Being Harry Craddock

Harry Craddock was one of the most influential bartenders of the early-20th century, giving us what many still consider to be the Bhagavad Gita of cocktail books. On the 50th anniversary of his death, Alice Lascelles reveals new details about his past and tracks his incredible influence on London’s contemporary cocktail scene.

It always irks Brits to acknowledge how much credit we owe you Americans for the creation of cocktail culture. You invented the Martini and the Manhattan, you threw the first cocktail party, and wrote the world’s first bartender’s guide. Even when you tried to crack down on alcohol altogether, you simply succeeded in creating the sexiest model for a cocktail bar anywhere: the speakeasy.

You also gave us the man who’s had a greater influence on the London cocktail scene than just about anyone else: Savoy bartender extraordinaire Harry Craddock.

At least we thought you did.

This year, on the 50th anniversary of his death, new research has come to light proving that the bartender who made The Savoy’s American Bar the epicenter of the social universe in the 1920s and ’30s—and who published one of the world’s most beloved cocktail books—was not, in fact, American. He was English born and bred.

“Ya boo sucks,” as we like to say in Limeyland.

So how exactly did someone so well known get mistaken for an American? The mix-up seems to be attributed to the fact that he served his bartending apprenticeship in America, even becoming a naturalized citizen in 1916. Luckily for the Savoy, however, the arrival of Prohibition in 1920 forced Craddock to flee for the more permissive shores of England although not before reputedly shaking the last legal cocktail to be served in New York.

Versed in the ways of the increasingly fashionable American cocktail—typified by the use of strong spirits, several ingredients and, most novel of all, ice—Craddock was quickly snapped up by the Savoy, where he soon graduated to head bartender at the fulcrum of London’s high society: the American Bar.

Here, in the intimate art-deco surroundings—which still, today, evoke a 1930s liner—the white-jacketed Craddock cultivated a loyal following, with customers often paying daily visits for a pre-dinner drink laced with his pithy views on the issues of the day.

“Harry Craddock’s bar was at times the pulpit and the soapbox,” acknowledges Jared Brown who, along with fellow historian Anistatia Miller, recently published Deans of Drink, the biography of Craddock, which has brought many of these new facts to light. “But he also went beyond the call of duty,” adds Brown, detailing a story in which Craddock spent $60 on a transatlantic call just to supply a loyal customer with a favorite cocktail recipe. “That is the essence of being a hotel bartender,” he says. “You extend the caring for your guests beyond the time they are under your roof.”

Today, almost every craft cocktail bar in London—and probably the world—has a well-thumbed copy of Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book on the back bar, as this collection of more than 700 recipes remains, 83 years after its publication, an incredible influence on London’s bartenders.

Craddock’s dedication to service was such that he went on to establish the UK Bartenders Guild, an organization that introduced London to the alien concept of bartender training. Imbued with this new (and rather American) spirit of hospitality, London saw its dusty hotel bars transformed into world-famous cocktail destinations. Suddenly the likes of the The Savoy, The Dorchester (where Craddock also worked in later life) and the Café Royal were teeming with cocktail-savvy Americans in search of a drink.

Today, almost every craft cocktail bar in London—and probably the world—has a well-thumbed copy of Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book on the back bar, as this collection of more than 700 recipes remains, 83 years after its publication, an incredible influence on London’s bartenders.

“It is quite simply the benchmark,” says Alessandro Palazzi, a former bartender at The Savoy and now bar manager at Duke’s Hotel in Mayfair, commonly known as Martini Mecca. “In the 1980s it was regarded as old fashioned, but that simplicity is now the style of a new generation of bartenders.”

One of the most enduring Craddock recipes is the Corpse Reviver No.2, a zesty mixture of gin, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice, triple sec and a dash of absinthe. Technically simple, but complex in flavor, this is a recipe that lends itself readily to reinvention, which is no doubt why it remains a favorite of bartenders from the molecular temples of East London to the five-star hotel bars of Mayfair.

At the Hawksmoor in Piccadilly—a cocktails and steak restaurant renowned for its world-class take on the classics—the Corpse Reviver No.2 is the cornerstone of a whole list of “anti-fogmatics,” a family of drinks developed in the 19th century specifically for morning drinking.

Possibly even more famous than the Corpse Reviver No.2 is Craddock’s White Lady—a recipe of gin, Cointreau and lemon juice, which looks suspiciously like a precursor to the Cosmo.

“I used to save up my pennies to go and have a White Lady at the Savoy, which eventually became the inspiration for our own Apple White Lady,” says Tony Conigliaro, founder of London’s trailblazing 69 Colebrooke Row and Zetter Townhouse bars and the man often dubbed The Heston Blumenthal of Cocktails.

Craddock’s Southside Fizz also inspired one of Conigliaro’s bestselling drinks, the Barbershop Fizz, which takes that same minty, lemon soda freshness and adds a few more layers in the form of birch, vanilla syrup and patchouli to evoke, “the experience of having a really good shave.”

But The Savoy Cocktail Book is not always in good taste. Craddock demonstrates a surprising weakness for blue and even green drinks, and he’s not above including lethal concoctions like the Bunny Hug, which is equal parts whisky, gin and absinthe and comes with the wry warning: “This cocktail should immediately be poured down the sink before it is too late.”

In many ways, The Savoy Cocktail Book is far more than a simple recipe book. With its dry observations, art-deco cartoons and ruminations on the culture of drinking, it’s also a snapshot of an era, compiled by a bartender who served two kings, countless movie stars, Winston Churchill and the war cabinet during the Blitz, and who was, at one time, so famous that he even had his waxwork in Madame Tussauds.

A bartender who has followed closely in Craddock’s footsteps is Peter Dorelli, head bartender of the American Bar from 1985 to 2003, the former President of UKBG and a leading mentor for young British bartenders today. Like Craddock, Dorelli mixed drinks for movie stars and royalty, and he knows how easy it is for the job to go to your head.

“As a bartender at the Savoy, you must always remember you are part of the bigger picture; you are carrying on a legacy,” he says. “When a person arrives at a hotel, one of the first things they do is go to the bar, so you are the first point of contact, the ambassador.”

The bearer of that mantle today is the 11th head bartender in line, Erik Lorincz, who had the daunting task of re-launching the American Bar following the hotel’s extravagant refurbishment in 2010. A Craddock fanatic, Lorincz recently paid tribute with a new list of vintage cocktails including a White Lady made with a 1940s bottle of Booth’s, a gin which Craddock was famous for advertising (although the gin favored by Craddock in The Savoy Cocktail Book is invariably Plymouth).

In truth, London’s leading cocktail scene owes a debt to bartenders from all over the world, but none more so than Craddock.

“Craddock made a major difference to what we do by consolidating a lot of drinks and ideas that we still use now,” says Conigliaro. “He was a pioneer in this country; he made The Savoy what it is. And, you know, if all the bars in all the world ended The Savoy would still be here,” he pauses. “It’s an end-of-days kind of a bar.”