The Swanky Origins Of The Hanky Panky Cocktail

In the late 19th to early 20th century, the art of mixology experienced a revolution (via History Answers). Many of the cocktails that we know and love were first invented in this era, and the best bartenders earned celebrity status.

While most of these bartenders were men, Ada Coleman made her mark on the industry and Vinepair calls her one of the "most iconic female bartenders of all time." Born in 1885, Coleman began working in the hotel industry at the age of 24 after her father's death left her in need of employment (via Happy Hour City). It was at Claridge's Hotel that she learned to make her first cocktail. According to Vinepair, she later told "The Daily Express" about the drink: "I remember it was a Manhattan that I made first, and that it was Fisher, the wine butler, who gave me my first lesson." Coleman learned quickly, and her skills eventually earned her a position at the Savoy Hotel's famous American Bar in London.

In 1903, she became head bartender at the Savoy — the first woman to serve in the position. Known for her charming personality and skill behind the bar, she earned the admiration of her customers, including some of the era's biggest celebrities: Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, the Prince of Wales, and one actor who inspired the creation of her signature Hanky Panky cocktail.

The Hanky Panky cemented Coleman's legacy

Comedic actor Sir Charles Hawtrey inspired Ada Coleman's most famous marvel of mixology: the Hanky Panky, according to Vinepair. Coleman respected the actor's palate, so when he asked her for "something with a bit of punch to it," she spent hours experimenting. The next time Hawtrey came in, Coleman presented her new drink and the actor loved it, exclaiming "By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!" and thus christening the cocktail. 

The classic cocktail is combination of gin, sweet vermouth, and Fernet Branca, so Master of Malt compares it to a sweet martini, but the Fernet adds a bit of depth. The cocktail was a mainstay at the Savoy during Coleman's tenure and beyond, as it was featured in "The Savoy Cocktail Book" and is on the International Bartenders' Association's list of "Unforgettables," per Happy Hour City. 

In 1926, Harry Craddock replaced Ada Coleman as head bartender at Savoy, but her legacy lived on and paved the way for female bartenders today, per The Daily Beast. When Shannon Tebay became the second female head bartender of the Savoy's American Bar nearly a century later in 2021, she told The Guardian that her favorite classic cocktail was the Hanky Panky — and that, though the Savoy was "long overdue" for another female head bartender, she was excited to further diversify the staff at the famed hotel bar.