The Cocktail-o-Matic

A long-forgotten 1950s product applies “modern” technologies to re-invent the ink-on-paper cocktail recipe book. You can figure out how this one ends

The 1950s were the flowering of American modernity — an aesthetic sensibility, tugged along by a newly affluent middle class, devoted to clean lines, simple forms, and a sense of an urgent new century unfolding.

The 1950s were also some really stupid times.

Witness the Bar Guide.

Bar Guide Measured Spirit cocktail recipes Craig Stoltz blog
The Bar Guide: A 1950s technology breakthrough that failed spectacularly to make paper-bound cocktail recipe books obsolete. Pictured at right: #79, the XYZ cocktail.

The Bar Guide is a shiny plastic device the size of a Canasta deck that updates the cocktail recipe book with “hep” modern technologies like plastic, newfangled printing methods, and a cool thumb wheel with traction grooves.

Its chief accomplishment appears to be transforming something that works quite well into something that’s confusing, hard to use, and easy to break.

And this was way before the Barnes & Noble “Nook GlowLight Plus.”

I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 80

Located at the heart of the Bar Guide is a paper scroll bearing 80 numbered cocktail recipes, each condensed to the size of a fortune cookie.

On the shiny plastic face of the Guide, the recipes are presented in alphabetical order and assigned a number. “Adonis” is #1, “Zazarac” [about which a blog entry shall soon be written!] is #80.

So: Let’s say the “XYZ” cocktail, #79, sounds interesting, which in fact it does.

Just thumb the handy white plastic wheel and…keep thumbing it….23, 24, 29…uh, oh, that paper roll sounds like it’s being tugged too tight….47..51….58…stick with it, it’s getting really hard to turn…71, 72, 73…79!

The Bar Guide: A 1950s technology breakthrough that failed spectacularly to make paper-bound cocktail recipe books obsolete. Pictured at right: #79, the XYZ cocktail.

And there you have your recipe, compressed to the size of a tweet.

Not much nuance here, and some maddeningly rendered proportions that raise the pretty basic question, “One half of what?”

Actually the fractions are an old-school way to describe proportions, sort of like saying “parts.” Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book describes the XYZ cocktail this way: “1/4 lemon juice, 1/4 Cointreau, 1/2 Rum.” You or I might say “1 part lemon juice, 1 part Cointreau, 2 parts rum.” It’s only when the recipe specifies a “barspoon” or “dashes” that the “one half of what?” question actually matters. I think the answer is a “wine glass,” but I’d have to check with David Wondrich.

But we digress.

Who’s spinning these recipes?

Most of the drinks are miniaturizations of recipes found in Craddock’s 1930 classic tome. But there are some inexplicable modifications.

  • #79 specifies “dark” rum, while Craddock’s XYZ just says “rum” — and he had more characters to work with.
  • #6, the Alonzo, tracks Craddock’s closely, eliminating nothing but syntax.
  • Ditto #19, the Blue Devil.
  • But #48, the Mamie Taylor, is a “gin or scotch” [?] drink in the Bar Guide. Craddock specifies whiskey.
  • For #65, the Salome, Craddock and the Bar Guide list the same ingredients, but Bar Guide says to stir, Craddock to shake. [It has no citrus. Craddock says to shake. Huh.]

I found sources for a few variations, but failed to for others.

I tried to figure out who the thief…er, author of the Bar Guide was, but came to a dead end pretty fast.

The back of the Bar Guide credits only “Glenn Shaw Creations, Los Angeles, California.”

Brother Google could turn up only eBay ads trying to sell the things, with listings full of online auction patois like “great Conversation Starter!” and “add to your collection!!!!! Remember to bid high!!!” and so forth.

About $20 to $30, by the way.

One step backward

Basically the Bar Guide is a magnificent dis-improvement of the printed cocktail recipe book, which may explain why today you can only find them on eBay.

You can’t browse through the recipes, you can’t easily move to and fro, you get none of  the joyful and fascinating details that a good recipe book — or even an obscure cocktail blog of your acquaintance! — can provide.

The Bar Guide extracts what web designers call “high interaction costs” whenever you want to check out a recipe. This means it’s so much of a pain in the ass that you don’t want to bother.

And it’s hard on the eyes.

Anyway, I couldn’t find out who Glenn Shaw was, or what else he did with his life.

Perhaps the Bar Guide is enough.

Author: Craig Stoltz

Suburban boulevardier. Former Washington Post journalist, entrepreneur, Top 25 blogger. Foodie. Cocktail geek. Proudly work in digital communications for you, The American People.

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