When Death & Co. head bartender Shannon Tebay was tapped last summer to helm the American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel, her appointment was celebrated not just because she would become the first American ever to fill that role since the bar opened in the 1890s, serving the kind of cocktails that were rapidly becoming popular across the Atlantic. Tebay also became only the second woman in history to hold the top Savoy job. The first? Ada Coleman, whose career spanned the Golden Age of cocktails and who is credited with the creation of the Hanky Panky, a gin, vermouth, and fernet concoction that’s arguably a cross between a Martini and Manhattan and still hits the spot today.
Coleman was a trailblazer, for sure, but plenty of other women were tending bar in London when she joined the Savoy in the early 1900s. One 1905 survey found that slightly less than half of all bartenders in the city were female. Most, though, would have been considered barmaids, drawing pints of mild and bitter in local pubs. Coleman, though, had worked her way up from Claridge’s, another upscale London hotel, where she learned to make her first cocktail (a Manhattan, as she recalled in later years) at the age of 24.
That was an unusually ripe old age for a woman behind the bar -- 25 was considered the cut-off for barmaids -- but it was just the beginning for Coleman, whose personal charm and professional skill landed her the top job at the Savoy in 1903. For the next twenty-three years, “Coley,” as she was called by her regulars, served cocktails to the likes of Mark Twain, the Prince of Wales, Gilded Age mogul ‘Diamond’ Jim Brady, and actor Sir Charles Hawtrey. One night, Hawtrey begged for a pick-me-up, and Coleman created a cocktail that made him exclaim, “By Jove! That is the real Hanky-Panky!”
Coley retired from the Savoy in 1926, and while some say that she was driven out by Harry Craddock, our next inductee in the Bartenders Hall of Fame, but 23 years tending the same bar is a lifetime in the industry now, and it surely was then, too. Coley lived into the swinging 1960s and died at the age of 91. In recent years, the Hanky Panky has ridden the fernet wave back onto menus around the country, and Coley was honored in 2018 when Ada’s Place, a bar named in her honor, opened in NYC’s Hudson Yards. BottleHound is glad to lift a glass to her, too!
Here’s her recipe for the Hanky Panky, as captured in The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock, our next inductee:
- 2 dashes Fernet-Branca
- ½ [of volume] Italian vermouth
- ½ [of volume] dry gin
Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass.
Squeeze orange peel on top.
And here’s a fresh take from our founder, Palmer Fox:
- 1 ¾ ounces Royal Dock Gin
- 1 ¼ ounces Carpano Vermouth
- ¼ ounce Fernet
Stir over cracked ice.
Double strain to a chilled coupe.
Garnish with orange twist.