Spies at the Savoy

Espionage, Glamour, and the Birth of the American Cocktail Bar in London

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 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.

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).

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 GinInto 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.

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.

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.

From New York, With Love

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.”

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.”

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 appleFill 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:

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.”

American Invasion

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

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

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 bartender4. 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.

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 whiteShake 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”)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.

Creme 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 cherryFill 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.

Stinger

  • 1.5 ounces/44 mL Brandy
  • 1/2 ounce/15mL White Crème de MentheShake 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).

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).

This article originally appeared in three parts on Alcohol Professor.


Notes

  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
  4. 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.
  5. Wondrich, D. (2015). White Lady. Retrieved September 30, 2016, from http://www.esquire.com/food-drink/drinks/recipes/a3725/white-lady-drink-recipe/
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