Famous & Influential Bartenders
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
We will never know about the thousands of popular beverage servers throughout history in villages, towns, and cities who served liquid libations with passion, but it is agreed that they probably had a lot in common with the passionate bartenders of the past three centuries. Many things can make a bartender memorable: personality, being the best at something, writing books, being recorded in media, starting a new trend, being respected and recognized by peers, winning a reputable contest, pioneering a new method, things I can't think of right now, or all of the above.
You really don't need this webpage to learn about bartenders of the past because there are several articles already written by some of the best cocktail historians today including David Wondrich, Jared Brown, and Anistatia Miller.
New York socialite William Dunlap wrote, “Who has not heard of Cato Alexander’s? Not to know Cato’s is not to know the world.” Cato Alexander (1780–1858) was born in New York City as a slave and deemed free by the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” As a young boy, he worked at an inn and even helped President George Washington on and off his horse. Around 1812, he opened a tavern in an area of New York City that today is considered Midtown East (around Second Avenue and Fifty-Fourth Street).
Alexander was famous for his brandy punch, gin cocktails, juleps, and eggnogs. His bar stayed open until the 1840s, and he was very well known among the elite and wild young men of the city. The five-mile carriage ride (or gallop on a horse) from Lower Manhattan was often turned into a race to Cato’s.
The 1855 book Cyclopaedia of American Literature, Vol. 1 refers to Cato’s as a celebrated road tavern with a view of a dusty road, cabbage garden, and horse shed. The interior was decorated with elegant furniture, offered rooms to let, and Mrs.Cato was a notable cook. Cato lent money to many of his patrons and sadly, most never paid him back. This caused him to lose his tavern.
Orsamus “Willard” (1792–1876) was born in Massachusetts and is famous for being the first bartender in New York City to make fancy cocktails. He was also known for making the best iced Mint Juleps—ice was the new hot commodity—at the City Hotel lobby bar (on the west side of Broadway between Thames and Cedar streets). The hotel at the time was the grandest of the city and used to be the governor’s mansion.
He was also known for his Apple Toddy made with baked apples (this one was written up in newspapers), Gin Cocktail, and Extra-Extra Peach Brandy Punch.
Willard was known to have a photographic memory, was ambidextrous, and was one of those who could get by on two hours of sleep a day. For a good twenty-five years, anyone who was anyone locally or abroad knew “Willard of the City Hotel.” Before becoming a bartender, he worked as a schoolteacher, and after his bar career, he moved back home to the country in Massachusetts, where he farmed and raised children. Even though he gained much fame as a bartender, he never wrote a cocktail recipe book to leave behind—or at least not one that we know of.
Jeremiah P. Thomas
“Professor” Jerry Thomas (1830–1885) is known as the American cocktail godfather because he published the first known American cocktail recipe book: Bar- Tender’s Guide, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion. He is also known for traveling the world with a set of silver bar tools. Thomas was born in Sackets Harbor, New York, on October 13, and it is assumed that he was the first-born son because his father’s name was Jeremiah as well. The family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, when Thomas was in his early teens, and by sixteen he was working in a bar.
After a couple of years, he set out to travel the world, and he moved around a lot: San Francisco, New York City, St. Louis, Chicago, South Carolina, New Orleans, and London. Thomas opened four saloons in New York City, and the first one can still be seen at Broadway and Ann Street.
Thomas invented many cocktails, but the one he is most known for is the Blue Blazer; to make it, he poured a stream of hot whiskey back and forth between metal cups, creating an arc of fire. I have not seen any modern bartender create an arc of fire while making a Blue Blazer, but New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian says he knows the secret.
Thomas was a performer behind the bar and show master who liked to dress bejeweled in diamonds while making cocktails with silver bar tools. The James Beard Award–winning book Imbibe!, by David Wondrich, tells the story of his life. You can read some of it here.
Here are Thomas' books .
Harry “The Dean” Johnson (1845–1930) was born aboard a German ship (of which his father was the captain) somewhere between Poland and Lithuania. While not technically American, he did tend bar all over the country. He is famous for his published books, Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual, which were published in 1882, 1888, and 1900. He is also known for publishing a cocktail specifically named “Martini.”
Johnson did not just fill his books with only recipes; he gave lists of instructions on “how to attend a bar,” what to wear, how to conduct yourself, how to train someone, how to treat patrons, opening bar duties, collecting money when you are in a rush, rules of using a gigger (yes, with a “g”), etc. When he was sixty-five years old, Johnson said in an interview that he actually published his first cocktail recipe book at fifteen, and the publisher sold 10,000 copies with six weeks. This may have been true, but not one single copy has been found.
Johnson first tended bar in San Francisco, then moved to Chicago in 1868 to open a bar. He said that a New Orleans barkeeper with the last name of Le Boeuf wrote to him about entering a national competition to be held in New Orleans. Johnson said the competition consisted of a bartender standing behind the bar and twelve people walking up and ordering cocktails. On his turn, the group called “bartender’s choice” for twelve whiskey cocktails. Johnson lined up twelve glasses in two rows, then stacked a pyramid of cocktail glasses on top. He served the whiskey cocktails in waterfall form. The prize was said to be $1,000 ($18,500 in 2018 currency). Johnson went back to Chicago, and a few years later the great Chicago Fire of 1871 put him in debt.
Johnson married, tended bar in Philadelphia, then moved to New York City, where he owned several bars and published a few books (in English and German). It is also believed that he started a bar school. Johnson died in Berlin, Germany, in 1930.
More on Johnson here.
William T. Boothby
William T. Boothby (1862–1930) was born in San Francisco and known as “Cocktail Bill.” Boothby tended bar in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Kansas City, but he is most known for working at
San Francisco’s Palace Hotel bar
in the late 1800s to early 1900s.
In 1891, he published Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender and then revised it in 1890. During the great earthquake and fire of San Francisco (1906), the printing plates were destroyed, so his third and best edition was published in 1908 and titled The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them.
As a child, Boothby performed on stage in minstrel shows, so this experience served him well behind the bar.
Read more on Boothby here .
Hugo Ensslin (1876–1963) was born in Germany but tended bar in New York City. He is known for publishing the last cocktail recipe book before the American Prohibition, titled Recipes for Mixed Drinks. It contains 400 recipes, but the most famous cocktail in the book is the Aviation. The book also mentions new ingredients not seen before, which includes triple sec, grenadine, and applejack.
Post-Prohibition bartenders published many of his recipes in their books. Ensslin was not a flashy bartender and did not tend bar at esteemed New York City hotel bars. He worked lower-class hotel bars and was fine just doing what he was doing. It has been said that he influenced Harry Craddock.
Victor Jules Bergeron
Victor Jules Bergeron, aka Trader Vic (1902–1984), is famous for creating Trader Vic’s, the drink (and food) empire, which makes him the most successful bartender of all time. He was born to French-Canadian parents in San Francisco on December 10. His mother was known for being an excellent French cook and his father, a waiter at the famed Fairmont Hotel, later became a grocery store owner. On April 18, when Bergeron was four, his parents rushed him to the hospital for a foot amputation due to a bone disease, and at 5:12 a.m., the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 struck the northern coast of California. It has been said that he remembered his father carrying him out of the hospital while he watched bricks fall. By the next available amputation appointment, the disease had spread and more than his foot needed amputating. After recovery, his parents bought him a canoe and encouraged rowing to build upper body strength, and as an adult, Bergeron would tie in the boat scenario to explain the loss of his leg, saying, “The sharks got it.” The disease kept creeping up his leg, which also kept his parents in debt. By the time he was thirty-two, the disease subsided and Bergeron borrowed money from his aunt to open a beer parlor in Oakland, California, called Hinky Dinks.
In 1939, inspired by a trip to Cuba and Don the Beachcomber’s tiki bar and restaurant in Hollywood, Bergeron changed the name of his bar and restaurant to Trader Vic’s. In 1941, Trader Vic’s was put on the map when San Francisco journalist Herb Caen wrote, “The best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland.” Four years later, Bergeron invented the world-famous Mai Tai. Bergeron went on to open a chain of twenty-five Trader Vic’s around the globe. Today there are eighteen Trader Vic’s with twelve located in the Middle East. There is only one remaining store in America, which is located in Atlanta, Georgia, on the lower level of the Hilton Atlanta. Bergeron wrote two bartenders’ guides, six cookbooks, and one biography in 1973 titled Frankly Speaking: Trader Vic’s Own Story. In his lifetime, Bergeron spent time fighting with California veterans’ hospitals for better rehabilitation programs for veterans who had lost limbs. Bergeron was ambidextrous, an artist, married twice and had four children, who took over the franchise in 1972.
Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt
Ernest Gantt (1907–1989), aka Don the Beachcomber, is considered the father of the tiki movement. He opened the first Polynesian bar and restaurant, Don’s Beachcomber, in Hollywood. Gantt was born in Mexia, Texas, on February 22 and at seven years old was sent on a bus to Mandeville, Louisiana (across the lake from New Orleans), to live with his wealthy grandfather. Within one month, he was traveling the Caribbean on his grandfather’s yacht and walking French Quarter cobblestone streets. Later, he left to travel the world, worked on steamships, and bootlegged.
In 1934, he opened America’s first Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar in Hollywood, California, with the tagline “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.” A few years later, he moved across the street and renamed it Don the Beachcomber.
Gantt’s bar was visited by all the famous faces of the time, and they loved his foul-mouthed myna birds. He is known for inventing over eighty cocktails, but the Zombie is the most popular and was served at the 1919 World’s Fair in New York.
During World War II, Gantt joined the US Army and returned with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He also learned that his wife, Cora Irene “Sunny,” opened sixteen Don the Beachcombers around America. They soon divorced, and Gantt left to live in Hawaii where he opened another bar, made some Hawaiian singers famous, remarried, and died a poor man. Today there is one store in Huntington Beach, California, and in 2015, Ernest Coffee Shop and Bootlegger Tiki Bar opened in Palm Springs, California, in the same building that housed one of the Don the Beachcomber restaurants.
Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff
Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff was born at the Naval Air Station Quonset Point in Rhode Island on September 21, 1948, to Armand and Carmella DeGroff. He is credited for kick-starting the craft cocktail revolution.
DeGroff began visiting New York City bars in 1966 while he also studied at the University of Rhode Island with dreams of becoming an actor. Around 1973, DeGroff stepped into the F&B business as a Times Square Howard Johnson dishwasher, waited tables at Charley O’s in the Rockefeller Center, and landed his first private bartender gig in 1976 at the Gracie Mansion (the mayor’s residence). He scratched his acting itch by moving to Los Angeles, and in those six years, he tended bar at the famous Hotel Bel-Air, had two sons, Leo and Blake with his wife Jill, and began to take bartending seriously.
In 1985, famed New York restaurateur Joe Baum (Four Seasons, Window of the World, and Tavern on the Green) lured Degroff back to New York City to recreate a 19th-century bar program at Aurora Restaurant. His homework from Baum was to find a book written by Jerry Thomas. During his research, he learned that the book was from 1862. One of Baum’s projects was to reopen Rockefeller Center’s famous Rainbow Room, and DeGroff was to head up the bar program. Degroff rose to fame at the Rainbow Room by introducing a fresh gourmet approach to classic cocktails and a cocktail menu unlike any others in the city. At a Grammy party, a photo of Madonna was taken drinking DeGroff’s retooled Cosmopolitan and his career shot through the roof.
DeGroff has won too many awards to mention, including a James Beard and a Julia Child. He’s a founding member of the Museum of the American Cocktail and founding partner of the award-winning program Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR). DeGroff authored his first book, The Craft of the Cocktail in 2002, The Craft of the Cocktail Deck in 2007, and The Essential Cocktail in 2009. He travels the world judging, consulting, and even with his guitar giving shows through monologue and song. He lives in West Hempstead, NY with his wife, Jill who is his business partner and a saloon artist.
Gary “Gaz” Regan (REE-gan) was born in Lancashire, England, in 1951 and lived over his parents’ British pub for the first two years of his life. He is most famous for helping pioneer the craft cocktail movement and being a prolific cocktail writer. His mum named him Gary because she didn’t want his name turned into a short nickname, but for some unknown reason at the time a new nickname for anyone named Gary was Gaz.
The first cocktail Regan consumed was a room-temperature Gimlet. This was after his parents opened another pub when he was twelve. By age eighteen, Regan was working weekend bartender shifts learning the pub business from his dad and the bartenders who worked for his dad. One year later, he quit school to work in his parents’ pub full-time. He also got married, but then divorced at age nineteen.
Regan always had a fascination with New York City, which came from reading Superman comic books as a kid, so he made the trek to Superman’s Metropolis and landed a job at a British pub called Drake’s Drum. Regan credits his learning from bar owner David Ridings, who stressed the importance of hospitality. Regan went on to work numerous bars around the city. He soon combined his experience with his love of writing and was picked up by many food- and beverage-related magazines. His first published book was 1991’s The Bartender’s Bible, and soon after he wrote a regular column for the San Francisco Chronicle, “The Cocktailian,” for thirteen years.
In 2003, Regan published his most popular book, The Joy of Mixology and the second edition was released in 2018. As of 2019, he has published around eighteen books, launched an orange bitters, conducts two-day workshops , judges cocktail competitions, and has won many awards. Regan also chose to go public about his mouth cancer. Today, he lives in the Hudson Valley, New York, and six times a year tends bar at the award-winning Dead Rabbit in New York City. He also puts out a weekly newsletter.
Charles Anthony Abou-Ganim
Charles Anthony “Tony” Abou-Ganim was born in Port Huron, Michigan, to Lebanese and Irish parents George and Dorothy Abou-Ganim on April 14, 1960. He is most famous for helping pioneer the craft cocktail movement.
Named after two bartenders in the family—Uncle Charles and Cousin Tony—Abou-Ganim was destined to be a bartender. On his eighteenth birthday, the family sat him on a barstool in the Brass Rail (his cousin Helen David’s bar), and his cousin Tony began lining up a row of cocktails in front of him. Abou-Ganim remembers being fascinated watching the care and skill it took to make each cocktail and he didn’t even know—then—that they were all classic cocktails (Manhattan, Tom Collins, Whiskey Sour, etc.). Two years later, in 1980, he began training as a bartender with his cousin Helen. The first two cocktails he remembers making was a made-from-scratch B&B and Manhattan, but his goal career was to be an actor.
In 1993, at the Rainbow Room in New York City, Abou-Ganim visited another bartender, Dale DeGroff, whose goal was also to be an actor. DeGroff made Abou-Ganim a Negroni served up (it was challenging to find a bartender who knew what a Negroni was at the time), and all the memories from the classic cocktails served to him at his eighteenth birthday came flooding back. It was then that Abou-Ganim decided to be the best bartender he could be.
In San Francisco, Abou-Ganim began making fresh cocktails at Jack Slick’s Balboa Café, Harry Denton’s, Po (Mario Batali’s first restaurant), then Harry Denton’s Starlight Room on top of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, where he launched his first speciality cocktail menu. In 1998, Abou-Ganim was selected by Steve Wynn to develop the cocktail program for all twenty-three bars at Bellagio Las Vegas.
In 2010, he published The Modern Mixologist and in 2017, Abou-Ganim opened his own bar in the Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. It is the bar that has the large blue neon light that says, “Stay Wild.” Today, Abou-Ganim’s home base is Las Vegas, but he travels the world as a consultant, trainer, and educator in all things cocktail.
Chris McMillian was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1961 and is known for being the most famous bartender in New Orleans. McMillian reeks of old-school style and is a walking, talking encyclopedia of all things cocktail.
McMillian moved to New Orleans in 1984 and took his first bartender job in 1994 at the Chateau Sonesta Hotel on Iberville in the French Quarter, and by 1999, he moved across the street to the Richelieu Bar inside Arnaud’s. It was here where he became famous for his Ramos Gin Fizzes and is credited for creating the technique where the meringue would rise over the rim of the glass. In 2000, the Ritz Carlton Hotel opened and McMillian took over the helm of the Library Bar, where bar enthusiasts from around the world would come see the master work his craft.
McMillian has been written up in several magazines and newspapers, has been a guest speaker at the Smithsonian, and possesses the largest collection of New Orleans cocktail information of anyone in the world. In 2015, he McMillian and his wife, Laura opened their first bar, Revel Café & Bar at 133 North Carrollton Avenue. The coveted place to sit at this fourth-generation bartender’s bar is near the well of his Tobin Ellis Signature Cocktail Station, so you’ll be in earshot of enlightening spiritual stories of the cocktail he is making, or a story he feels like sharing. The first cocktail McMillian made was a Whiskey Sour.
McMillian and his wife, Laura, were founding members of the Museum of the American Cocktail in 2002 and have organized many cocktail seminars. He and his wife have six children and nine grandchildren, and in 2016, McMillian published Lift Your Spirits: A Celebratory History of Cocktail Culture in New Orleans.
Tobin Ellis was born in Los Gatos, California, in 1970 and raised in Rochester, New York. He first rose to international fame in 2007 when he was selected as America’s number-one bartender to compete against Iron Chef Bobby Flay in his TV show Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.
Ellis began his hospitality career nearly twenty years earlier as a dishwasher and slinging at college dives. Shortly after college, he became an NSO bar trainer for TGI Friday’s opening restaurants around the country. In 1997, he co-founded and served as the first president for the FBA (Flair Bartenders’ Association) and launched the first flair bartending website.
In 1999, Ellis opened a second-floor speakeasy behind an unmarked door in Syracuse, New York, serving obscure tequilas, fresh margaritas, and classic cocktails. He was recruited as head bartender at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, in 2000 and finished his bartending career at PURE Nightclub in Las Vegas after winning a handful of major cocktail competitions including a USBG (United States Bartenders’ Guild) national title.
Ellis then launched “Social Mixology,” the world’s first pop-up speakeasy series, which spanned the globe with unique themed pop-up parties where a password was required. His unique hospitality design company has designed and opened bars worldwide, and most recently, Ellis collaborated with the Perlick Corporation to launch the Tobin Ellis Signature Cocktail Station, which won the 2016 Good Design Award given out to companies including Apple, BMW, Porsche, and Bang & Olufsen.
These days Ellis splits his time between Las Vegas and his home in Rochester, New York, providing hospitality consulting and design services for companies including Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf-Astoria, Starbucks, Ace Hotels, and a select handful of others. Being a prolific writer, Ellis has worked as a published columnist and advertising creative (copywriter), is left-handed, and was making Gin & Tonics for his father at age ten—he drank and ordered virgin Gin & Tonics.
Sasha Nathan Petraske
Sasha Petraske (1973–2015) was born in Manhattan on March 6 and is famous for opening Milk & Honey, a small, unadvertised cocktail den, without a sign, with limited seating, strict rules, and an unconventional reservation system serving pre-Prohibition crafted cocktails—in a time when the Cosmopolitan and Martini bars were the rage. He was a pioneer in the craft cocktail movement and spawned Prohibition-style speakeasies worldwide.
High school bored Petraske, so he dropped out, worked at a café, rode a bicycle across America, lived in San Francisco, then joined the Army for three years. He returned home and worked at a bar called Von and then became inspired to open his own bar when seeing a small hidden bar called Angel’s Share (hidden inside a Japanese restaurant). He answered an ad in the Village Voice for a small commercial space at 134 Eldridge Street for $800 a month and learned that the owner was a friend from the fifth grade. Petraske promised that his bar would be quiet and would not disturb neighbors, so his secret bar theme fit perfectly for the space. The bar opened on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Petraske went on to open London Milk & Honey, Little Branch, White Star Absinthe Bar, Mercury Dime, the Varnish, Dutch Kills, Middle Branch, Milk & Honey 2.0, and a consulting company with Christy Pope and Chad Solomon called Cuffs & Buttons. In 2015, he signed a contract to write his first book for Phaidon Press and planned to open a bar in Brooklyn called Falconer, but died on August 21.
In 2016, his widow, Georgette, honored the publisher’s contract and handed over his book, Regarding Cocktails. Petraske was also known for starting the “bartender’s choice” on cocktail menus and bringing back the use of jiggers. He will always be remembered wearing light-colored suits and black slicked-back hair as if he had stepped out of the pages of the novel The Great Gatsby.
Christian Delpech was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 25, 1977, and is known as the best flair bartender in the world. Ever.
At age seventeen while he was tending bar in Buenos Aires, the film Cocktail, starring Tom Cruise, inspired Delpech to think about bartending in a whole new way. He entered a l local flair competition at Hard Rock Café in 1998 and won first place in flair. In 1999, Delpech expanded his horizons and moved to Spain where he tended bar and performed tableside magic in Tenerife, Madrid, and on the island of Ibiza. By 2002, he was hired at the number-one flair bar in the world, Carnival Court in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Delpech has won over seventy first-place awards around the world and since the craft cocktail revolution, his favorite flair competition is “Blue Blazer,” where the quality of the cocktail counts for 60 percent of the score. Delpech’s matrix-style of flair is fluid, beautiful, and elegant—all the while flashing smiles to the audience with a twinkle in his eye as he moves his body around objects as opposed to objects moving around him.
In 2016, Delpech was the first non-Cuban to win “King of Daiquiri” at the famous Floridita bar in Cuba. In celebration of the Floridita’s 200th anniversary in 2017, all past winners will compete for the title.
Delpech lives in Miami, where he tends bar at the historic Fontainebleau and owns the American Bar Academy by Christian Delpech . If Delpech were alive in the 1800s, he would have been one of the barkeepers described in the 1856 article found in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which read, “The barkeeper and his assistants possess the agility of acrobats and the prestidigitative skill of magicians. They are all bottle conjurors.—They toss the drinks about; they throw brimful glasses over their heads; they shake the saccharine, glacial and alcoholic ingredients in their long tin tubes.”
Other Influential Bartenders I will add soon.
The Only William, Audrey Saunders, Julie Reiner,
Harry Craddock (1876–1963), Constante Ribalaigua Vert (1888–1952), Harry MacElhone (1890–1958), Joe Gilmore (1922–2015), Peter Dorelli (1941-), Salvatore Calabrese (1955-), Richard Arthur “Dick” Bradsell (1959–2016), Colin Peter Field (1961-), and Tony Conigliaro (1971-). Please email me anyone you think should be on this list.
This painting was copied from Jones and Newman's Pictorial Directory of New York in 1848. The building was demolished one year later.
Photo from the 1900 book Stage-coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle. Read the book for FREE.
Click on the book to read it. Courtesy of EUVS.com
Victor Bergeron photos from findagrave.com.
Photos from Don the Beachcomber Facebook page.
2006 photo by David Kressler for DeGroff's second book, The Essential Bartender: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks.
Illustration from Jill Degroff from saloonartist.com.
Photos from Gary Regan's Facebook Page .