Jacques Straub – Drinks Expert With a Twist

Jacques Straub was a wine steward and bar manager who wrote a book in 1913, Straub’s Manual of Mixed Drinks. Biographical information, especially this WikiTender entry, indicates he was manager of the wine and spirits department of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago (pictured). Before that he ran the bar for some 20 years at the famed Pendennis Club in Kentucky.

In 1913, the Washington Herald gave him many column inches to expound on “what is whiskey”, this despite the fact that President Taft had settled the question a few years earlier. Straub was another who held firmly to the idea that straight whiskey (grain mash distilled at a low proof, aged for years in charred barrels) was the only true whiskey. Straub argued highly rectified neutral spirits with added colour and essences, sometimes mixed with a little real whiskey, was at best an imitation.

As the definitional issue had been resolved, but also with prohibition forces ever closer to victory, it was odd to see a newspaper devote so much (benign) time to whiskey. True, the article was framed as advice to wine stewards, but the average reader would read it as a suggestion to buy “the real thing”, which Straub identified more specifically as bonded straight whiskey. This was whiskey aged four years, guaranteed by the government as the produce of one distillery, in one season, from one distiller.

The law, passed in the 1890s, didn’t guarantee high quality as such although in practice its green stamp assured the buyer that the whiskey had the characteristics mentioned and hadn’t been altered by an intermediary. If, say, a whiskey was comprised of 20% genuine aged bourbon or rye and 80% unaged neutral spirits, the bottle could not bear the bottled-in-bond green government stamp.

Straub quoted Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. on the merits of real whiskey. We have spoken here before about Taylor, an ardent proponent of straight whiskey who fought the good fight against rectifiers and blenders. Indeed he played a large role in getting the bonding law passed.

What I find interesting about Straub is not so much his thoughts on whiskey in 1913 but the fact that he was a teetotaller. I repeat, a teetotaller. So was E.H. Taylor, his tutor to understand the grammar of whiskey.

When you gaze at the sizeable book Straub issued on mixed drinks and wines, it comes as a slight shock to realize Straub never tasted any of them. He worked by sense of smell and colour. Can someone understand a subject as intricate as beverage alcohol and run a bar properly without ever tasting alcohol? Certainly. You can rely on information from others and learn a certain amount by the sense of smell – I am sure quite a number in the “licensed trade” fall into this category, some being ex-imbibers.

More power to them. But to write a book listing hundreds of mixed drinks and giving detailed advice on their components and ingredients while never drinking any of them seems to me rather like giving lessons on how to drive while never having taken the wheel. Yet, as I said, Taylor Jr. never drank whisky, and this didn’t hold him back from a notable public career as an expert on the subject. Since Taylor was a prominent distiller though, no one was going to gainsay his comments on what whiskey was.

No doubt Straub’s sobriety was a boon to his employers, but by the same token, one doesn’t invite instant perdition to taste small amounts of alcohol to understand the make-up and merits of different mixed drinks particularly from the standpoint of writing a lengthy manual.

The alcoholic beverages industry is by its nature susceptible to making some people too reliant on the product they are promoting. There is a sense of justice, almost, when you encounter the obverse case, a successful bar manager, nay drinks authority, who never touched a drop.

Straub died in 1920, having lost his job at the Blackstone due to the start of Prohibition. He became ill before the law came into force, but one wonders if its prospect harmed his health. Many associated in some way with the alcohol trade died around the time Prohibition came into force…

I leave you with a few lines from the article mentioned. Whatever one’s thoughts on the whiskey question, Straub did state the case well for the straight whiskey proponents.

Prior to the revenue raising period of the civil war, before the urgent need of federal finance conferred upon the rectifier the anomalous prerogative to counterfeit whisky, all brands of whisky came from an actual whiskey distillery. Goods were sold according to their true age and maturity. This genuine whisky has always had a distinctive character both when it leaves the still, new and white in color, and again after it has aged in a charred oak barrel and acquired an indicative color varying from a light straw shade in the early days of maturation until, later along, it deepens to a reddish brown. Now this color becomes an index of age.