When hearing the words “legendary bartender,” one might conjure up the image of a grizzled, vest-wearing man, perhaps with some arcane configuration of facial hair, and a pocket watch or some manner of gentlemanly accessory. Cocktail history is dominated by names like Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock, William Boothby, and Trader Vic, all men. But the legendary Ada Coleman was a notable exception.
A British bartender, Coleman worked at one of the most famous cocktail spots in the world, the American Bar at the Savoy hotel in London. She started there in 1903 after being reassigned from a sister property, where she worked at the hotel’s flower shop and later the bar, and then became the head bartender at a time when women were still being called “barmaids.” She was eventually replaced by her successor Harry Craddock in 1926, and the bar would have to wait nearly a century before seeing another female head bartender. But during her tenure, Coleman, or “Coley” as she was nicknamed, made quite an impression with patrons, the media, and on cocktail canon itself with the clever drink known as the Hanky Panky.
Despite the cocktail’s age, we have decent documentation for its century-old origin story. As was reported in London papers in the mid 1920s, London stage and silent film actor Sir Charles Hawtrey requested Coleman make him a drink to cure what ailed him and, after “hours [of] experimenting,” she presented him with a combination of London dry gin, sweet vermouth, and Fernet-Branca. Supposedly Hawtrey called it “the real hanky panky.”
The drink’s recipe survives to this day in part due to its appearance in The Savoy Cocktail Book, written by Harry Craddock. There is some speculation that Coleman was removed from her position in 1925 in order to cater to the bar’s American clientele, who were unaccustomed to seeing female bartenders. A report from the Aspen Daily Times from February 1926 states that management told her—and another female colleague—that the bar was changing and they had “earned a rest.”
The Hanky Panky deserves a spot in any savvy drink-maker’s repertoire. Aside from being a great reminder of a brilliant bartender, it’s simple as can be: no special prep work other than the purchase of three easy-to-find bottles. And it’s riffable if you want to use what you have. While I find the slightly minty, sharply bitter Fernet-Branca to be essential to the drink’s Hanky Panky-ness, swapping out the gin with, say, blanco tequila, Irish whiskey, or even aquavit is a fun way to further explore this cocktail. When choosing a vermouth, a more herbaceous pick like Martini & Rossi Rosso suits the recipe better than the more vanilla-inflected options like Carpano Antica Formula.
How to make a Hanky Panky:
For 1 drink, combine 2 oz. London dry gin (such as Tanqueray), 1 oz. sweet vermouth (such as Martini & Rossi Rosso), and 1 tsp. Fernet-Branca in a mixing glass or small shaking tin. Add ice and stir gently for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe and garnish with an orange peel, pinched over the drink and perched on the rim.
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