A Brief History of the Historic Hanky Panky Cocktail
When we think of cocktail connoisseurs, the image of a male bartender shaking and whipping up concoctions behind the bar often comes to mind. Yet Ada Coleman, head bartender at London's prestigious American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, redefined this archetype. Her story isn’t just about breaking glass ceilings in the early 1900s; it's also about creating a legacy, one cocktail at a time.
Coleman, informally known as ‘Coley’, first worked at the hotel’s in-house flower shop. She later took up a position in the hotel bar, which marked her foray into the world of spirits and mixtures. This unconventional start eventually led her to what was popularly referred to as the pinnacle of bartending success—the American Bar. In an era when the term ‘barmaid’ was the norm for women employed in the industry, Coleman's rise to the head bartender position in 1903 was nothing short of subversive.
It was around this time that Hanky Panky, Coleman’s most famous creation, came to life. The story behind it is as charming as the name. One evening, Sir Charles Hawtrey, a prominent London actor, asked Coleman to make something ‘with a bit of punch’. Her long experiments resulted in a mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and a hint of Fernet-Branca.‘The real hanky panky!’ Hawtrey's reaction upon tasting it, stuck and became the cocktail’s moniker from thereon.
The drink is a masterclass in balance. For a single serving, stir together 30 ml London dry gin like Tanqueray with 25 ml of herbaceous sweet vermouth and about 5 ml Fernet-Branca. Strain it into a chilled coupe and garnish with a twist of orange peel. While the drink is impressive enough on its own, you can choose to savour the smooth, spiced-up, and subtly bitter undertones of the concoction with some ricotta ravioli or clams tossed in a delicate, buttery, garlicky sauce.
Ever since its inception, the Hanky Panky has found many admirers across the world. It even found a mention in The Savoy Cocktail Book, a collection of the Savoy’s most remarkable 750 recipes, written by Harry Craddock, a veteran behind the bar. While many beverages tend to have decorated histories, the Hanky Panky too paints a memorable picture of the 20th-century cocktail scene and more notably, of Coleman's ingenuity. In 1925, however, she left the Savoy in a move that was heavily conjectured to cater to the American market better, where clients preferred being served by male bartenders.
While that ending is not nearly as impressive as the cocktail itself, Coleman’s Hanky Panky continues to be a hot favourite. While the landscape of cocktail making has changed drastically to make room for newer and more unlikely pairings, each sip of the drink has the ability to transport you to the glamorous time of the Savoy, where women whipped up concoctions that left a mark on the history of mixology. With that, let's raise a glass to Ada Coleman and delicious inventions that stand the test of time.