A couple of weeks ago I was invited to join the great and the good of the bar industry to help honour Joe Gilmore, the former head bartender of the American Bar at The Savoy, and celebrate his lifetime achievement award. Originally I had intended to post an update about the event immediately, but after attending I realised that there was more to this story than simply talking about Joe. You see The Savoy has a special place in the history of cocktails, and it seemed to me that Joe’s award was just one piece of a extensive and ongoing legacy that The Savoy has built over the years.
The Savoy is probably most ingrained in cocktail culture through its famous cocktail book, masterminded by Harry Craddock and first released in 1930. To this day it's one of the go-to books for bartenders to expand their knowledge of cocktails and learn how to balance drinks. But even with such a great legacy as The Savoy Cocktail Book, there is much more that makes this bar particularly special. Sitting in the American Bar, there’s a sense of history: the bar has played host to celebrities, royalty, the wealthy and the infamous; generation after generation. The cocktails created by The Savoy's bartenders live on as a list of classics, beloved by bartenders around the globe and is the largest of any other bar I can name. The characters who have worked there have become legends, be they long passed away or alive and still influencing the industry.
So while I do want to salute Joe Gilmore for a lifetime of contribution to our industry, I want to frame that within the extraordinary history of this remarkable cocktail bar. A history that dates back to the Victorian era, but that is still being written today.
From 1878 onwards, bars in London that served American style drinks such as cocktails were labelled ‘American bars’, so in the early years of The Savoy their bar was known as the ‘American Bar at The Savoy’. While the hotel has been open since 1889, we know of 11 head bartenders there, dating from 1893 to present day. Each was a master of their trade who was responsible for entertaining and hosting guests to the highest standards possible.
Starting in 1893, Frank Wells headed up the bar team and oversaw the serving of American style cocktails in the bar until he retired in 1902. While his name is not instantly known to most people today, it’s fair to stay that he started a great legacy that led to the more renowned bartenders whose names are synonymous with The Savoy to this day.
In 1903 Ada Coleman took over the running of the bar as the first and only female head bartender at The Savoy. In fact she was one of the first well known female cocktail bartenders and one of her signature drinks, the Hanky Panky remains a firm favourite of bartenders to this day and, as has become the tradition at The Savoy, this drink was originally created to honour a famous guest of the era. Explained in her own words below is the story of how this marvellous cocktail came into being:
"The late Charles Hawtrey… was one of the best judges of cocktails that I knew. Some years ago, when he was overworking, he used to come into the bar and say, 'Coley, I am tired. Give me something with a bit of punch in it.' It was for him that I spent hours experimenting until I had invented a new cocktail. The next time he came in, I told him I had a new drink for him. He sipped it, and, draining the glass, he said, 'By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!' And Hanky-Panky it has been called ever since."
Ada was undoubtedly a master (or rather mistress) of the art of making drinks as well as an outstanding character who was a firm favourite with guests of the hotel. But her Hanky Panky is early evidence of one of the things for which The Savoy has become famous; creating drinks for special guests or special occasions.
When Ada retired from the bar in 1924, she handed over the responsibility of continuing the high standards of the bar to perhaps The Savoy’s most famous head bartender, Harry Craddock. Harry was not only another astoundingly good bartender and host, he was also responsible for creating the famous Savoy Cocktail Book, which was first published in 1930. Harry was an American bartender who left the States in the early days of Prohibition and after moving to London, he worked under Ada’s expert guidance until he took over the running of the bar. His book endures as one of the best loved cocktail books of all time and is still in print to this day. The Savoy Cocktail Book is a snapshot of not just the style of drinks that were in fashion at the time, but also of the influence of Europe on cocktails during a time when America was supposedly ‘dry’.
There are many great drinks that Harry and his team created throughout the 1920s and 30s, but perhaps his most famous and enduring was the White Lady, an enticing blend of Gin, Cointreau and lemon juice that remains a classic to this day.
By the time Harry stepped down in 1939, Eddie Clark took over for just a short stint as head bartender before being called up to serve in World War II, The Savoy had established itself as one of the foremost cocktail bars in the world. The Savoy was a popular destination for soldiers on leave in London, and to honour their efforts Eddie created a cocktail for each branch of the military. Just because we were at war wasn’t an excuse for the famous hospitality and creativity of the bartenders at The Savoy to change.
Reginald Johnson was next to head up this iconic bar, and he stayed on as head bartender until 1954. He continued the by now well-established tradition of creating drinks for special occasions, by creating the ‘Wedding Bells’ cocktail to honour the marriage of Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) to Prince Phillip.
While the bartenders above created a legacy, it has been the work of the more recent head bartenders to carry it into the modern era. Taking up the challenge of maintaining the reputation of this famous bar in 1954 was Joe Gilmore, who stayed on as head bartender until 1975. As I mentioned earlier Joe is one of five head bartenders still alive to this day. In true Savoy Tradition he created many great drinks, but perhaps most famously he created the ‘Moonwalk’ to commemorate man’s first step on the moon.
For me it was a privilege to be invited to honour this man in receiving a lifetime achievement award. At the age of 93, Joe is still a formidable character, and watching him get behind the bar to make his most famous drink sent shivers down my spine. The smile of a true host and bartender was clear as he poured the ingredients into his shaker and shook up a perfectly balanced drink with ease. He is a link between the past history of this astonishing hotel bar, and the present day.
Seeing Joe and his four younger protégés behind the bar was truly a once in a lifetime experience. There was a sense that being a part of this bar is a responsibility and honour, passed carefully from one generation to another, with all of the bartenders having written their own small piece of cocktail history.
Joe handed over to Harry Viccars in 1975, who continued to uphold Joe’s attention to impeccable service levels and great training of his staff. His most renowned cocktail was again a tribute to an event of the era: when Concord made its first flight, he created The Speedbird Cocktail. By the time he retired in 1981, he’d spent an astonishing 39 years working in The American Bar.
It’s amazing to think that so many of these great characters were not only dedicated bartenders, but that they made a career of crafting drinks in this historic bar. Perhaps this explains the sense of history I had while watching these five bartenders, past and present behind the bar. Working at The Savoy isn’t just a job that you move on from, it’s a career that people seem to dedicate themselves to.
When Harry stepped down in 1981 he handed over to Victor Gower, who had been working in The American Bar since 1946. While his stint as head bartender was fairly brief, his contribution to the bar is unquestionable given the number of years spent dedicated to serving drinks there. It’s lovely to hear that his speciality was the Bloody Mary, a drink he became enamoured with after an impromptu lesson from Orson Welles on how to correctly make it. Vic stood down from the bar in 1985 but continues to do the occasional shift at Simpsons to this day.
Next in this long line of bartenders is one of my favourite characters in the drinks industry, Peter Dorelli. I’ve been fortunate to spend time with Peter over the past few years and know first hand that he is a host, an entertainer and a storyteller like no other… he knows how to shake a mean drink too! The tales that Peter has to share about his time at The Savoy could easily fill a book, although of course most names would have to be changed!
Peter worked closely with his colleague Salim, who took over from him when he retired in 2003. Salim continued the traditional standards that had begun all those generations ago, winning UK Bartender of the Year during his time there, with a drink inspired by Princess Diana, the Blushing Bride. Salim stayed on as head bartender until The Savoy closed for refurbishment in 2007.
After ten generations of bartenders, each of whom have added another layer to the story of this legendary bar, it was always going to be a tall order to live up to the reputation established over 109 years of making drinks. Fortunately the current head bartender is one of the finest in the industry, Eric Lorincz. Visiting The Savoy today is a unique experience: part of you feels so connected with the history of this amazing space, yet you can experience modern drinks and very current hospitality at the same time.
Standing in The Savoy watching Erik play host to four previous head bartenders, you see the respect that he has for the traditions of the bar, but he’s by no means a junior looking up to the past leaders. Instead he is the current master, building the modern reputation of this historic venue. He is an equal, who obviously respects these history-makers, yet runs the bar in his own distinct style. The question that most people ask is will he stay at the bar for years to come, as has always been the tradition, or will he move on as is the modern way? Only time will tell, but what is certain is that The American Bar couldn’t be in better hands as it writes yet another chapter in its long and distinguished history.