes to think that they toasted him with Boothby Cocktails, a recipe that (ironically) doesn’t appear in the versions of his book published during his lifetime (there was a posthumous edition, much expanded). Whether they did or didn’t, at least we can—and should. “Cocktail” Bill Boothby, whatever his twists and turns, earned his name and then some.
(Photo courtesy Cocktail Kingdom)