In celebration of International Women’s Month, we take a look at the career of one of the legends of bartending: Ada Coleman.
Towards the end of the 19th century, mixed drinks or cocktails, as we know them today, were gaining popularity across London. Having made steady progress for many years in the US, these ‘American’ style drinks were becoming fashionable across Europe. American drinks were notable for the inclusion of ice, something not seen anywhere before the 1840s, alongside the addition of exotic ingredients such as bitters, citrus, and fortified and sparkling wines from France and Italy.
As these drinks grew in popularity, so did the venues that served them. These bars became known as American Bars, and it was this distinction that would allow the discerning bon vivant to differentiate them from the coarser Taverns and Gin Palaces of the day. The most famous of the so-called American Bars is still open and mixing cocktails – The American Bar at The Savoy Hotel. It was here that Coleman, or ‘Coley’ as her regulars affectionately knew her, found her fame.
Born in 1875, Ada Coleman was the daughter of a steward who worked at a golf club owned by the hotelier and theatre impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte. Her father passed away when she was 24, and needing to supplement her income, she was given a job by Carte at the Claridges Hotel according to Difford Guide. Initially working in the flower shop at the Claridges Hotel, Coleman progressed to the bar where after mixing simple drinks, she eventually mixed her first cocktail – a Manhattan.
It turned out that Coley had a real flair for crafting drinks and was a pioneer of modern bartending – not only just focusing on the technical elements but also on the hospitality side of the role. According to all reports, she had an incredibly lively and engaging personality with a flair for the theatrical. This combination of nature and skill got her the move to the American Bar at the Savoy in 1903 (another hotel in the D’Oyly Carte group) where her fame continued to grow.
Ada became the first female celebrity bartender during her time at the Savoy, delighting everyday patrons and celebrities of the day with her hospitality and incredible drinks. Known to be the life and soul of the party, she counted Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and even the Prince of Wales amongst her patrons.
Of all of the drinks she crafted and the celebrities for whom she crafted them, there is one drink and one story which will forever be synonymous with Ada Coleman, the Hanky Panky. Coleman created the cocktail for a comedic actor of the day, Sir Charles Hawtrey. Coleman later recounted in an interview with Daily Express that Hawtrey was “one of the best judges of cocktails that I knew,” and that, “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.'”
Coleman, who was known for spending considerable amounts of time developing drinks for her guests, went on to create a drink for Hawtrey. “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.” she recalled during her interview with The Daily Express in 1925.
Ada Coleman retired in 1926, and to-date remains one of the most celebrated bartenders in the history of the craft. Her legacy lives on in The American Bar, voted the World’s Best Bar in 2018, and in the Hanky Panky – still one of the top 50 best selling classic cocktails in the world, according to Drinks International. As the drinks historian Ted Haigh once noted in his book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, “not only was Coley…a woman in the world of male bartenders, it was she who made the (American) bar famous.”
The Hanky Panky Cocktail
Paper Lantern Gin 40ml
Sweet Vermouth 30ml
Fernet Branca 7.5ml
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and stir over ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with flamed orange zest.