In my monthly cocktail blogs, I often make reference to recipes from the Old Mr. Boston DeLuxe Official Bartender’s Guide. This Is a Very familiar title to those readers who are professional bartenders, and you probably own at least one version of the book. Other people may not have heard of Old Mr. Boston and wonder about the origin of this book. The book was first published in 1935 and a new edition was released just about every year after that. I believe the only exception might be during the World War Ii years. The origin of the book is with a distilling company in Boston.
In 1927, H.C. Berkowitz and Irwin Benjamin founded a company they named Ben-Burk Incorporated. They founded a chain of outlets that sold malt syrup and bottling supplies. Their customers were making their own beer during Prohibition. In 1932, they expanded their line of products to include “Connoisseur Cordials”, fruit flavored syrups that could be mixed with alcohol to make cordials.
With repeal in 1933, Ben-Burk, Inc. purchased a distillery in Boston and released “Old Mr. Boston Dry Gin”. This move would sound very familiar to consumers of the 21st century because they stated that the gin was a product that they could produce quickly and sell for much needed income while their whiskey was aging. They soon decided to release other products as well; Sloe Gin, Apricot, Cherry, Peach and Blackberry “Nectars” – products that were higher proof than cordials, and blended whiskey.
In 1935, they printed their first edition of the Old Mr. Boston DeLuxe Official Bartender’s Guide. The idea was that since Prohibition had depleted the number of professional bartenders, those entering the field needed a recipe book to help them learn the trade. By printing this book, they could then promote the Old Mr. Boston line of spirits. The company was very innovative.
At the United Distillers archive, there are many wooden bottle molds from the Old Mr. Boston products of the 1930s. These molds included the bottles for their main products, but also specialized bottles such as a right-handed bottle with impressions in the glass for the thumb and fingers of the right hand to make the grip secure when the bartenders had wet hands, and a wine bottle with a section of the shoulder flattened so that the cork would stay wet when it was laying on its side. Their flask-style bottles had an art-deco design that was very modern for the time.
The Second World War had a huge impact on the profitability of distilleries. They were required by the government to make industrial alcohol to support the war at minimal profit, and many companies could not survive on such small profit margins. This happened to Ben-Burk, Inc. In 1942 they sold out to American Distilling Company. However, when the war ended, H.C. Berkowitz and his brothers purchased the brand and distillery and created the company, Berke Brothers. Samuel Berke became the president of the company and the brand began to thrive. They soon purchased a distillery in Readville, Mass. to expand their production capabilities. In 1953, the firm changed its name to “Mr. Boston Distilling Company”. In 1962, Mr. Boston Distilling Company expanded again by purchasing the Viking Distillery in Albany, Ga.
In 1969, Glenmore purchased the Mr. Boston Distilling Company and all of its brands and the Bartender’s Guide. Glenmore continued the innovative moves that the Mr. Boston Distilling Company had been known for. In 1971, they introduced the “glass can” packaging for pre-packaged cocktails. In 1973 they introduced the “snowshake” line of dairy based pre-packaged cocktails. In 1975, following a trend in the industry, Glenmore dropped the “Old” in the name and the brands simply became “Mr. Boston”. In 1985, the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Bartender’s Guide was released and it included a video cassette version and a computer disk version of the Guide.
In 1991, United Distillers purchased Glenmore and acquired the Mr. Boston brands. In 1995, United Distillers sold the brands to Barton Brands, then part of Constellation Brands, In 2009, Sazerac Company of New Orleans, purchased Barton Brands and they own the brands to this day. Sazerac still supports the brands, but in a limited version of their former glory. When United Distillers acquired the company, there were dozens of Mr. Boston Cordials in the market. Today, that number is reduced to a handful of brands. The Official Bartender’s Guide is still being supported through a database produced by the Sazerac Company.
The Old Mr. Boston brands have survived for almost a century. As long as there are professional bartenders looking for cocktail books, the name will continue to survive and its heritage remembered.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller