This July, the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar in London earned a slew of coveted cocktail awards at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans: Best International Bar Team, Best International Bar, and World’s Best Bar, an award they won last year as well, not to mention in 2016 and 2015.
For those already familiar with the history of cocktails, such accolades will come as no surprise. Since it opened its doors in 1898, the Savoy American Bar has been churning out classic cocktails, thanks in no small part to its talented staff, many of whom have gone down in history as some of the best and most creative bartenders in the world—chief among them, of course, being Harry Craddock, one of the most important bartenders of the 20th century.
Born in Gloucestershire, Craddock immigrated to America in 1897, where he became a U.S. citizen while honing his bartending skills at places like New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel. When Prohibition hit, Harry fled for England—but not before supposedly mixing “the last legal cocktail in the United States.”1
It was the Savoy’s American Bar in London, however, where Craddock really took off. Attracted to his flashy American-style cocktails—and his novel accent—Craddock’s innovative drinks and personal flair drew huge crowds and turned the Savoy into an epicenter of cocktail creation. Known as the originator of the White Lady and the Corpse Reviver #2, Craddock claimed to have created over 240 drinks during his lifetime. However, he’s most famous today for a different creation: The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930).
Created at the request of the Savoy Hotel, Craddock’s gorgeous Art Deco book features over 700 recipes and is still considered the gold standard of London’s bartenders—not to mention nearly everyone else. Craddock’s book is revered among cocktail afficionados, and not just for its recipes. As PUNCH notes, it’s also “a snapshot of an era,” with its “dry observations, art-deco cartoons, and ruminations on the culture of drinking” giving today’s readers a good idea of the time period in which it was made. If you’ve got the time, I’d definitely suggest either taking a peek at it here, or watch a video review here, or even purchase it on Amazon (it hasn’t been out of print since 1930, so it’s easy to get your own copy).
There’s another Savoy bartender, however, whose legacy has been lost in Craddock’s shadow—one that might have been put there deliberately by Craddock himself.
Ada Coleman, the Savoy’s first woman bartender and an inventor of famous cocktails in her own right, first started mixing drinks at the age of twenty four, when she joined the bar staff of Claridge’s Hotel in London. Talented, charismatic, and quick to learn the trade, Ada soon found more work at the Savoy’s American Bar, where she became head bartender in 1903.
Considered “an icon of her time,” Ada was beloved by her customers for her personality just as much as her drinks. Nicknamed “Coley” by her regulars and a devotee of musical theater (she even held musical entertainments in her home), Ada’s vivaciousness managed to charm the pants off her rich and famous customers, who included everyone from the Prince of Wales to Mark Twain. The Earl of Lonsdale wrote of her that “the kindness and energy displayed by Miss Coleman was marvelous and she was so nice…so kind and…full of life.” Customers flocked to her. As cocktail historian Ted Haigh notes in his excellent book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, “not only was…she…a woman in a world of male bartenders, it was she who made [the Savoy] famous.”2
Yet, despite all her fame and skill, Ada may have been fired due to straight up misogyny—specifically that of Harry Craddock himself.
According to Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown’s 2013 book The Deans of Drink, Harry started actively campaigning against Ada as soon as he arrived at the Savoy for a variety of unsavory reasons. Freelance writer Keith Allison, writing for The Alcohol Professor, sums up Craddock’s campaign rather well:
“Craddock didn’t just think that he shouldn’t be subservient to a female bartender; he didn’t think women belonged behind a bar at all (a silly opinion given the fact that, since the earliest days of taverns, women played key roles as both drink makers and owners). According to Craddock, citing his experience in America as an American, his fellow countrymen would be put off by the presence of a woman behind the bar.
There is absolutely nothing in the career of Ada Coleman as the head bartender at the American Bar to back this up. She was, by all accounts, supremely popular and her skill as a bartender much praised by all for whom she mixed a drink, Americans included. But Craddock was a persuasive voice in the ear of the hotel’s management, convincing them that they would be better off with an American — and a man — in charge. By 1924, he had successfully forced Coleman and Burgess out of the American Bar. Fearing that such foul treatment of a beloved icon of the Savoy in particular and London in general would result in blowback, The Savoy convinced Ada to frame it as a retirement. In 1925, Harry Craddock was promoted to the position of head bartender at the American Bar. Ada Coleman was transferred.
To the hotel’s flower shop.” —Spies at the Savoy, Part Three
While this Daily Beast article offers other theories, and Wikipedia insists that she never worked at the Savoy’s flower shop, the fact is that she did leave, and with her went seemingly all of her fame. It didn’t help, either, that out of his 700 recipes in the Savoy Cocktail Book, Craddock only credits one of them to her by name: her signature drink, the Hanky Panky.
While today the term “hanky panky” conjures up some naughty fun, in England at the time it referred to “something closer to magic or witchcraft,” and it was in that spirit that Coleman invented the drink. She did so at the request of her friend, the famous actor Sir Charles Hawtrey, mentor to Noel Coward (NOT this Carry On guy, by the way). In a 1925 newspaper interview, Ada described the drink’s creation in detail:
“Charles…was one of the best judges of cocktails that I knew. Some years ago, when I was overworking, he used to come into the bar and say, ‘Coley, I am tired. Give me something with a bit of punch in it.’ It was for him that I spent hours experimenting until I had invented a new cocktail. The next time he came in, I told him I had a new drink for him. He sipped it, and, draining the glass, he said, ‘By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!’ and Hanky-Panky it has been called ever since.”3
A large part of the drink’s “punch” comes from the unusual addition of Fernet Branca, an Italian herbal liqueur with an “aggressive bite of menthol” and a “black-as-night and bitter-as-winter” cast to it that is “not for the faint of heart,” according to author Orr Shtuhl in An Illustrated Guide to Cocktails.4 But for those who can handle the fernet, it’s agreed that the Hanky Panky is worth it. Interested in trying it for yourself? Recipes for vintage and modern versions can be found below.
THE VINTAGE VERSION:
This vintage recipe comes from The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). As I said earlier, it is the only drink in the entire book which Craddock credits to Ada—a highly unlikely scenario, given the fact that she worked as head bartender there for twenty three years before him and was well-known for experimenting with her wares. I suppose we’re lucky, then, that he kept it in the book at all :p.
2 Dashes Fernet Branca.
1/2 Italian Vermouth.
1/2 Dry Gin.
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass. Squeeze orange peel on top. (The Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930, page 80).
THE MODERN VERSION:
This modern-day version, which comes from Lesley Blume’s book Let’s Bring Back: the Cocktail Edition: A Compendium of Impish, Romantic, Amusing, and Occasionally Appalling Potations from Bygone Eras (2012), increases the vermouth and gin but otherwise doesn’t deviate much from the original recipe.
1 ounce Italian vermouth
1 ounce of dry gin
2 dashes fernet-branca
1 orange peel twist for garnish
Shake with ice and strain over ice into a highball glass.
Garnish with an orange peel twist and serve with a spanking.5
These days, innovation at the Savoy American Bar continues, both in drinks and in bartenders. The current cocktail menu, called “Every Moment Tells a Story,” is inspired by photographs of iconic celebrities that have adorned the bar’s walls since the 1980s. As a result, it features cocktails created in honor of David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Mick Jagger, and many others.
Soon, however, the Savoy’s cocktails will be crafted by new hands. Respected master bartender Eric Lorincz, who was nominated last year at Tales of the Cocktail for International Bartender of the Year, stepped down in May of 2018 to make way for Maxim Schulte, a German-born rising star of the bartending world with experience in Asia and the Middle East. Regardless of who is at the helm, it will be fascinating to see what the Savoy American Bar comes up with next.
Nancy, R. “Winter Tempered to London by Newest in Drinks–Hot Cocktail.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 30, 1925. https://search.proquest.com/docview/180739888?accountid=3688.
Haigh, Ted. 2009. Vintage cocktails and forgotten spirits: from the alamagoozlum cocktail to the zombie and beyond : 100 rediscovered recipes and the stories behind them. Gloucester, Mass: Quarry Books. Page 160.
Blume, Lesley M. M., and Grady McFerrin. 2012. Let’s bring back: the cocktail edition–a compendium of impish, romantic, amusing, and occasionally appalling potations from bygone eras. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. https://www.overdrive.com/search?q=78FBAEF9-3334-4C75-A963-8FCE5611E6C6. Page 83.
Blume, Lesley M. M., and Grady McFerrin. 2012. Let’s bring back: the cocktail edition–a compendium of impish, romantic, amusing, and occasionally appalling potations from bygone eras. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. https://www.overdrive.com/search?q=78FBAEF9-3334-4C75-A963-8FCE5611E6C6. Page 117.