The American Bar: A Retrospective

There's been a huge amount of attention recently focused on the American Bar at The Savoy in London, following the hotel's glittering £100m refurbishment, but we thought it was just as good a time as any to delve into its past and to understand what makes this arguably the most famous bar in the world.

There have only ever been ten head bartenders at the Savoy's American Bar, a bar founded in 1893. Their names are etched on the popular consciousness of bartenders everywhere: not only are they all considered to be founding fathers of the modern cocktail movement but they are jointly the creators of a collection of classic cocktails that constitute a veritable bible of bartending.

The mantle of Ada Coleman passed to Harry Craddock, then Eddie Clark, Johnny Johnson and Joe Gilmore, then to Harry Viccars, Victor Gower, Peter Dorelli, Salim Khoury and now Erik Lorincz - all arguably just as famous in their own way as the film stars, presidents and prime ministers they served. From Churchill to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, from Elizabeth Taylor to Noel Coward. And of course the cocktail prowess of these bartenders, and the standards which they upheld, were world renowned in themselves too.

Now, we love Erik but he's had lots of press recently, so today CLASS has come to meet two former head barmen - we join them at a regular rendezvous they keep every month, not at the Savoy, but at their favourite Italian restaurant in Bloomsbury (for bar groupies hoping to get a glimpse of these living legends, it's called Ciao Bella and is on Lambs Conduit Street). Sadly, Joe Gilmore was unable to attend on the day, but at 94-years-old he has surely earned that right and of course we don't begrudge him.

Frankly, opportunities like this - historic opportunities - won't last forever. Victor Gower, now a spritely 83, spent some 61 years with the Savoy Group, nearly 41 of them (from 1944) at the American Bar, the last five as head barman retired at just 78. Peter Dorelli, relatively boyish at 71, spent a huge 38 years with the Savoy Group, 24 of them at the American Bar, between 1980 and 2003, crossing over with Victor. These are astonishing figures - both in numbers and in person: truly Titans of bartending.

Tell us what it felt like to be offered a job at the famed American Bar?

Victor Gower (VG): I was working as a commis waiter in the Grill room in 1944, and Johnny Johnson kept asking me if I would go to the American bar as a waiter. I was 17, maybe 18. The war was just finishing and it had a lot of personalities - film stars, really top people. Women were kept from the men - there used to be an enormous fireplace that separated the two areas. The 'bridge' that you enter the bar over now was not there, and there was no wall between the bar and the Grill room - just a railing that you could look over. I was very nervous but I took to it like a duck to water.

Peter Dorelli (PD): I was working at Stone's Chop House and they decided to open a 'Pebble Bar'. My brother was working at Stone's too, which was part of the Savoy Group, and we were sent to work under the supervision of Joe Gilmore at the American Bar. We were there for nine months in 1965. In those days it was quite amazing, mainly a lunch-time trade, very little night-time, only pre-theatre. But the main thing was that the City and the newspaper world - well, the whole world, really - was focused on the American Bar. I started as a bar-back. I was very nervous too, I knew it was the top place in the world.

Did you feel privileged to work there?

VG: Very much so. At one point you couldn't get a job at the American Bar for 11 years, it was a closed shop. When I eventually took over from Harry Viccars he had been there for 40 years. It had an incredible atmosphere, a family atmosphere. And there was a way of doing things - you just would not ask for autographs. The Beatles came there. Sinatra too - he was a Martini man, then a Jack Daniel's man. We used to have to ask him to go to bed at 4am. He'd ask for one more. There would be six bodyguards sitting around him.

PD: It was renowned throughout the world as a discreet rendezvous for famous people at a time when there were just five main hotels - the Dorchester, the Berkeley, the Ritz and Claridges, and Claridges didn't even have a bar, just a lounge.
What was on the menu when you started work?

VG: Just after the war you could not get whisky. The Savoy had its own brand but it was like dish water - though if you were famous you could get a drop of Black Label. We had our own brandy too, like mouthwash. Churchill used to go there a lot but he always got what he wanted, which was champagne. The Savoy had stocked up before the war and we never really ran out of anything, but we were lucky if we could get any lemons. We had to slice them so thin! I remember we had only a few different cocktails - White Lady, Sour, Gin and It, Collins, Martini, Negroni (though we were running out of Campari) and Bloody Mary. Americans would come for their Sours and Manhattans. We never had any beer. Except when we had to make Black Velvets for Elaine Stritch - then, we'd run across the road for Guinness.

PD: In the 60s there was no real cocktail culture - they were only served in hotel bars and even then they tended to be bloody awful. I don't mean to boast but in those days we did a lot with very little. Today we have a lot and do very little. The Savoy back then stood out because of its attention to detail. Bartenders would visit from around the world to ask how to make a White Lady. I would show them how to make an Old Fashioned, a Sazarac, a Manhattan - even prominent bartenders who you would think should know better.

How much attention was paid to the technical side of bartending?

VG: Harry Viccars taught me everything I knew. He had been a student under Harry Craddock. He was very strict but very understanding. Everything had to be absolutely correct. Hygiene was of the utmost importance and he would chase everything up. There was excuse for not having enough ingredients. All the shakers, bar-spoons, strainers were all designed especially for the Savoy in silver plate. Everything about the place was tip top quality. If a drink wasn't correct you would soon get it back from the customer. The place was definitely ahead of its time - it set an example for every other bar.

PD: The bar was renowned for always doing things in the same way. Joe Gilmore would never alter a single thing, never change a recipe. He was the master and he knew you were getting the taste of a cocktail as it used to be. It was always about fresh ingredients, organic well before it became fashionable to be so - a real altar of classic cocktails. We would do all the squeezing - lemons, oranges, grapefruits, later raspberry juice for the Prince and Princess of Wales. We never had any draught beer, only bottled lager.

We used tongs for practically everything, except lemon twists I think. You had to touch the glass in proper way, make sure the ice in the mixing glass was clean, that the glass was polished. That technical side was so important.

What are your fondest memories from the early days?

VG: I've got a ten shilling note that Churchill gave me, at a time when my wages were 70p per week, and you only got paid if you were any good. I've got that ten shillings to this day. One day he had said to the head waiter to get "your young lad" to serve him. I served him his Turkish coffee - he liked it so sweet, with Demerara sugar. Hardly anybody spoke to me back then but he actually asked me what I was going to do and I said I hoped to make the Savoy my future and was waiting to go into the army. Mrs. Churchill was sat there smiling. He would sometimes come in with President Eisenhower or General de Gaulles too.

I used to serve Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth before she became queen. It was whisky for Margaret. Sometimes we'd go to work at customers' private houses and Margaret would suddenly turn up. Elizabeth liked Dry Martinis and G&Ts: she was a different kettle of fish. We had a big round table specially for them, right in the corner so they couldn't be seen but they could watch everyone else. When Prince Charles gave me my MBE in 1992 I told him I had served the princesses drinks and how I used to be so nervous, shaky.

PD: I remember the first time Frank Sinatra came in - he was with Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Mike Romanoff - the Rat Pack. There was total silence - everybody was star struck. He would take over the entire fifth floor with his entourage. Sinatra was a Dry Martini, it was Scotch for Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. They were well behaved - but we tucked them away as famous people were quite a nuisance in some ways. If someone like Harrison Ford was in, imagine the effect of all the ladies in the room. With Brooke Shields or Jerry Hall it would be the men. When they came in I couldn't leave the table, I was practically a bodyguard.

Do you recall when cocktail culture started to grow in earnest?

VG: For me it was in the 1960s and 70s. That's when the catering establishment started to change. People wanted different things to eat - sandwiches - and it was a struggle to keep people during lunchtimes, but the licensing laws changed so you could open all day - at night it started to get very busy, and that changed the whole focus of the business. We started to rearrange the staff to work in the evenings and it changed towards cocktails. Vodka became available. I think it's fair to say that the American Bar brought cocktails into the bar in a wider sense.

PD: When I started bartending in the early 1960s it was still very much a servile business - there was customer and bartender, a clear divide, with minimum interaction. Then later in the 60s and 70s it changed. Americans had different attitudes to the British and they wanted to be recognised by us, to feel special. It made it a more fun place to be, a creative time where I was allowed to create magic moments for people. It's fair to say that at the same time we killed gin in the 1960s - it's popular again now but back then all the cocktails were vodka.

Then in the 1980s and 90s, it was another time for discovery. People started to say how we would make their nights for them. People were ready for anything and new customers started to come in - you could see they were intimidated: they were in the American Bar, not just any bar. I had them in the palm of my hand.

Which cocktails are you most proud of creating?

VG: The one I remember most was the Windsor Romance, which I made for when Diana and Charles got married. It was a golden colour - Champagne with Amaretto, for her almond-shaped eyes, passion fruit juice for love and gin for London. The press officer at the Savoy used to have me make some sort of cocktail for all sorts of occasions.

PD: For me it's the Elise Cocktail, named after my daughter: gin, limoncello, peach schnapps, orgeat, grapefruit juice and mango juice. I won the European cocktail competition in 1994 with that. I was always creating cocktails - that's one of the reason why they wanted me there when they closed the Pebble Bar. That was the culture. From day one Ada Coleman did the Hanky-Panky, Harry Craddock was obviously famous for creating cocktails. I made them for elections, special occasions, Wimbledon, all manner of occasions.

Did you become close to any particular customers?

VG: I've grown up with a lot of the guests - I still have lunch with three or four of them every now and then. And it became quite personal with even certain famous guests - I would have conversations with Noël Coward. He had a lot of power - he seemed to run the place. He used to come in without a tie, which was unforgiveable. But he lived at the Savoy then and anyway we kept ties and would give one to him. He would come in with Rudolph Nureyev.

Bing Crosby and Errol Flynn used to come in too, also without ties. We told them they had to wear one but Bing just put it round his neck without tieing it - they sat next to each other with one tie around both their necks, but they were never rude or arrogant. That sort of thing you don't forget.

Elizabeth Taylor spent her first honeymoon at the Savoy and several years later came back with her then husband Richard Burton. She came to the American Bar dressed all in white, and had a big new diamond ring on. Everybody was looking at her. Then when she was married to John Warner she came in again. I lent her my pen and I never got it back - but I didn't mind.

PD: The most arrogant guests were the City boys, the stockbrokers, but we had unbelievable relations with most customers. I was always able to associate people with their faces - and when you'd bring them their favourite drink without them asking what they wanted it would be magical.

I remember Dudley Moore came in and everybody was basically chanting for him to play the piano. He refused, but it was getting rowdy. I pleaded with him, and eventually he looked at me and said he would do it - but only if I would shake him a Dry Martini - and to make it in front of him. He knew I would never shake a Dry Martini and he didn't trust me. It was the only time I shook a Dry Martini. First and last. We did shake them for customers, but I would never do it.

Did you feel like great bartenders at the time?

VG: The name Savoy and the American Bar were synonymous with greatness. It was the only cocktail bar in the Savoy - the others were all dispense bars. Funnily enough we were never allowed to enter competitions in case we didn't win them.

PD: We had an easy time really. The guests and other bartenders always looked up to us. We had to have that image that people gave us. We had to remain elusive, feed their curiosity and create an energy. I have not been anywhere in the world where I have not been recognised.

It's the history, the reputation, whether we deserved it or not. We all worked there for many years and we had time on our side - time to consolidate our stages in bartending, to challenge ourselves. The negative side was that we might have got a bit lazy sometimes. Today you don't have that.

What do you think about the refurbished bar?

VG: I very much prefer the old Savoy. I don't think they should even call it the Savoy. I find it too garish now - but I'm old and you have to respect that things change.

PD: I had grave doubts when it reopened. It is run by a big corporate group with set policies. And before it closed for refurbishment the owners tried to make it 'trendy' and I was very disappointed. I thought it was going to the dogs. Now I have been very pleasantly surprised. The old world doesn't exist anymore but the photos on the walls are the ones I chose. The
tables are the same.

They went overboard to make sure the old standards had not slipped, it has lots of energy, it felt like it has gone back to its original creativity. Now it's moved on, but it's what it should be for today. I have nothing but admiration. As for the Beaufort Bar, I'm afraid I think it's a bar that belongs in a club, not a hotel, all that black and gold.

What's the most important lesson the American Bar taught you?

VG: If you've become head barmen you have made a success of your life - it's a great feeling of satisfaction. And when you know customers have come back and want to connect with you, that's the secret to a long and happy life as a bartender. You need to anticipate the needs of the customer, and never forget what a customer likes to drink, even if you have not seen them for two years. I had that trick.

PD: I learned the bar is alive, that it has a heartbeat - I always try to teach that. Bartenders need to be naturally altruistic, to have a naturally caring tendency.

You're considered to be living legends. What does that feel like?

VG: I don't feel like a living legend. I just feel it was a job I was given. I felt prepared to do the job and I was very proud of the bar and the Savoy. But then I'm very modest.

PD: I'm very uneasy with it but I go along with it - though I much prefer the 'living' part to the 'legend' bit.

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