It's true that women have long been a feature of the bar world, but they have tended to be out mingling with the guests in alluring clothing or serving drinks on the floor rather than standing behind the counter and mixing them. Ada Coleman was a trailblazing pioneer who broke through gender barriers to become one of the world's most famous female bartenders. Her legend (as well as her most impressive barrier-breaking accomplishment) live on to this day, but she often does not get the recognition and accolades that her male counterparts enjoy.
Let's learn a little more about Ada Coleman and her contributions to the bartending world.
Ada Gets Her Start
At the age of 24, Coleman began working at the Claridge's Hotel in London in 1899. At the time, bartending was overwhelmingly a man's world, with figures estimating 55,000 male bartenders and merely 147 women doing the job. (That's a 375:1 ratio!) Coleman began by simply serving drinks in the Hotel, but one day the wine butler taught her how to mix her first cocktail (a Manhattan), and a legend was born.
Coleman continued to learn all she could about mixology, and it didn't take long at all for Coleman to find a foothold in the business and get a position at the newly opened American Bar at the swank Savoy Hotel. In 1903, she became the first female head bartender for the spot.
To date, she is the only woman who has ever held that coveted position.
Coleman wasn't just known for the drinks she mixed. She was a skilled entertainer who was able to bring the bar counter to life. Never one to shy away from the clientele, she was known to hobnob with the likes of Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplain, and Marlene Dietrich. She was also famous for keeping the fun going after hours by inviting guests back to her home where she threw lavish parties. Her free spirit and engaging demeanor captivated those around her, and she became affectionately known as "Coley" to her regulars.
One of those regulars was Charles Hawtrey, an actor and musician who was exhausted from a long day of work when he asked Coleman to create him a drink "with a bit of punch in it." She obliged and mixed up a cocktail that would outlive her. When he took a sip of the drink, he perked up and declared, "By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!" Coleman's famous cocktail had its name.
The Hanky Panky
The Hanky Panky is made with one and a half ounces each of gin and sweet vermouth and two shakes of Fernet-Branca. Coleman's original version was shaken and then poured into a glass and garnished with an orange twist.
The drink is still served in the American Bar in two versions. The original is the same except it is now stirred instead of shaken. The other version is "a blend of four different gins, four sweet vermouths and two bitters, blended together and then aged in American new oak barrels," according to current Head Bartender at American Bar Erik Lorincz.
The Hanky Pank is the only cocktail of Coleman's to earn a spot in the Savoy Cocktail Book, a collection of cocktails collected by Coleman's famous predecessor behind the American Bar, Harry Craddock.
A Controversial End
Craddock, who famously left his bartending career in America during Prohibition, became an employee at Savoy's American Bar in 1921. Shortly after he started, the hotel underwent some renovations, closing briefly in 1925. It reopened in 1926, and Coleman was no longer behind the bar. What was announced as a simple retirement (Coleman was then 51) drew suspicion and whispers of sexism. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that another female bartender (Ruth Burgess) left at the same time, and Coleman did not actually retire. She instead started working at the flower shop in the Savoy, a much more common position for a woman to have.
Some have speculated that Craddock forced Coleman out because he was uncomfortable with a woman in that position. Others have pointed fingers at the hotel as a whole, saying that they were trying to cater to Americans who were flocking to the bar who didn't believe a woman should be serving in that role.
Whatever the case, it's clear that Coleman's long, popular, groundbreaking, and successful career has not garnered the same kind of attention as her male counterparts. While Craddock has a wax figure in Madame Tussaud's famous museum, many people are unfamiliar with Coleman's name. It's also telling that only one drink in the Savoy Cocktail Book (which features over 750 mixes) bears Coleman's name.
Connecting to Today
Even though Ada Coleman began her trailblazing over a century ago, the imbalance of men and women in the bartending world persists. Female bartenders are much more common than they used to be. In fact, they outpace men in family-style restaurants. However, when it comes to running the show at big name, elite bars like Savoy's, they are still underrepresented. In addition, there is a pay gap, with women earning only about 88% of the hourly wages their male counterparts earn.
Women are even more underrepresented in the competition circuit for bartending, and this means that they get less of the flash and attention for the industry overall. Some groups are trying to change that. Notably, Speed Rack, an all-female bartending competition with round-robin style elimination challenges, has been making a name for itself and inviting women to show off their skills at cities around the world. The founders of Speed Rack point to its meritocratic principles. Women aren't being judged on their connections. It's all about their speed and their skills, and even when they lose, they leave empowered to keep building those skills and bring them back to their everyday practice.
We like to think that Ada Coleman would raise a glass to that! After all, she's part of the legacy that made it possible.