If the word “luxury” hadn’t already been in existence at the end of the 19th century, the term which would have sprung forth in its place would have been “Savoy”. Since the mid-1200s the spot nestled between London’s Strand and the Thames River has been synonymous with opulence. The site originally held The Savoy Palace, which was considered one of the finest residences in medieval London until its destruction during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Many centuries later, Richard D’Oyly Carte, agent to the stars, would erect the Savoy Theatre on the old palace grounds and, within its walls, celebrate the operettas of his friends and clients, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. But what good was theatre if patrons didn’t have a place to crash afterwards? Not seven years later, in 1889, the Savoy Hotel opened its doors to the world and became the very definition of “luxury”.
How luxurious? The Savoy was the first hotel to be lit entirely by electricity – it generated its own supply – including electric “ascending rooms,” or as we know them today, elevators. It was the first hotel to provide a majority of its rooms “en suite” – with attached bathrooms. The bathrooms were the first to offer both hot and cold running water. The Savoy also offered the first 24-hour room service, which could be ordered via “speaking tube”. It was the first hotel in Britain to offer serviced apartments – an apartment with the full amenities of the hotel – and boasted Sir Thomas Dewar, of Scotch fame, as a resident for more than 40 years. Yes, the Savoy saw lots of “firsts” – 100 of them are listed on the hotel’s website. But luxury didn’t begin and end with firsts alone. When Richard D’Oyly Carte opened the hotel, he brought on board two titans of the hospitality industry – one whose name would indeed be forever associated with luxury, César Ritz, and another who held equal, if not greater, standing in the world of the kitchen, Auguste Escoffier. If we, at 12BB, could pick a place in time to dine and recline, the Savoy, circa 1890, would be at the top of the list.
Of course, the definition of luxury is prone to change with the times, and as the Art Deco movement swept Europe in the late 1920s, the Savoy adapted to the era. The iconic deco sign was added to the hotel. A hydraulically-raised dance floor was installed, and jazz bands from all over the world – especially America – were invited to play. As Prohibition gripped America, Americans who had the means simply picked up and headed to parts yonder – namely Paris, Cuba, and, of course, London – to get a well-needed stiff drink and a little entertainment. The Savoy didn’t disappoint, not only for those at the hotel, but for the radio-listening public as well. In the 1920s, most of the dance music broadcast on the BBC originated at the Savoy, which regularly featured the Savoy Havana Band and the Savoy Orpheans. They were truly stompin’ at the Savoy.
The first great bartender of the Savoy was Mrs. Ada Coleman, who ran the bar from 1903 to 1924, whereupon the mantel was passed to one Harry Craddock. Craddock had worked at the Holland House in New York but fled America when Prohibition killed off his profession. In 1930, Craddock compiled the Savoy Cocktail Book. I say “compiled” because not only is that what the book claims but also because Craddock liberally lifted recipes from a handful of other books – all without credit. Erik Ellestad, in his annotated copy of the Savoy, mentions: “One person I know has described The Savoy Cocktail Book as the first example of cocktail recipe ‘shovelware’. That is to say, The Savoy Cocktail Book collected the recipes from a number of pre-prohibition cocktail books and included them verbatim without crediting the authors.” Moreover, Craddock left out ingredients – such as the Crème de Violette in the Aviation – got measurements wrong, and even included some drinks twice. For many cocktail historians, the Savoy book is something of a mess, but its importance in the pantheon of drinks can’t be denied.
Overall, the Savoy book captures a very special moment in time. The old Jerry Thomas classics remain, the Vermouth drinks of the early 1900s have matured (a bit), and the European influence is creeping in. There are four Vodka drinks, which is surprising for the time. Beyond the recipes, there’s Craddock’s “Hints for the Young Mixer” which are timeless –“Shake the shaker as hard as you can: don’t just rock it: you are trying to wake it up, not send it to sleep!” – as well as Craddock’s advice to drink a cocktail “Quickly, while it’s laughing at you!”
The latest edition, from Pavilion Books, is absolutely gorgeous, replete with Art Deco designs and illustrations from Gilbert Rumbold. Even with the Savoy’s faults – minor mostly – it remains the kind of book that you can spend years with (as Mr. Ellestad has done, working through all the recipes therein). Not only will it provide you with a broad spectrum of drinks from the most important period in cocktail history (1860s to 1930s), the current edition will transport you to another time – to an age of jazz and luxury.
Fancy a Savoy Drink?
In 2010, the Savoy Hotel finished a major renovation, and the newly redone American Bar still boasts the Craddock playbook, as well as new inventions for a new time. Should you happen to visit, tell Justin and Swani that we sent you.
On the other hand, if you happen to live in the western United States, consider making the pilgrimage to Alembic Bar in San Francisco for one of Erik Ellestad’s Savoy Cocktail Nights, which occur once per month. Details can be found on Ellestad’s site, Underhill Lounge, or by following him on Twitter @ellestad. He’ll make you anything from the Abbey to the Zed.
- The Savoy, London: Hotel review (telegraph.co.uk)