March 8th is International Women’s Day. It is a day to celebrate the achievements of women throughout history and across nations. Of course, when we ponder the achievements in the women’s movement, our thoughts turn to the fabulous Ada “Coley” Coleman.
Ada Coleman, known to her friends and customers as “Coley,” is perhaps the most famous and the best-known female bartender of all time. In the pre-prohibition age, it was a man’s world behind the bar. Well, evidently someone failed to let her know that, or she just didn’t care. And for that we salute her.
Ada was 24 when she began tending bar at Claridge’s in 1899. Her father had been employed at Rupert D’Oyly Carte’s golf club. Carte offered her the position at his hotel, The Claridge. She made her first cocktail at The Claridge – a Manhattan. We love her for that. And it must have been a good one. She moved on to another of Carte’s properties in 1903. The bar was none other than The Savoy’s American Bar where she was named head bartender. Ada served in that position until 1926, when she was 51 years old. Her time at the Savoy overlapped with Harry Craddock, who some say she mentored.
Years later when Craddock produced his Savoy Cocktail Book, he listed Ada’s most famous cocktail creation, The Hanky Panky. This classic cocktail is part of our Vintage Cocktail Project. We reviewed the Hanky Panky last year. (click here for post) Her drink is still served today at The Savoy. In an interview with The People newspaper in 1925, Ada shared her story of the Hanky Panky:
“The late Charles Hawtrey… was one of the best judges of cocktails that I knew. Some years ago, when he was overworking, he used to come into the bar and say, ‘Coley, I am tired. Give me something with a bit of punch in it.’ It was for him that I spent hours experimenting until I had invented a new cocktail. The next time he came in, I told him I had a new drink for him. He sipped it, and, draining the glass, he said, ‘By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!’ And Hanky-Panky it has been called ever since.”
Her sparkling personality and kind-hearted nature made her a favorite of the guests. Over the years she made cocktails for celebrities, authors, princes and millionaires. When she was not behind the bar, she was at home entertaining theater people. Her parties were filled with song, dance, and music.
Ada Coleman was the only female head bartender of The Savoy. She truly is a legend and an example of women who have broken through and made history. She is also proof that a good drink can be healthy, as she lived to the age of 91.
And so, Ada, we lift a “Hanky Panky” and salute you and all women bartenders today!