Spies At the Savoy Part One

Here’s the first installment of a series on London’s Savoy Hotel, its American Bar and the birth of cocktails.
Savoy Hotel, photo by Keith Allison
Savoy Hotel, photo by Keith Allison

Nestled away on its own cul-de-sac off the storied Strand in the City of Westminster, with a tight turn-around that allegedly serves as the maximum turning radius for all London cabs, beneath a silver awning adorned with green neon, is the hotel that once played host to Winston Churchill’s wartime briefings, that even served as a triage center during the Blitz. Established by theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, the doors to the regal Savoy Hotel first opened in 1889. Carte financed the construction of the hotel primarily with the fortune he’d made producing the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, whose series of thirteen “Savoy Operas” included enduring hits such as The Pirates of Penzance. With an astounding array of amenities for the late Victorian era — including electric lights, a lift, and hot and cold running water — the Savoy quickly became the preeminent hotel for London society and well-heeled travelers. For many of Great Britain’s intelligence workers and leaders during World War II, including Winston Churchill and James Bond creator Ian Fleming, The Savoy Hotel was one of the most important spots in all of London. Not just because of its historic and highly regarded bar; but also because it had its own power supply, which meant that even during power outages caused by German bombing, the Savoy could continue to operate.

Inside the Savoy, photo by Keith Allison
Inside the Savoy, photo by Keith Allison

The Savoy Hotel was also one of the first spots in the United Kingdom — and indeed, in the whole of Europe — to import this new American style “cocktail” and bartending culture, courtesy of bartender Frank Wells, who ran the hotel’s bar from 1893 until 1902. Along with The Ritz in Paris, the Savoy represents the beachfront for the European take on the “American bar” — which is why the bar at the Savoy is known as the American Bar. The notion of a cocktail being an American invention is widely accepted and, of course, a much more complicated claim than can be easily settled. Pretty much every culture in the world had mixed together some manner of alcohol, juice, bitters, and whatever else they might have within arm’s reach. British sailors and colonial governors were downing everything from grog to punch to gin and tonics. Americans (who were British at the time) were following suit. Between the United States and England, it starts to look a lot like the cricket vs. baseball argument, or the debate about whether punk was invented by the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, which then of course has people citing Iggy and the Stooges and assorted mod groups and well, before you know it people are fighting pitched battles in the street over the claim that Mozart was the first real punk rocker.

In the case of cocktails, the argument is often over when something stops being a punch, or a “mixed drink,” or an “elixir,” and starts being this thing we today recognize as a cocktail. Picking a point at which the cocktail was born is pointless, albeit a fun way to pass the time between cocktail nerds at the bar. However, history has to start somewhere, and in the case of cocktails, the best we can do is cite the first known mention of them in print. The first current known use of “cocktail” in reference to a beverage was turned up by historians Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller. It appears in the March of 1798, in an issue of The Morning Post and Gazetteer1 in London. In the paper was a story about the proprietor of the Axe & Gate tavern, on the corner of Downing and Whitehall, who had won a lottery and celebrated by forgiving the tabs of all his regulars. Four days after that story ran, a second, satirical story ran in which the make-believe tabs of popular British politicians were expounded upon. Among them was the imaginary tab of a man named Rose, who was charged for “gin and bitters” — a drink we know today as Pink Gin (a personal favorite of Ian Fleming); another man, Mr. Pitt, was charged for:

  • two petit vers of “L’huile de Venus”
  • Ditto, one of “perfeit amour”
  • Ditto, “cock-tail” (vulgarly called ginger)1

Both Mr. Rose and Mr. Pitt would seem to enjoy, or so the paper surmised, drinks that would seem very close to what we would think of as cocktails, including one actually called the “cock-tail,” though in the case of Mr. Pitt’s tipple, it is likely a specific drink rather than the category of drinks it would later come to stand for. As the world continues to unearth, archive, and make available forgotten periodicals and tomes, it’s likely the origin of cocktails, both as a singular drink and as type of drink, will be pushed further and further back. We can infer a few things from the list, however, that imply even if the name had not yet been applied, people were definitely enjoying cocktails in the 1700s. For the time being, let’s skip the L’huile de Venus, which might have been a lovely drink at one point but is today a French brand of sexual lubricant (which I suppose it might have been, in its way, in 1798 as well).

Pink Gin, photo by Dinah Sanders via Flickr
Pink Gin, photo by Dinah Sanders via Flickr

For starters, there is Mr. Rose’s gin and bitters. Without knowing the specifics, the best that can be done is a guess, but gin with bitters added to it is known as Pink Gin, most definitely considered a cocktail today, albeit a simple one. Pink Gin originated, like so many things, in the British Navy. As far as cocktails go, it is even simpler than an Americano yet emerges as something more than the sum of its scant two parts, those two parts being Plymouth Gin and a dash of Angostura bitters, which lend the drink its titular pink hue.

Pink Gin

  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 ounces/60mL Plymouth Gin

Into an old fashioned glass, add the Angostura Bitters. A bartender may ask you if you want the drink “in or out” — it means they leave the bitters in, while out means after coating the glass they dump it of any excess bitters before adding the gin. Make sure the type of gin used is Plymouth, not London Dry. Stir and enjoy.

Bitters, in general, are sort of like concentrated little blasts of amaro, similar in that they are a blend of many different herbs and botanicals touted as possessing medicinal and digestive benefits. Most of them are surprisingly potent — a dash or two into a glass filled with gin may not seem like much, but a little bitters goes a long way. Angostura is far and away the best-known and most popular brand of bitters, though since the company was founded in 1824, it’s obviously not the bitters Mr. Rose had in his gin and bitters. The formula for what became Angostura Bitters was devised by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, Surgeon General for the army of Venezuelan military and political leader Simón Bolívar’s army. Dr. Siegert’s mixture enjoyed substantial popularity, so much so that in 1824, he began to sell it commercially, and in 1830 opened a distillery, House of Angostura, dedicated to the production of the bitters in what was then the Venezuelan town of Angostura. In 1875, the operation was relocated to Port of Spain, Trinidad, where it remains still, though it has always retained the Angostura name — which is more than can be said for the town of Angostura, which was renamed Ciudad Bolívar in 1846.

Promoted early in its lifespan as a cure for seasickness, Angostura Bitters became popular with sailors, particularly in the British Royal Navy, and officers soon took to adding a dash or two of bitters to their ration of gin. It’s popularity among British Navy men endured well into the era of Ian Fleming, who counted Pink Gin among his favorite cocktails. He made sure it made it into at least one James Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, in which James Bond orders a Pink Gin — Beefeater and “plenty of bitters” — in the bar of the Thunderbird Hotel in Jamaica, which is operated by his nemesis for the novel, assassin Francisco Scaramanga. Fleming wasn’t the only British writer of espionage thrillers to feature Pink Gin in one of his books. Graham Greene, a contemporary of Ian Fleming but already established as the premier writer of British thrillers while Fleming was still busying himself with a journalism career, features the drink prominently in his 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter.

Moscow Mule, photo by Tim Miner at Long Island Bar, Brooklyn
Moscow Mule, photo by Tim Miner at Long Island Bar, Brooklyn

Back in the 18th century, the bar tabs of tipsy Mr. Pitt and Mr. Rose include another notable drink: Mr. Pitt’s “cock-tail, vulgarly known as a ginger.” As for what exactly it was, we shall probably never know. However, if we hazard an assumption based on his contemporary Mr. Rose’s affection for gin and bitters, it’s entirely possible that Mr. Pitt’s mysterious cock-tail was gin and ginger, which in the parlance of modern cocktails, would be something perhaps not entirely unlike a Ginger Mule (though that cocktail wouldn’t come about until the middle of the 20th century, as a variation on the Moscow Mule invented in 1941 as a way to promote vodka and Cock ‘n’ Bull brand ginger beer). 

As for why this drink was called a “cock-tail,” well that’s another one shrouded entirely in legend and hearsay, some of which claims the word was British slang for a woman of easy virtue, others claiming it was a reference to the American habit of ruining perfectly good gin by adding other ingredients to it. Another story claims the name was invented by French soldiers drinking in an American tavern in 1779, where the proprietor Betsy Flanagan adorned her drinks with feathers plucked from a rooster’s tail, resulting in the convivial soldiers shouting, “Vive le cocktail!” The only problem with this origin story is that Betsy Flanagan wasn’t a real person; she was a character from James Fenimore Cooper’s seminal work of espionage fiction, The Spy, published in 1821. Still another tale is that the name was derived from colloquial American English, in which “cock” was a term referring to the tap on a barrel of spirits and “tail” a term referring to the dregs at the bottom of said barrel, which would be mixed together and sold at a reduced rate as a “cocktail.”

However, another of the most researched origin stories comes from cocktail historian David Wondrich, who traced the etymology of “cocktail” when researching his book Imbibe!2 back to its use as it relates to horses. And if you thought drinking Old Tom gin out of a wooden cat’s butt was bad, well…according to Wondrich’s research, “cocktail” was slang for a concoction, usually containing ginger, pepper, and other pepper-uppers, that was used to perk up listless horses in the morning. Mix it together, lift the horse’s tail, and insert up the…you get the picture. No word on whether it was shaken or stirred. Anyway, the result was reportedly a much friskier and alert looking horse, tail held high and proud, which was known as a “cocked tail.” As Wondrich details in an article for Saveur3, from there, sportsmen adding a little pepper or ginger (and later, bitters) to a drink referenced the practice, and before long a spirit with something added to it was a cocktail.

The Queen's Coronation at the Savoy Hotel American Bar - cocktails have come a long way! Photo by Amanda Schuster
The Queen’s Coronation at the Savoy Hotel American Bar – cocktails have come a long way! Photo by Amanda Schuster

Whatever the etymology of the word, Mr. Pitt certainly ordered himself one, and regardless of whether the phrase was born in England or the United States, and regardless of how far back you want to trace the concept of mixed drinks being “cocktails,” the concept of cocktails as we know them today, and of the culture surrounding them, most definitely begins in the United States, in New York City, at a place called the City Hotel.

  1. Brown, J.M. and Miller, A.R. (2010) Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Volume 2. Cheltenham: Mixellany Ltd, p 14
  2. Wondrich, D. (2007). Imbibe!: From absinthe cocktail to whiskey smash, a salute in stories and drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, pioneer of the American bar. New York, NY: Perigee Book/Penguin Group.
  3. Wondrich, D. (2016, January 14). Ancient Mystery Revealed! The Real History (Maybe) of How the Cocktail Got its Name. Retrieved September 30, 2016, from http://www.saveur.com/how-the-cocktail-got-its-name

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