Words by Simon Difford
Shaken and served straight-up in a coupette glass, the White Lady cocktail is made with gin, triple sec and lemon juice. Many (including yours truly) also add egg white and sugar syrup. It is garnished with a lemon zest twist.
While the merits of adding egg white and sugar may be debated by some the gin, triple sec and lemon trio are beyond reproach - although there are subtle variations as to their proportions. However, when Harry MacElhone, from Dundee, Scotland, first created his White Lady while working at London's Ciro's Club in 1919 it consisted of equal parts triple sec, white crème de menthe and lemon juice. He created the version we know today in 1929 while at his own Harry's New York Bar in Paris, France.
The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London claims that the White Lady was first created there by Harry Craddock and a recipe for the drink appears in his 1930 The Savoy Cocktail Book. It is said that F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, was drinking at the Savoy and Craddock named the drink after her because she was a platinum blonde.
My preferred recipe follows many others in calling for:
1½ shots London dry gin
¾ shot Triple sec liqueur
¾ shot Freshly squeezed lemon juice
However, the sweetness in the Triple Sec fails to quite balance the lemon's citrus acidity (many triple sec liqueurs have become drier post 2000) so it is desirable to add a dash or even splash of sugar syrup. Whether or how much you add is a matter of personal taste but I favour 1/3 shot (10ml) of 2:1 sugar syrup.
Early recipes, including MacElhone's own Harry's ABC of Mixing Cocktails and Harry Craddock's 1930 The Savoy Cocktail Book make no mention of the use of egg white. While the Japanese enjoy raw fish the trend for adding raw egg to sour cocktails is yet to catch on there with modern day Japanese bartenders such as Hidetsugo Ueno San vehemently against egg white being used in any cocktail.
I believe the Japanese omission of egg white is more a cultural judgement than one of taste and egg white definitely rounds a White Lady. It also makes it white. Beneath the attractive fluffy white foam produced by aerating the egg white lies a dirty yellow drink that hardly befits the name. Those against the use of egg white argue that the drink is not named after its colour but the numerous ghostly white ladies of mythology. Maybe, but dirty yellow is not as visually appealing as a fluffy white head.
It is now common for bartenders to first shake drinks using egg without ice, then to add ice and shake a second time before straining into the glass. This practice is known as 'dry shaking' and the theory is that first shaking without ice, and so at a higher temperature, better allows the drink to emulsify. However, it appears to work better if you first shake with ice and strain back into the strainer to remove the ice, then 'dry shake' the cocktail and pour into the chilled glass. I've tested 'wet' shaking against both methods of 'dry shake' and can testify that dry shaking last produces a thicker, longer lasting foam.