Ada Coleman is legendary—so legendary that you would think she was the first female bartender to exist, born like Athena from the head of Zeus … or possibly the head of Jerry Thomas.
Coleman may not be a household name; how many bartenders are? But in bartending circles, she is talked about with the most famous of the fellows. I have heard cocktail geeks ascribe to her the creation of numerous famous cocktails, mostly the ones (like the Bee’s Knees) that don’t have a clear origin, similar to how dubious quotes get attributed to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa. That’s how you know you’re an icon.
But how much about her is truth, and how much is legend?
She’s best known for being first female head bartender at the storied American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel. Having worked with some amazing women behind the bar, and seeing how they needed to work harder to get respect, I imagine Coleman was there a half-hour early, cutting garnishes and setting the bar up for a successful shift, knowing her co-worker was going to show up late, bleary-eyed and with a cigarette hanging off his lip. Also, this was the early 20th century, so I can only imagine what she heard from guests and co-workers on a daily basis. Just getting to that position at that time should be enough for bartenders to revere her.
Before you get the impression that being a “barmaid” back then was some Dickensian drudgery … it wasn’t. Nearly half of the bar staff was female back then; it was a popular profession for women of status and education who wanted to escape dull office work or family life. Being behind the bar meant you were adjacent to what David Wondrich refers to in Imbibe! as the “sporting set”: One night, you’re serving Mark Twain; the next, a famous stage actor; the next, the prince of Wales. Bartending back then must have been a blast.
Like almost everything in cocktail history, original sources are hard to find. Most of the following biography is from Difford’s Guide.
Coleman, or “Coley,” as she was lovingly called, fell into bartending when her father died. He was a steward at a golf club, and his employer offered her a job so she could live by her own means. The first drink she remembered making was a Manhattan, after being taught by the wine steward at the Claridge Hotel. She wouldn’t stay at the Claridge long; she was soon thrust into the spotlight at the American Bar when her talent and personality became obvious. She became head bartender in 1903, a position she held until 1926. From there, she began hobnobbing with royalty and theater groups, and making cocktails for playboys like American millionaire “Diamond” Jim Brady. Coleman’s connections to the well-connected D’Oyly Carte family certainly did nothing to slow her rise.
Upon her retirement, the Daily Express reported: “‘Coley’ is known to thousands of men around the world, Britons who are now roughing it in various parts of the Empire, (and) Americans who think of her every time they remember their own country’s dryness.” It may have been a man’s world, but she played her hand with the best of them.
There is a part of Coleman’s story that isn’t discussed in most of the hagiographies, including Difford’s: “Coley” wasn’t the only female bartender at the American Bar, or even necessarily the most popular. She certainly wasn’t the first: Ruth “Miss B” Burgess started in 1902, just before Coleman’s arrival. Burgess was tall and slim, Coleman short and fair—and the gentlemen at the bar liked them both. For 20-plus years, the two worked together in a state of enmity, avoiding each other behind the bar and not working together whenever it was avoidable. From The Aspen Daily Times, Feb. 16, 1926: “Customers liked Coley’s cocktails and ordered them when Coley was off duty. Miss B didn’t know how to mix them. She asked Coley to give her the ingredients, and Coley, with perhaps justifiable professional pride, refused. They became estranged.” They didn’t patch things up even as the nations of World War I made peace.
As a longtime barman, this story makes Coley (and “Miss B”) so much more real for me. It’s a tale as old as bartending: Bartenders often don’t share their secrets. It has to do with job security, knowing your patrons have to come in to see you—and not give their money to someone else. Smart bar managers these days make a drink program that everyone follows, specifically to prevent these situations. Today, it’s the bar managers who jealously guard their secrets for job security.
No matter what other drinks she might have invented (Coley trained Harry Craddock of The Savoy Cocktail Book, after all), her legacy is the Hanky Panky—the one cocktail for which she is credited in the famous recipe book. Made for a fatigued comic actor named Charles Hawtrey who needed something “with a bit of punch in it,” she mixed sweet vermouth and gin; added a few dashes of fernet; and handed it over. After a sip, Hawtrey declared that the drink was the “real Hanky Panky!”
“Hanky panky” was apparently a term for witchcraft in England, although in America, it had a more-lascivious meaning; either way, it’s the kind of cocktail name I wish I could come up with in this age when drinks are exclusively named after puns on pop culture references, or by subbing in mezcal and translating the name into Spanish. (I’m guilty of both, by the way.)
Anyway, raise a glass, and celebrate this trailblazing woman who was beloved and celebrated around the world, and who lived as an icon until 1966, passing away at the age of 91.
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.