March 8 is International Women’s Day, so here at The Drunkard’s Almanac we’re going to mix up the Hanky Panky cocktail. But before you get any ideas about that name, remember that in the early 20th century the term ‘hanky panky’ was among phrases like ‘the cat’s pajamas’ meant to extol rather than imply some naughty business. The holiday itself is intended to commemorate the cultural, political and socioeconomic achievements of women worldwide. Naturally, many celebrants think toward things like gender equality, violence against women, reproductive rights and so on. But we’re going to pay tribute to great female bartenders.
That’s why today we focus on Ada Coleman, without question the first female celebrity bartender, and her most famous cocktail, the Hanky Panky.
Ada Coleman was born in 1875, but nobody seems to know the exact date. Her father was a steward at Rupert D’Oyly Carter’s golf club and passed away when she was 24 years old.
Luckily, Carter also owned hotels and one of them was the Savoy in London. You’ve read of the Savoy as we often cite recipes from Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book, and the American Bar at the Savoy remains a landmark and one of the world’s top bars to this day.
When her father died Carter offered Ada Coleman a job at another one of his hotels, the Claridge. She started in the flower shop making boutonnieres but soon moved to the bar. There she was tutored by the hotel’s wine steward and the first drink she learned to make was the Manhattan. She had a personality customers loved, got the nickname Coley, and earned a reputation as a bartending prodigy
Coleman soon moved to the more high-profile American Bar at the Savoy and became head bartender in 1903. She served prominent figures like Mark Twain, Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin and the Prince of Wales. As Ted Haigh describes in his work Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, she was “a woman in a world of male bartenders, it was she who made the bar famous.”
Coleman captained that ship until she was displaced by Harry Craddock. Just why that happened is unclear, but her departure was deemed worthy of mention by London newspapers. She was certainly the most famous female bartender in England at the time, and perhaps in the world.
Other Important Female Bartenders
Naturally, before we get to the Hanky Panky recipe and the story behind it, we should give note to the fact that others have carried on. This column can never name all of them, but it would hardly be complete without a mention of Audrey Saunders, the proprietor of the Pegu Club in New York. Often known as the Libation Goddess, she was instrumental in launching the cocktail renaissance from her bar. We’ve mixed a few of her drinks here, notably the Fitty-Fitty Martini and the ever popular Little Italy cocktail.
We can also report that the American Bar at the Savoy is once again headed by a woman, though it did take them 95 years to get around to it. Shannon Tebay, formerly of Death & Co. in New York, was named head bartender in 2021. She’s the first woman to hold that position since Ada Coleman and the first American to ever do so.
The Hanky Panky
The Hanky Panky is the first classic, category defining cocktail attributed to a woman. And that woman was none other than our beloved Ada Coleman. It may also be the first printed cocktail recipe to use Fernet Branca as a modifier. Fernet had been considered more a bottle for the medicine cabinet than the backbar until that time. The Hanky Panky recipe itself probably emerged around 1921 and was for one of her famous customers, the actor Sir Charles Hawtrey.
Coleman herself told the story to The People newspaper in 1925:
“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.”
So there you have it. Invented at a legendary bar, by one legend for another. It’s the only Coleman cocktail known to this day, but it’s entirely possible she was the unattributed originator of some recipes in The Savoy Cocktail Book.
Hanky Panky Cocktail
- Mixing glass
- Nick and Nora or coupe glass
- Add all ingredients to your trusty mixing glass.
- Add ice and stir to chill.
- Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass.
- Express orange twist over drink and place in glass.