The first day of service was an emotional roller coaster. I knew all eyes were on us, and I wanted everything to be perfect,” says Shannon Tebay, the first woman to be appointed head bartender of the Savoy Hotel’s legendary American Bar in nearly 100 years and the first head bartender ever from the States.
When Tebay and staff donned their white jackets last October, London’s oldest cocktail den had been shuttered by COVID-19 for over a year. “As soon as guests walked in, and Jon Nickoll sat at the piano and started playing ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ I knew we were going to have a good night.”
For Tebay’s guests, the assurance of a good night came when she grabbed one of the 128-year-old haunt’s mixing glasses and stirred them a cocktail. The tinkling of her barspoon, the pinging of the ice, the subtle splash of the silky elixir as she strained it into a glass—that’s what customers came for: a crystal-clear sip of history and the heady promise of what lies ahead, all waylaid plans come back to life now with richer, more careful intention.
Though Harry Craddock filled his 1930 The Savoy Cocktail Book with shaken martinis, it is not Craddock but Ada Coleman, the head bartender he replaced, who is Tebay’s true predecessor. The only other woman to oversee the American Bar, Coleman held the rail from 1903 until 1925. She was famed for the Hanky Panky cocktail. Gin, sweet vermouth, and a bitter wisp of Fernet-Branca, that big-hearted yet balanced libation came together in a few judicious stirs.
Perhaps that’s the type of drink our current era calls for: less noise, more clarity. Forget the elbows out agitation and the racket of cubes against tin. Instead of the showy clatter of shakers, let’s embrace the meditative music of the mixing glass. With Tebay’s step-by-step guidance, let’s fix ourselves a proper stirred cocktail.
Pamplemousse liqueur lends a mellow citrus flavour that highlights the grapefruit notes in rosé in this martini-style stirred drink. The gin adds a pleasant dryness here without its usual punch, tempered by those fruitier additions.
“I find it more fulfilling to use as few ingredients as possible,” says Tebay. She measures out ingredients from smallest to largest quantities, which usually means least to most expensive, too. “If you mess up along the way, you’re throwing out less money,” she says. And her mixing glass of choice is a regular pint glass. (There’s less breakage, and if you do break one, so what?)
Add ice to the mixing glass last, Tebay suggests, because the balance of a stirred cocktail comes from the small amount of ice melt that mellows the booze. “When you add the ice last, you end up with a more homogenous drink that’s poured at the right temperature and dilution,” she says. Big, fresh cubes—and lots of them—will give you the most control over the final result.
“Shaking and stirring both chill and dilute. The difference is texture,” says Tebay. “When you stir, you give the cocktail a mouth-coating, velvety texture.” Also, don’t beat up the drink; use your barspoon to caress it into existence. “Just a gentle flick of the wrist.” She stirs drinks served on ice for 20 to 30 seconds and drinks served straight up for 40 seconds.
Tebay advises tasting stirred drinks with a straw as you “work your way toward the sweet spot.” How do you find it? “You don’t want too much ice melt. But you don’t want so little that it’s overly astringent.” Stir and taste, and, if you need to, stir again. “When it’s blindingly cold with a wonderfully silky texture and you can taste all the ingredients, that’s the Goldilocks moment.”
When pouring a cocktail for serving, you don’t want dribbles or stray ice splashing out. Use a Hawthorne strainer that fits the mixing glass with a spring snug inside the rim. If your mixing glass is really loaded with ice, Tebay suggests a convex julep strainer that cups the ice. In this, as in all steps to the perfect stirred cocktail, follow her motto: “Work smarter, not harder.”
Muddled strawberries add a red hue to this Negroni-inspired drink. Pisco stands in for herbaceous gin and works well with the bittersweet Aperol and delicate blanc vermouth.
This old-fashioned–style cocktail gets a fruity kick from pear brandy and gentle sweetness from honey; the bourbon adds a bite without overpowering the drink.
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com.
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