The Mixologist: In The Beginning, Beer
St. Louis has had a real growth spurt in its drinking scene in recent years—earning the city the distinction of being named 2015’s Best Bar City of the Year by Esquire. Craft breweries and distilleries have been cropping up all over the place, and the revival of the cocktail scene has rejuvenated St. Louis mixology. Though the last 10 years or so have been extremely important in bolstering our national reputation as a drinker’s destination, St. Louis has been a bastion of imbibing for a good long time.
Of course, St. Louis has long been known as a beer town, thanks to the city’s role as the home of Anheuser-Busch. This relationship began during the Civil War years, when Eberhard Anheuser partnered up with his son-in-law Adolphus Busch to create what would eventually become a brewing dynasty.
But beer was booming in the Lou for years before that: In fact, more than 100 breweries have done business in town over the last couple hundred years, and some 40 or so breweries were active at the time Anheuser and Busch joined forces. The influx of German immigrants in the 1840s, with their knowledge of the brewing process, greatly bolstered the local beer business. One of these, William Lemp, is credited with introducing lager to the city, a type of beer that would eventually become synonymous with St. Louis. On the eve of Prohibition, there were still 20 entities brewing away throughout the city, though only eight, including Anheuser-Busch and Falstaff, opened back up after the demise of the so-called “Noble Experiment.”
Back in the day, the best bars were housed in hotels. These were the places where the movers and shakers of the day came to relax, tip back a few and plan their next business conquest or political maneuver, and St. Louis was home to some of the best examples of these high-end watering holes in the country. From 1817 until the 1920s, there were three incarnations of the Planter’s House Hotel, all located in the Downtown area. The last of these, which opened in 1891, was the most elaborate of the trio. According to author Mary Bartley in her book “St. Louis Lost: Uncovering the City’s Lost Architectural Treasures,” the hotel lobby boasted a 20-foot ceiling and colored marble on the walls, while the main bar was a semi-circle that measured a massive 45-by-47 feet and “was well-known to civic leaders, politicians, and gentlemen visitors”—not exactly your neighborhood shot-and-a-beer joint. Other well-regarded hotels in the city included the Lindell Hotel and the Barnum Hotel. Of course, it only follows that a thriving bar scene is going to have some pretty great bartenders working the wood. Jerry Thomas, the first “celebrity bartender” and an object of much reverence within the bartending community then (and now), reportedly did some time behind the second Planter’s House Hotel bar in the 1850s, though cocktail historian David Wondrich says the jury is still out on the details of this one.
The hard stuff has also played an important role in St. Louis history. Auguste Chouteau was reportedly whipping up whiskey in the area in the 1790s, and by 1810 there were a dozen or so distilleries doing business. For a time, we were also home to Jack Daniels, which moved some of its distilling operations here in 1910 after Tennessee passed statewide prohibition, though they returned to Lynchburg after the national prohibition was repealed. The Lou was also the center of a “spirited” controversy in the 1870s: A group of politicians known as the Whiskey Ring conspired to cheat the government out of millions of dollars in revenue by manipulating liquor taxes.
So, next time you’re at your favorite bar indulging in your beverage of choice, raise a glass to those—dubious or otherwise—who came before to help make St. Louis the great drinking city it is today. Cheers!
The Bartender Who Started It All
Perhaps the best-known St. Louis bartender is Tom Bullock. Bullock was the head barman at the St. Louis Country Club for decades and served an elite clientele that included several US presidents. He’s also the first African-American to have written a cocktail book, “The Ideal Bartender,” which was published in 1917. Reprints are still available for those who are curious about what the local gentry were drinking in the early part of the 20th century.
Your Boozy Reading List
Here are a few good reads exploring the city and its history, liquid and otherwise:
“Wetter Than The Mississippi: Prohibition in Saint Louis and Beyond,” by Robbi Courtaway. Stories, anecdotal and otherwise, about the goings on in the area during the “Noble Experiment.”
“St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009,” by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin and Kevin Kious. This book covers everything from obscure brewers of days gone by to the ubiquitous big guys.
“Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980,” by James Neal Primm. This massive tome is a comprehensive history of the Lou, from its beginnings as a frontier outpost to the latter part of the 20th century. Exhaustive in scope, if it’s not in here, it probably didn’t happen.
What Matt’s Drinking Now:
I’ve always liked egg whites in cocktails, and lately I’ve been trying out some other dairy products that produce that same light, creamy effect. My best success has been with Greek yogurt, which also has a nice tang to it. Put some with a little bit of water in a blender and blend until its smooth, then try it in place of egg whites in a White Lady.
Matt Sorrell has been a dining and spirits contributing editor for ALIVE for the past four years (and an ALIVE writer for seven). He has worked at several bars around town and currently can be found behind the bar at Planter’s House in Lafayette Square. A graduate of the BarSmarts Advanced course, he recently attended the BAR five-day course in NYC, where he achieved a BAR certified rating. He and his wife, Beth, also own Cocktails Are Go!, which provides libation education and bartender services.
Illustration by Noah MacMillan. This story ran in ALIVE’s August 2015 issue.