Why The Savoy Cocktail Book?

Savoy Cocktail Book

One of the most common questions I get when friends and acquaintances find out about the Savoy Cocktail Book Project is, “Why?”

After these few years of making cocktail after cocktail, I have to admit I sometimes wonder the same thing.

To start from the beginning…

While planning a trip to New Orleans, I’d run across Chuck Taggart’s article about the Sazerac on his site Gumbo Pages. The level of detail and elaborate ritual involved for such a seemingly simple cocktail appealed significantly to my obsessive nature.

1) Chill the cocktail glass with ice.

2) Stir the whiskey, bitters, and syrup with ice.

3) Discard the ice from the cocktail glass.

4) Dash absinthe into the glass and swirl to coat.

5) Discard most of the Absinthe.

6) Strain the chilled whiskey into the glass.

7) Squeeze a lemon peel over the glass and serve.

When executed well, it is an amazing drink that completely eclipses every one of its component ingredients.

So when we went to New Orleans, we went on a bit of a Sazerac quest, asking for them at most of the bars we got to. While we got a few really good Sazeracs, most were just not quite as tasty as the ones I had been making at home.

That made me curious. What if the same was true for other cocktails?

Earl of Savoy Book Illustration

What usually happens when I get curious about things is I get a bit obsessed. I read every thing I can find on the subject. I participate actively in online forums on the subject. I post questions to the same forums. In general, I stuff as much of the subject as I can find into my brain until it can hold no more.

As I’ve mentioned before, this has happened many times in the past. With Comic Books, Jazz Music, Computer Games, Computer Hardware, Cooking, Gardening, Botany, and now Cocktails.

But even after all that, I was still really only making the same few cocktails. Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Sazeracs, and Margaritas. There was a whole world of cocktails out there that I didn’t know and hadn’t tasted. How would I familiarize myself with more of them? Where should I start?

Fortunately, Ted Haigh’s book, “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails,” was published about this time, pointing a way towards both culinary and historical research into cocktails. Not to mention a gold mine of information regarding the historically appropriate ingredients to make those classic cocktails with.

About this time another participant on the eGullet.org Spirits and Cocktails forums started posting occasionally about obscure recipes he found in an edition of Patrick Gavin Duffy’s “Official Mixer’s Manual”. At the same time, another friend decided to familiarize himself with cooking by attempting to make all the recipes, in order, from a copy of “Joy of Cooking”.

The idea of making cocktails from one or another book, not haphazardly, but systematically and sequentially kind of appealed. It certainly wasn’t as quixotic as attempting to make all the recipes from the “Joy of Cooking”.

Savoy Statue

I scanned through my bookshelf, looking at the spines. From the start, I knew I wanted to do a vintage book, not a modern edition. I wanted to get back to the origins of modern cocktails. Delightful gentleman, though they are, Wondrich, Haigh, Regan, and DeGroff were thus out of the running.

Looking at what remained, four stood out: Jerry Thomas’ “The Bartender’s Guide”, “The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book”, Charles Baker’s “Gentleman’s Companion”, and “The Savoy Cocktail Book”.

Jerry Thomas, at the time, just seemed too far in the past. Similarly, there seemed to be just too many defunct ingredients in the Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. Charles Baker was very, very tempting, but his recipes seemed like they would be too much of a pain to transcribe and interpret. Besides, what few cocktails of his I had made, had never turned out all that well, without some serious massaging.

That left “The Savoy Cocktail Book”. In its favor, it didn’t seem to have all that many defunct ingredients, a modest variety of ingredients, most recipes were easy to read, and the cocktails were listed purely alphabetically, rather than by ingredient or some other categorical system.

In the deficit category, according to the back of the book, it contained 750 cocktail recipes. Even making one or two cocktails a day, this was going to take a while.

I mentioned the idea to some of the powers that were at eGullet.org and got a warm reception and some interest.

Well, then…

Not being one to shirk a challenge, on June 8th, 2006, with a cocktail called “The Abbey,” I took the plunge and posted the first cocktail and picture to a topic I called, “Stomping Through the Savoy: A to Zed.”

Entrance to the American Bar at the Savoy

The Rules:

  • Make the recipes in order.
  • Make the recipes as written.
  • Try to get as close to the original ingredients as possible.
  • Take a picture of every cocktail.
  • Do some research into the cocktail’s name, history or ingredients.
  • Don’t drink yourself to death.

Make the Recipes in Order

Being, by nature, a rather disorganized and undisciplined person, it’s often tough for me to submit to systems.  In fact, more often than not, I find myself, even when I think I am behaving, subconsciously subverting rules through selective memory.  If I just picked out random recipes and made those, I’d never get done with this book.  I’ll plod through, one after another, as best I can.  I am hard headed enough to follow through to the bitter end, once I get started.

Make the Recipes as Written

I have a small problem following recipes to the letter. No matter what, I always think there is some small thing that I can tweak to make them “Better”.

Probably this is partly a line cook’s attitude. For a line cook, there usually aren’t recipes. There are ingredients, your execution, and taste. There are no “This pasta has 1 tsp of garlic, ½ tsp of pepper flakes, ½ tsp of salt, and ½ cup tomatoes.” When you’re trained, it’s all visual. “The pasta has this much of this, a pinch of that, a scoop of that. It should taste like this. OK, you make it.”

When I first started making cocktails, I guess I thought there would be some sort of transference of ability. I could just start screwing around with cocktail recipes and be able to tweak them for the better without really knowing what I was making. At about the time I started The Savoy Project, I was beginning to realize how little I knew and how much I needed to learn. My portion sizes were ridiculous, I didn’t understand the qualities different spirits brought to drinks, or even how much difference a simple change of brands of spirits could make in a simple cocktail. I did understand it was important to use fresh juices and quality spirits, but that only gets you so far. What better way to learn than to submit to a higher authority and just make the recipes?

Try to Get As Close to the Original Recipes as Possible

Initially I interpreted recipes pretty literally. Only using traditional spirits, rather than modern styles. Trying to locate Cuban Rum for where Bacardi was called for. Using Canadian Whiskey where Canadian Club was called for. Only using old school gins from England.

But the more you learn, the more that seems to become a waste of time.

For instance, when you start researching recipes, you discover how much substitution was already going on. That almost every Savoy recipe calling for Canadian Club, originally called for Rye or Bourbon. It was only because of Prohibition and the limited availability of American Whiskies, that the Savoy bartenders substituted Canadian Club.

When I talk about “lost” ingredients now, I like to divide them into three categories.

1) Those no longer made, like Crème Yvette, Hercules, Caperitif, and a few others. For some of these we really don’t even have a clue what they might have tasted like.

2) Those which are still made, but are difficult to get. When I started in 2006, this was a much larger category than it is today in 2009. Absinthe, Pimento Dram, Crème de Violette, Swedish Punsch, and Old Tom Gin were all in this category. All could pretty much only be gotten by expensive mail order or by traveling to where they were made. Today, I am told, there are 53 Absinthes alone either on the market or waiting for TTB approval.

3) Those which are still made, but whose current formulation differs so radically from their vintage character that they may no longer be suitable for the recipes or cocktails originally created for them. This is always a grey area, but really the most vexing of the three categories. For example, many cocktail in the Savoy Cocktail Book call for something called, “Kina Lillet”. Is the character of modern Lillet Blanc really even close to Kina Lillet? Signs point to, “no”. The same with many ingredients, even those as simple as French and Italian Vermouths.

Bar at the American Bar at the Savoy

Take a Picture of Every Cocktail

I never try to get the most beautiful picture, or even the most beautiful garnish or glassware when taking pictures of my drinks. If I have any goal, it is either to capture some transient quality of a freshly made drink, or just to try to take a picture that presents a drink in a way that I’ve never seen before. Light glinting off the orange oils which I have just sprayed across the surface or the slight foam caused by a vigorous shake. But most of the time it is just to take an unvarnished and real picture. This is what the drink looks like. Not a glossy shot for a magazine.

Do Some Research into the Cocktails, Name, Recipe, or Ingredients

The Savoy Cocktail Book is a terse recipe book. Basically just lists of ingredients and the instructions, “Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.” If this journey is going to be interesting to me or the readers, part of it is going to have to be filling in those blank spaces between the names, ingredients, and recipes.

Researching ingredients has been among the most fun things. Particularly my little obsession with the nature of Hercules, proved to be of some value to the cocktail community. When I started making Savoy recipes, everyone agreed with Stan Jones, that Hercules was an “Absinthe Substitute” of some sort. At my prodding, and stubbornness, we uncovered that the commonly held assumption was completely wrong. We still don’t know exactly what it might have tasted like, but at least we now know it wasn’t an Absinthe Substitute, but an aperitif wine fortified with Yerba Mate.

For me, though, some of the most fun has been researching cocktail names. To find out who a Barney Barnato, Gene Tunney, or Odd McIntyre might have been. To turn up some clue as to why their name might have been honored or ridiculed with a cocktail. To gain some small insight into the culture and time that the book was written. Not to be over dramatic, but sometimes it does feel a bit like time travel, to discover these facts and try to taste the character of the time in the drink.

Savoy Shaker

Don’t Drink Yourself to Death

750, or as it turns out 888, cocktails is a lot of drinking, and I’m far to cheap to throw out just about any crazy mixture I have concocted. As the folks at Burrito Eater say, “The site’s called ‘Burrito Eater’, not ‘Burrito Taster’”.

On the other hand, there are days when I don’t even feel like drinking alcohol, let alone fix up some liqueur laden, complex, early Twentieth Century cocktail. In addition, my obsession with beverages stretches across just about every species of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage. From Straight Whiskey to First Flush Darjeeling Tea.

If I want to come out of this enterprise with some small sliver of a liver and a brain, some moderation is necessary.

As the project developed and I did some experiments on my own tolerance and ability to photograph and blog, about 5 Savoy cocktails a week turned out to be a good balance between sanity and the abyss. That compromise has pushed the duration of the project out a bit further than I initially intended. So it goes.

So, really, “Why?”

Initially just curiosity. As the project continued and other’s interest developed, it soon reached a point where there really was no choice not to continue. Even taking a small break, as I have been for the last couple months, has gotten me some quizzical emails. “What is up with the Savoy Stomp?”

To answer their questions in the affirmative, “The Stomp Goes On!

All That Is Known About Cocktails

A FEW HINTS FOR THE YOUNG MIXER

1. Ice is nearly always an absolute essential for any Cocktail.

2. Never use the same ice twice.

3. Remember that the ingredients mix better in a shaker rather larger than is necessary to contain them.

4. Shake the shaker hard as you can : don’t just rock it : you are trying to wake it up, not send it to sleep!

5. If possible, ice your glasses before using them.

6. Drink your Cocktail as soon as possible. Harry Craddock was once asked what was the best way to drink a Cocktail : “Quickly,” replied that great man, “while it is laughing at you!”

Thanks to some of my compatriots in the CSOWG for help on this post. Gabe from cocktainerd for invaluable editorial input and Blair from TraderTiki’s Booze Blog for cleaning up what seemed to me to be a hopeless morass of MS Word HTML.

25 thoughts on “Why The Savoy Cocktail Book?

  1. “Remember that the ingredients mix better in a shaker rather larger than is necessary to contain them.”

    i’m starting to reconsider this when shaking with poor ice like at the restaurant. i’m down to using a 16 oz. shaker with a 8 oz. cap for our 4 oz. shaken drinks because we are more or less shaking a drink with cracked ice…

    cheers! -stephen

  2. Great post. The section on understanding ingredients really reminds me of formulating homebrew beer recipes – the problem being that the turn around time to drink it is quite a bit longer, but there is a similar interplay between ingredients and process.

  3. As much as I’ve always enjoyed the”Stomping” posts at eG, this story now seems a lot more personal than it did just ten minutes ago. Great background on this very worthwhile project. Who knows how many folks like me there are out there who get almost as much out of your work on this as they do out of their own experimentation. The eG thread is also a great go-to source for looking up hints for cocktails I plan on trying. This may be a bigger service to the community at large than you realize.

  4. Good luck on the project! I flirted with this exact idea many times but shot it down every time because I realized there are still way too many defunct ingredients in the Savoy. For example, it’s impossible to track down Amer Picon in the US. And that’s just one of many ingredients. I’ll be paying close attention and hoping for the best!

  5. Paystyle, Well, being between 1/2 and 2/3 of the way done with the project, I can say, aside from hercules and caperitif, there are few truly defunct and completely unknown ingredients. Amer Picon is at least a well known and still produced ingredient. A few of my friends have vintage samples and other blog writers have tackled the challenge of finding a substitute or making their own.

    At the suggestion of Jonny Raglin of Absinthe, my current favorite Amer Picon substitute is the newly launched “Zwack” (aka Unicum Next). There’s also another product available out east called Amaro Ciociara, which many have rated as a favorable substitute.

  6. Hi Erik. Good post. I’ve been following the egullet thread for quite some time, and I have to agree with an earlier commenter that you are doing a much bigger service to the cocktail community than you give yourself credit for. The history of the cocktails’ names, the research into lost and obscure ingredients, and so on, I suppose is (mostly) available from other sources, but certainly not in such an accessible and interesting format.

    By the way, what bar is that in your fifth picture there? Is that the American Bar at the Savoy? It looks pretty fabulous, I must say.

  7. dbeach, thanks!
    Yes, the fifth picture is the bar in the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London.
    They are in the process of remodeling the hotel, so I expect when it re-opens later this year, it will not look much like that.

  8. I know what it is to be obsessed with something !
    I bought the Savoy Cocktail Book after reading your blog and it’s always interesting to see how to make the recipes, how to adapt them with the ingredients of this time.
    Thanks a lot !

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  10. Great post, I’ve had the Savoy Cocktail book for some while now and it certainly is one of the most important cocktail recipe books any cocktail enthusiast should have in their collection.

    Keep up the great work!

  11. I have owned a 1930 edition of this bar book and did not know, for the life of me, that it had a follwoing.
    Having lived in London in 1977 as an architecture student I discoverd the Savoy Hotel and the American Bar and been hooked on the image since. When I found this book in a used book store my drink of favor was a manhattnan but I was looking to branch out. Over the years I have enjoed many of these fine cockatails, and a few loser5s too, but….. Just nosing around the internet I found out it has been reprinted but is mostly out of stock. Does nayone know where I can get a copy of the reprint? Based on my reasearch I need to put my 1930 edition to careful rest. I have been taking this book to myt favorite reatauirnats and bartenders for years and getting them to mix odd cocktails with me. All this osunds great!

  12. Well, I don’t know if it quite counts as a “following”!

    Wow, you’re right, it does appear to be unavailable at the moment, with some ridiculously overpriced examples on Amazon.

    I’ve had good luck finding relatively inexpensive reprints and editions through used book sellers on the Internet. Try ABE Books or Alibris.

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  14. Je possède l’original de 1930 des cocktails du Bar du Savoy et je souhaite le vendre mais je n’ai aucune idée de sa valeur pouvez-vous me renseigner ? merci

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  16. Dear Erik:

    I live across the Bay in Kensington. I began exploring mixed drinks about 15 years ago. I’m not a frequenter of bars (as I am of restaurants), so it was always a personal thing. I started out trying to mix every recipe in Anthony Dias Blue’s original edition of The Complete Book of Mixed Drinks, a sophisticated contemporary grab-bag of classic mixes and modern eccentrics. I didn’t finish that project, but kept on going, gradually experimenting, more and more, with my own ideas.

    The thing to remember about ingredients is that they’re not sacred. Replicating the exact ingredients and flavor of a drink someone made up 75 years ago may hold some antediluvian attraction, but life moves on and so does taste. Substituting can be one road to innovation, as I’ve confirmed many times.

    My wife and I have a little game. I make up a new combination about three times a week after we get home from work. She has to guess what the ingredients are–not always an easy thing, but her taste buds are a lot more sophisticated (for some reason) than mine.

    I like to think of cocktails as platforms. The “goods” (this was the way Dias Blue said it) are the foundation. Better to base a drink on a spirit, than on a fruit juice. (So many bad cocktails these days are foregrounded in the restaurant and tavern industry, designed as money makers, based on fruit juice and/or crushed ice, with about as much real liquor as you could fit into a thimble. Whenever I see a list of ultra-exotic mixes organized around lime or papaya juice, I get a queasy feeling in my wallet–I know I’m about to be hosed!) Once you have that knowledge down, running variations is much easier. Start with good bourbon, and then build the taste like putting spin on a ball. How about a little Macadamia Nut liquor. Maybe a touch of cinnamon. How about a squirt of orange bitters.

    There are some sleepers out there. Aquavit is hardly ever used–bartenders will sometimes frown in displeasure if I even mention the stuff. But mixed with a neutral gin or vodka, it can give you very nice alternatives. The amazing thing is that we’re living in a time of experimentation. At our local BevMo they carry dozens of kinds of tequila and rum and bourbon, not to speak of SM scotch, vodkas, and ten kinds of lemoncello.

    I offer my personal concoctions on my blogsite, The Compass Rose (http://compassrosebooks.blogspot.com/). I’ve come up with 15 or so winners–each accompanied by a sort of “theme” idea as inspiration.

    I also sample wines by the thousands, and briefly belonged to a Single Malt club before it disintegrated. I’m not an alcoholic, but your point about temperance is well-taken.

    Maybe we’ll become correspondents.

    Cheers, CF

  17. Addendum:

    I’m a rare book dealer by trade. One reason the Savoy Cocktail Book is so dear on the market is the quality and flair of its original package. A beautiful example of Art Deco design–the illustrations and the cover as well. Add to that its cachet as a talisman of the high-life entre les deux guerres, and you have the ingredients of a price-less first edition. -CF

  18. Nice to make your virtual acquaintance, Curtis!

    My wife and I have been known, in fact, to frequent the Kensington Pub from time to time, perhaps we shall run into each other on one or another side of the Bay!

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  20. Hello there I have a mint 1930’s edition of the SCB which I’d quite like to sell if there is any interest. I live in London and spent my last birthday at the Sav. Have to say the service was terrible. Such a shame.

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