Spies At the Savoy Part Two

From New York with love – the inspirations for the American Bar at the Savoy
Apple Toddy, photo by urbanbohemian via flickr
Apple Toddy, photo by urbanbohemian via flickr

Here’s the second installment of a series on the American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel and the birth of cocktails. For Part One, please click here

In 1790, New York City was the capital of the fledgling United States of America. George Washington had been sworn in as the country’s first President the previous year, on the steps of Federal Hall and not far from Fraunces Tavern, a popular drinking spot where Washington met with his officers to raise a mug and bid them farewell at the end of the American Revolution. Federal Hall, the site of Washington’s inauguration, was demolished in 1812. Fraunces Tavern, the site of Washington’s drinking with his troops, remains to this day, located at 54 Pearl Street at the corner of Broad Street and featuring an excellent whiskey and beer selection. Further uptown however, or at least what counted as uptown in the 1790s, the City Hotel opened at 115 Broadway, between Cedar and Thames streets. It was the first true hotel in the country, as opposed to the inns and taverns and coach houses that had served as colonial America’s stop off for the night. An opulent 70-room affair, it soon took its place among the best hotels of the world. In his 1864 novel, Vigor, author Joseph Alfred Scoville referred to Jenning’s City Hotel as where “all the great balls and famous dinners came off, and it was at the City Hotel that strangers of any note stopped when they came to the city.” Among the many amenities it could offer its travelers, tourists, and residents, was a bar. And in that bar, just a couple decades after the hotel first opened, worked a man named Orasmus Willard.

Willard was America’s first celebrity bartender, a man who became renown for his skill at mixing drinks. One of eight brothers, and born in 1791 or 1792 in Massachusetts– around the same time the City Hotel would have been getting off the ground — Willard came to New York and started working at the hotel when he was nineteen. Before long, he had worked his way up, and hotel owner Chester Jennings — who had scandalized the city when he introduced the opulent notion of room service in his hotel, an indulgence that was alternately described as a “dangerous blue-blood habits,” “a menace to the foundations of the Republic,” and “a threat to democracy” — made him a partner. Willard’s deftness with a drink — he is credited with being the first man to think of shrinking the common punchbowl concoction down to an individually mixed drink — was second only to his acclaim as a man of incredible grace and consideration. In the book Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York (1816 to 1860) by Charles Haynes Haswell, Willard is mentioned with reverence for his “urbanity of manner and wonderful remembrance of persons.”

Fraunces Tavern, photo by Keith Allison
Fraunces Tavern, photo by Keith Allison

Abram Dayton’s Last Days of Knickerbocker Life in New York, published in 1882, also recalls Willard with fondness and recounts the tale of the sharp and witty barman’s incredible ability to recall even the most casually met of hotel patrons years after their first encounter. Dayton describes Willard as “of short, compact stature; had a well-moulded head, thickly covered with short cropped wiry grey hair, small quick twinkling eyes that seemed never at rest. Of an active, cheerful disposition, he had a ready reply to any question, and greeted each new arrival with an assuring smile of welcome. between him and the traveling public there seemed to exist a bond of sympathetic freemasonry.”

So tied to the City Hotel was Willard, according to Dayton, that upon the grand opening of the famed Niblo’s Garden by impresario William Niblo, Willard was invited as a guest of honor. Willard, when finally confronted by the night he was to visit Niblo’s Garden, immediately began searching for a reason to defer and stay at his post at the City Hotel. He settled on his lack of a hat as reason enough to stay in, though in this case his friends would have none of it. They spirited him across the street to the shop of hatter Charles St. John, who issued Willard a new hat on the spot and sent him along to his night at Niblo’s. For his part, St. John had been shocked by the whole affair — not because Willard didn’t own a hat, but because he was actually leaving the hotel for a bit.

Nearly as famous as Willard’s memory for a patron and his dedication to exquisite customer service was his handiness behind the bar. Four of his mixed drinks in particular garnered international acclaim: the apple toddy, sling, peach punch, and a cocktail Bond himself would enjoy in Goldfinger, the mint julep. Throughout the 18th century, if there was one drink, one proto-cocktail, that could be said to define American drinking, it was the apple toddy. Proclaimed by some as the drink of the elegant and elite and others as the preferred tipple of the unwashed masses, the apple toddy’s contradiction makes it a particularly suitable drink for the United States. To make his own take on the apple toddy, Willard would roll apples up in brown paper and pile on top of them glowing embers “till they were thoroughly roasted and quite soft; then a fourth part of apples, a fourth part of brandy, a fourth part of water, a lump of ice, and the whole to be rich with a fourth part of sugar,” which Willard remarked made an “agreeable compound.”

Niblo's Garden circa 1887
Niblo’s Garden circa 1887

Not too far away from the City Hotel, and not too long after Willard made a name for himself as America’s first celebrity bartender, a man named Jerry Thomas came up with his own version of the popular mixed drink. In his 1862 book, he prescribes the following for making an apple toddy:

Jerry Thomas’ Apple Toddy

  • 1 tea-spoonful of fine white sugar dissolved in a little boiling water
  • 1 wine-glass of cider brandy (apple jack)
  • 1/2 of a baked apple

Fill the glass 2/3 full of boiling water, stir, and grate a little nutmeg on top. Serve with a spoon.

The primary difference between Willard’s and Thomas’ apple toddy is in the base spirit. Willard uses brandy, a spirit made from the distillation of wine. Thomas suggests cider brandy, or applejack, which is distilled — as you might guess — from apples or apple cider. Applejack was one of the most popular spirits during the American Colonial period. In fact, the oldest continuously licensed distillery in the United States (let’s not count Prohibition) was Laird’s, an applejack maker established in New Jersey in 1780 and whose founder, Robert Laird, instructed no less than part-time distiller turned first President of the United States, George Washington, on the craft of making “cyder spirits.” Laird’s is still in the applejack business and makes two versions of the spirit: the common, inexpensive Laird’s Applejack, which has been cut with inexpensive neutral grain spirit in much the same way blended Scotch whisky is comprised of single malts blended with neutral grain spirits; and a rare, more expensive apple brandy, of which there are three expressions (Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, aged in charred oak barrels for three years; Laird’s Old Apple Brandy, aged for 7 1/2 years; and Laird’s Rare Apple Brandy, aged for 12 years). For the purposes of Jerry Thomas’ apple toddy, Laird’s Applejack is not well suited to the task, though Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy is perfectly reasonable.

Like many drinks of Colonial and Gilded Age America, applejack — as well as the apple toddy — was killed off by Prohibition. In the case of the apple toddy, laborious processes like roasting apples over hot coals were simply too complicated for the sort of fast and dirty libations required by the times. And for applejack, it was simply the fact that so much cheap, poisonous rotgut was made under the name applejack that America abandoned the drink, forgetting the days when a good American applejack could have held it’s own against a fine French Calvados (the French version of apple brandy) and remember it only as “Jersey lightning,” toxic swill swung at the very seediest of speakeasies. By the time Prohibition was over, Laird’s had weathered the storm and returned to production, but they were alone. In fact, it wasn’t until the 21st century that American distillers would rediscover the rich history and heritage of making applejack, though to date only a very few Americans, like New York’s Harvest Spirits, make applejack instead of apple brandy. 

The tragic fate of applejack was lamented by no less a bon vivant than writer and all-around man of the world Charles Baker, who in his 1931 book The Gentleman’s Companion (still in print under the title Jigger, Beaker, and Glass: Drinking Around the World), wrote, “It is rather unfortunate that our prohibition era through its raw applejack and Jersey Lightning, managed completely to deflect American taste against this fine spirit. Decently aged-in-wood applejack is a fine thing.” He then goes on to detail his own version of an apple toddy, dubbed the Jersey Lighthouse and which he first encountered whilst drinking at a New Jersey inn with acclaimed author William Faulkner, among others:

The City Hotel, New York
The City Hotel, New York

Charles Baker’s Apple Toddy

“Into a tumbler place 2 lumps of sugar, a dash or 2 of Angostura, 3 or 4 cloves, a spiral of lemon peel. Onto this pour two jiggers of ancient applejack, fill with boiling water, float on 1 tbsp applejack at the last and serve blazing merrily.”

By the end of the 19th century, many rich Americans visiting London were staying at the Savoy. The bartender in residence there, a man by the name of Frank Wells, was inspired by the work done earlier in the century by men like Orasmus Willard and Jerry Thomas. He wanted to import the craft of making the American cocktail to the Savoy, in part to satisfy the Americans who came to drink at the bar. A keen study and talented bartender, Wells soon turned the bar at the Savoy into one of the most acclaimed cocktail bars in the world. The proficiency with which they mixed these American style drinks resulted in the Savoy dubbing Frank Wells’ domain “the American Bar.”

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