The Savoy Cocktail Book and Martin’s Index

Back in the 1990s, Paul Harrington’s Cocktail Time web site got me interested in learning to make cocktails, but it was The Savoy Cocktail Book that provided the allure to go deeper. The Savoy really is a big deal. It’s beautiful, old and deco. It’s witty, too, and oh, the illustrations! Most importantly, copies—and reprints—of the Savoy have been relatively plentiful, unlike virtually any of the other period literature. I even had my grandfather’s copy!

The Savoy Cocktail Book contains a ton of recipes—well over 850. This book is—as Robert Hess has put it, a “wad o’ drinks”—as far as I know, the largest at the time of its publication in 1930.

As a budding mixologist, I tried a lot of recipes from this book, while self-consciously avoiding many more. Quite a few recipes had ingredients I couldn’t then identify, let alone acquire. Many more were just baffling. The recipes were all exceptionally terse—usually just rough proportions—and often disappointing, although I couldn’t then tell whether they were bad recipes or I simply lacked the knowledge or skill to make them properly. There was also a degree of repetitiveness… the sense that the recipes on one page were nearly the same ones I’d seen three pages back.

Still, for many of us early enthusiasts in the 1990s, the Savoy was like a mysterious religious tome we shared. Sure, it was challenging and frustrating, but it was redulant with possibilities and the very symbol of the legacy of cocktail culture we were tinkering with. This went on for years because many of us just didn’t have much else to work with. Kindred spirit Erik Ellestad, in San Francisco, would even opt to systematically attempt every single recipe in the book, documenting his experience at savoystomp.com. (Today, Erik our de facto Savoy authority.)

As the cocktail renaissance grew during the 2000s, my access to other resources ballooned and The Savoy mostly stayed on the shelf. This year, when I began Martin’s Index, I knew the inevitable reckoning with The Savoy would be a major milestone.

Of course, a lot has changed in nearly twenty years. We know so much more, today, and now enjoy so many ingredients that were once lost. The Savoy is now less mysterious. Like most old cocktail books (and not a few contemporary ones), we now know The Savoy reprints a ton of recipes from earlier sources, and typically for the genre, does so without any attribution whatsoever (in some cases, with egregious plagiarism). Others have already sorted out which books Harry Craddock “borrowed” from, particularly Hugo Ensslin, Jerry Thomas, Harry McElhone, Judge Jr. and Toye & Adair. Knowing this, I’d already built the groundwork for tackling The Savoy by adding the recipes from these sources in previous updates to Martin’s Index.

My first pass stripped some 850 recipes down to 132! As of this writing, that list has dwindled to 117, and a few of those I’m still looking askance at. While that seems like a drastic culling, over a hundred recipes survived the process—by no means a poor showing—and there are some really important drinks in there (some of which you may have been anticipating). All these recipes are available in today’s database update for Martin’s Index.

Also included in the update are 18 or so recipes from Drinks—Long & Short, a book first published in London in 1925 and written by the aforementioned thriller-writer Nina Toye and food writer A. H. Adair. The Toye/Adair book is curious for featuring recipes that are all scaled for a dinner party of six, and historically significant as perhaps the first important cocktail book written by foodies rather than bartenders. Similar to the later and better-known Gentleman’s Companion by Charles Baker (1946), which was famously divided into a drinks book and a cookbook, Drinks—Long & Short author A. H. Adair produced a companion volume, Dinners—Long & Short. I could potentially add more drinks from Toye/Adair in the future if there’s a demand.

In the end, The Savoy Cocktail Book is still a big deal. It’s one of the most visually spectacular cocktail books ever made, and one of the most successful. We now understand that far less care went into its editorial content than went into its lavish design. Many of the recipes are carelessly adapted, and not a few are worthless, some bordering on infamous. Despite its limitations, it’s still an important collection and has done as much or more than any other old book to bridge the years between the first golden era of the American Bar and the today’s second golden era.

Next up for Martin’s Index: we will bounce back across the Atlantic to New York for Albert Stevens Crockett’s Old Waldorf Bar Days (1931)!