As we move forward through the list of classic cocktails the more popular and well known ones are behind us and we proceed into the weeds of strange and obscure yet still classic cocktails. Part of what I do for each one is look to the history and attempt to discover the origins and any interesting factoids about the people and events surrounding the cocktail. Lately, some of the cocktails we’ve reviewed have been a little thin on the background, providing only a year when the recipe was put to paper.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that our next cocktail has the history behind it completely locked down. We chose to do the Hanky Panky because one of our members and regulars on the show, Lisa, heard the name and immediately expressed interest in seeing what that drink was all about. And I’m glad she did. The drink was created by the head bartender of The American bar of the Savoy Hotel in London, a bar popular with Americans as well as British and international dignitaries. The head bartender at the time was a woman by the name of Ada Coleman or “Coley” as her customers called her. One of her regulars was a popular stage actor named Charles Hawtrey. As the story goes, one day he came in and asked for something with a little “punch in it”. When next he returned, she produced for him this cocktail and upon trying it he exclaimed, “By Jove! That’s the real hanky panky.” That’s the story as the cocktail inventor relates it.
It is important to note that the term “hanky panky” had a far different meaning then than it does today. Now it largely means engaging in activities most likely of a sexual nature. Back then it was a phrase suggesting a magic trick, like the handkerchief trick we see at magic shows. The real trick, however, is in its ingredients.
- 1/2 (1 1/2oz.) Italian Vermouth
- 1/2 (1 1/2oz) Dry Gin
- 2 dashes Fernet Branca
There’s nothing special about gin or vermouth, but the potent flavor of Fernet Branca really packs the punch Mr. Hawtrey was looking for. It’s no bitter Campari; Fernet Branca has a much deeper and complex flavor. My experience was that when I first tried it, outside of the Hanky Panky, it was so shockingly different I didn’t know what to think. By the bottom of the sample I appreciated it. In the Hanky Panky, the Fernet takes over the flavor profile so that you can’t taste the other ingredients as much, but the Fernet flavor is thinned a bit and you get a much richer experience coming from behind the bitterness. Definitely a unique cocktail.
The story behind this cocktail also invited discussion about women bartenders. Bobby gave his impressions and we kind of wandered about the ideas, but I can’t help but feel we didn’t have an important contributor to the conversation. I’ll try to get that additional perspective as soon as I can.