Spies At the Savoy Part Three

American Invasion – the Rise of the American Bar at the Savoy
photo by Keith Allison

photo by Keith Allison

This is the third and final installment on our series profiling the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London and its ties to early cocktail culture, with some famous guests. For Part One, please click here. Part Two is here

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.”

When Wells retired from the Savoy in 1902, he handed the American Bar over to Ada Coleman, who would become the world’s first female celebrity bartender and the world’s first bartender to tame the powerful flavor of Fernet Branca and make it work in a cocktail, the Hanky Panky. Her career behind the bar began in 1899, after the death of her father. He had worked at a golf resort owned by Rupert D’Oyly Carte, son of the man who built the Savoy. Fond of the Colemans, Rupert offered Ada a job at one of his hotels, working in the bar at Claridges. Under the stewardship of the bar’s wine butler, young Ada learned how to make cocktails, her first being a Manhattan. She proved such an adept bartender that the job of head bartender at the Savoy’s American bar was offered to her upon Wells’ retirement. While there, she became one of the great icons of turn-of-the-century bartending, mixing drinks for everyone from Mark Twain to “Diamond” Jim Brady. Like Orasmus Willard before her, “Coley” focused not just on the technical aspects of bartending — making drinks — but also on the hospitality side of things. She was beloved by all. Except for one.

Hanky Panky, photo by Keith Allison

Hanky Panky, photo by Keith Allison

Hanky Panky

  • 1/2 ounce/15mL Gin
  • 1/2 ounce/15 mL Sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes Fernet Branca

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir well for 20 seconds and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Twist a piece of orange peel over the drink and use as garnish.

While Ada Coleman is known for the Hanky Panky, the fact that it is the only drink attributed to her in the famous Savoy Cocktail Book is almost certainly not a reflection of reality. It is, however a reflection of the prejudices of its author, Harry Craddock, a Brit turned American returned Brit who ran the American Bar upon Ada Coleman’s retirement in 1924, and who wrote the legendary Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. Born in Stroud in 1876, Craddock came of age in the United States, where he became a citizen and worked as a bartender at New York’s famed Knickerbocker Hotel, among others. He made a name for himself as a bartender of exceptional talent, but Prohibition cut his career in the United States short. By his own claim, he shook the last legal cocktail in the United States. The next day, the first day of Prohibition, he was on a ship bound for England, where he quickly found work at the Savoy’s American Bar. And here is where some speculation kicks in.

Ada Coleman's photo on display at the Savoy, photo by Amanda Schuster

Ada Coleman’s photo on display at the Savoy, photo by Amanda Schuster

It’s possible that Craddock, already a seasoned veteran of the cocktail scene (and one with the added exotic appeal of being an American), chafed at the thought of working the cocktail making assembly line. And he certainly did not think he should be working under women, including Ada Coleman and her assistant behind the bar, Ruth Burgess. According to The Deans of Drink, a 2013 study of the lives and careers of Harry Craddock and fellow bartender Harry Johnson written by Jared Brown and Anistatia Renard Miller, shortly after his arrival at the American Bar, Craddock began a campaign to undermine Coley’s position as head bartender1. 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.

Whatever he may have lacked in character as a human being, there’s no denying that Harry Craddock was able to put his money where his mouth was when it came to being a bartender. He was also an exceptionally canny promoter, both of the bar and of himself. He would write articles for papers and challenge politicians tempted to throw their lot in with the temperance movement to taste one of his cocktails and see if they could honestly say it didn’t enhance their enjoyment of a meal and of life. He claimed to have invented over 240 cocktails during his career — three in one day, for a willing journalist. With the publication of the Savoy Cocktail Book, he cemented his reputation as the world’s most famous bartender. And indeed the book is a foundation text for anyone interested in the craft or history of cocktails, though one is rightfully incredulous at the book’s implication by omission that, in two decades behind the bar as one of the Savoy’s pioneering mixologists, Ada Coleman only created one drink worth writing down. Still, as Jerry Thomas’ manual had done a century before, Craddock’s book saved countless cocktail recipes from being forgotten. In fact, the book is considered so important to the art and business of cocktails that it is still in print and still regularly updated as new bartenders at the Savoy create new drinks.

Harry Craddock

Harry Craddock

Of the many cocktails Craddock mixed at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, none is more identified with him than the White Lady, the drink most favored by the hapless spy Fred Leiser, a naturalized Englishman of Polish background in John Le Carre’s Looking Glass War. Enamored with British culture and self-conscious about his own Slav-ness, Leiser studiously attempts to mimic (with only moderate success) the affectations of what he thinks to be an upstanding, standard issue Englishman. Among those affectations is his fondness for the White Lady.

White Lady

  • 2 ounces/60mL London dry gin
  • 1/2 ounce/15 mL Cointreau
  • 1/2 ounce/15mL Lemon juice
  • 1 Egg white

Shake well with cracked ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Although Craddock claimed the drink of his own, cocktail historian David Wondrich credits the actual invention of the drink to a bartender by the name of Harry MacElhone. A celebrity bartender in his own right, MacElhone tended bar at the Plaza Hotel in New York before Prohibition chased him, like Harry Craddock, out of the United States. He found employment in London, at the posh Ciro’s Club, before opening his own bar in Paris: Harry’s New York Bar, one of the most famous European cocktail bars of all time. According to Wondrich, MacElhone created the White Lady in 1919 while working at Ciro’s. MacElhone’s original version of the drink (which Wondrich described in a column for Esquire as “the color of chlorine gas and unhealthily sweet, like the smell of orchids”)2 contained one notable difference from the recipe presented by Craddock in the Savoy Cocktail Book: creme de menthe. However, in the end this proved too much even for MacElhone, who by the time the drink was being made at his bar in Paris, had replaced the creme de menthe with gin. It is this revision to the recipe that Craddock claims as his own, and while there is no way to prove it one way or another, it seems more likely that a different bartender (Craddock) would make as dramatic a change as swapping out creme de menthe for gin, rather than the man who came up with the creme de menthe in the first place (MacElhone) suddenly having a change of heart.

savoy001Creme de menthe is a sweet liqueur made by soaking dried peppermint or Corsican mint leaves in grain alcohol for several weeks. The resultant flavored spirit is then filtered and dosed with sugar (and in some cases, green dye). In the Bond franchise, there is no bigger fan of creme de menthe than SPECTRE’s second in command in the James Bond novel Thunderball, Emilio Largo. while he doesn’t go for the creme de menthe version of the White Lady (by the 1960s, that version would have been long forgotten in favor of the gin variation), Largo loves the creme de menthe frappe, an oddly silly, even childish drink for a character that is otherwise one of the most macho and imposing in any of Fleming’s books.

Creme de Menthe Frappe

  • Crème de Menthe
  • Shaved ice
  • Maraschino cherry

Fill a cocktail or wine glass to the top with shaved ice. Add the Crème de Menthe, and put the cherry on top. Serve with a straw.

This is not to imply that creme de menthe is incapable of rendering a tasty cocktail. Its greatest triumph is the Stinger, an exceptional cocktail that Bond himself consumes in the book Diamonds are Forever. The Bond Girl of the story, Tiffany Case, consumes several more throughout the slim volume. When it comes to taste in creme de menthe cocktails, the advantage is definitely to Tiffany Case.

a recent menu at the American Bar, photo by Keith Allison

a recent menu at the American Bar, photo by Keith Allison

Stinger

  • 1.5 ounces/44 mL Brandy
  • 1/2 ounce/15mL White Crème de Menthe

Shake ingredients with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.

In May of 1939, Ian Fleming joined the staff of Rear Admiral John Godfrey at Naval Intelligence. That same year, Harry Craddock departed The Savoy, so it’s unlikely the legendary barkeep ever made a cocktail for Fleming — at least at The Savoy (At Dukes, on the other hand…). Harry Craddock was replaced by a man named Eddie Clark. Clark was the Savoy’s bartender throughout the Blitz, when the Savoy became the de facto headquarters of much of the British war effort, especially the covert and clandestine aspects of it. And so it would have been Eddie Clark making the drinks for everyone from Ian Fleming to Noel Coward to Winston Churchill himself. During his tenure behind the bar amid the tumult of the Blitz, Clark created a cocktail for each branch of the armed services: “Eight Bells” for the Navy (as if they weren’t all just drinking Pink Gin), “New Contemptible” for the Army, and “Wings” for the R.A.F.

Clark enlisted in Britain’s Mercantile Marine War Reserve, and in 1942 he was called up to serve, turning the bar over to his friend and coworker, Reginald “Johnnie” Johnson, who saw the American Bar through the rest of the war and clear into the dawn of mid-century cocktail culture, retiring in 1954. He created a cocktail, Wedding Bells, in honor of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Today, the bar is under the stewardship of Erik Lorincz. They still serve a world-class Hanky Panky, including an antique version using vintage spirits (Gordon’s gin and Cinzano Rosso from the 1950s and Fernet Branca from 1967) that will set you back a cool £120. The same price will get you a vintage White Lady made with non-vintage egg white — totally reasonable when you measure it against the bar’s £5000 Sazerac made with 1858 Sazerac de Forage, Pernod absinthe from the 1950s, and Peychaud’s bitters from 1900. Those of us on a slightly tighter budget might elect for the non-vintage version of any of those drinks, or pick some of the more recent concoctions, like the Hackney Carriage (Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva rum, Umeshu fruit liqueur from Japan, dry vermouth, Laphroaig, simple syrup and Peychaud’s bitters) or Napoleon’s Wish (Chivas Regal 18, Boulard Calvados, Cocchi di Torino, pear eau de vie, simple syrup, and soda).

The Secret Agent cocktail, photo by Keith Allison

The Secret Agent cocktail, photo by Keith Allison

And of course, given the theme of this article, one must order the Secret Agent (Woodford Reserve, Laphroaig, Cocchi Amaro, absinthe, lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white).

  1. Miller, A. R., & Brown, J. M. (2013). The Deans of Drink: The Amazing Lives & Turbulent Times of Harry Johnson & Harry Craddock as Seen In a New Light. Cheltenham: Mixellany.
  2. Wondrich, D. (2015). White Lady. Retrieved September 30, 2016, from http://www.esquire.com/food-drink/drinks/recipes/a3725/white-lady-drink-recipe/
One Comment

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *