Masters of Mixology: Ada Coleman

How the famous Savoy bartender changed mixology

Ada Coleman, the woman behind the bar.

In 1899, a certain Ada Coleman mixed a cocktail. "I remember it was a Manhattan that I made first, and that it was Fisher, the wine butler, who gave me my first lesson," she recalled in an interview in England’s Daily Express some 26 years later.

Coleman, or "Coley," as she was called, was working at Claridge’s Hotel in London at that time, but it wasn’t long after that she moved onto The Savoy Hotel, eventually becoming head bartender at its famed American Bar. She made quite a name for herself there, too.

"'Coley' is known to thousands of men all over the world, Britons who are now roughing it in various parts of the Empire, Americans who think of her every time they remember their own country’s dryness," the Daily Express reported when her retirement was announced in December of 1925.

Today, when we think of the Savoy’s American Bar, most of us envision Erik Lorincz, the current head bartender, or Peter Dorelli, the man who stood at the helm from 1984 until 2003. And of course, we also can’t forget Harry Craddock, who took over for Coley and penned The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930.

But Coley was every bit as famous as those guys. And she left a legacy all her own in the form of the Hanky Panky cocktail, a drink she created for Sir Charles Hawtrey, a celebrated Georgian actor who frequented the establishment.

"Some years ago, when [Hawtrey] was over-working, he used to come into the bar and say 'Coley, I am tired. Give me something with a bit of punch in it.'" Coley came up with a new formula and claimed that Hawtrey sipped it and, "draining the glass, he said, 'By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!'" The name stuck.

Gary Regan is the author of numerous books about spirits and cocktails, including The Joy of Mixology and The Bartender’s Gin Compendium. He is also host of and a advisory board member.

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