Raising the bar: London and cocktail history
Common cultural mythology connects the cocktail with Prohibition-era USA, the period between 1920 and 1933, a time of busts and bootleggers, political hypocrisy and organised crime – and the development of an underground, euphemistic vocabulary employed by secret tipplers and moonlighting bartenders peddling moonshine in speakeasies. We might think of the discreetly named Manhattan – or the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens or Staten Island, for that matter – served in a teacup to disguise the fact that it was alcoholic; dry enough to get you tipsy but drinkable enough to be downed in the event of a police raid.
The original London cocktail bar: The American Bar at The Savoy Hotel
The fact is, however, that the practice of mixing a base spirit with complementary flavours and modifiers has a much longer history, with strong evidence that the roots of cocktail extend deep into the London bar scene. The original cocktail bar in London, by most accounts, was that housed at the famous Savoy hotel. Called the American Bar – a naming convention that sprung up in 19th-century Europe in response to the perception that the cocktail was an exclusively, exotically American invention – head bartender Harry Craddock produced the classic mixology reference book The Savoy Cocktail Book, detailing over 750 classic recipes.
American Bar? The cocktail bar at London’s The Savoy was the cocktail bar!
Having allegedly mixed the last legal cocktail in pre-Prohibition Era USA, Harry Craddock fled to London, working up his rogue backstory to become a legend among London high-society tipplers. Behind the long, tall and, yes, incredibly refreshing story is the fact that ol’ Harry was a Gloucestershire boy who cut his teeth tending bar as an immigrant in the States. The cocktail is largely a European invention – to drink at a cocktail bar in London (if not The Savoy itself) is to drink at something like a ground-zero in the admittedly rather hazy and deeply contested mixology story.
What are the quintessential drinks to order at cocktail bars in London?
- The White Lady – the claim to the invention of this classic British cocktail are split between Harry MacElhone of London cocktail bar Ciro's Club in 1919 and usual suspect Harry Craddock at The Savoy who published the recipe in his 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Basically a variation on the Sidecar sour that replaces the cognac with gin, Craddock’s gin, Cointreau and lemon juice combo was allegedly Laurel & Hardy’s favourite drink.
- The Collins - Another cocktail fought over in the eternal transatlantic tiff over the cocktail’s true genesis, we’ll go with the theory that this easy-drinking, fizzy gin and lemon refresher originates with bartender John Collins in the cocktail bar of London’s The Coffee House, set within Limmer’s Hotel on Conduit Street in Mayfair (even more a top spot for classy cocktail bars in London today).
- The Hanky-Panky - Invented by Ada Coleman, one of the only two women to have held the head bartender position at esteemed London cocktail bar The Savoy, the Hanky-Panky is a standard sweet martini of dry gin and sweet Italian vermouth transformed by the addition of a couple of dashes of herby digestif Fernet Branca. A bespoke Coley concoction for Victorian and Edwardian actor Sir Charles Hawtrey, but a legend in the annals of mixology ever since.
- Espresso Martini - Girl walks into famous Brasserie Soho; girl asks at the cocktail bar for something that will, quote, “wake me up, and then f*** me up”. Bartender Dick Bradsell obliges with a mix of vodka – this was the late 1980s and vodka martinis were all the rage in cocktail bars all over London and the world – Kahlua, sugar syrup, and a short and very strong espresso. This was the day that patrons at cocktail bars in London and around the world woke up to the Espresso Martini.
- Breakfast Martini - Salvatore Calabrese, hard-working bartender at cocktail bar of London’s Lanesborough Hotel, would often leave the house with nothing but a coffee to sustain him. His wife insisted that he at least take his marmalade and toast on the road. Eureka. Mix a gin martini with orange-flavoured Cointreau or triple sec plus lemon and a spoonful of marmalade, shake over ice and strain. The breakfast martini for those who abstain from caffeine.
- The Bramble - Dick Bradsell is at it again with this cocktail designed to be sipped in springtime. Exemplary of the mid-80s renaissance sweeping the London cocktail bar scene, this evolution of the classic Gin Fix features the blackberry liqueur known as creme de mure and was invented during Bradsell’s tenure at legendary London cocktail bar Fred’s Club in Soho.